Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Is survival of US mail at risk?

While in Washington this summer I visited one of the lesser known places of the Smithsonian system, the National Postal Museum, which is located right across the street from Union Station. The Postal Museum is small by Smithsonian standards, but it's an amazing place because it succinctly tells the story of the development of the US Postal Service from colonial times until today. Despite it's long history, the USPS faces dire times. A story in this Sunday's New York Times business section reported that unless Congress acts soon, the postal service may have to close entirely some time this winter. With our government's recent track record of difficulty in agreeing to anything, the chances of this shutdown occurring would seem anything but remote. The plight of the post office has two main causes: a drop in the volume of service and a rise in the cost of providing that service, however, diminished. A recent proposal by the Postal Service to pare costs by eliminating Saturday mail delivery, closing 3700 post offices, and laying off 120,000 employees (1/5 of the entire workforce) has met with strong opposition from many quarters. While I really doubt that the Postal Service will come to an end, an extended stoppage wouldn't be out of the question and a greatly changed method of operation will likely occur. Much of the Postal Service's problems can be traced to the "disruptive innovation" of the internet which has undercut the core business of the post office. Unfortunately, cutting back on service will surely push more people and more functions to other methods of delivery. For instance, many of the documents we receive for recording come to us via the USPS, but the customers sending those documents could just as easily record them electronically. The same is true for the receipt and payment of bills, both for businesses and for individuals. Electronic bills and payments are widely available and accepted although not all that many people use them but it wouldn't take much for all of those people to make the shift. An outage of regular service would do it. The same dynamic would probably occur with magazines. Most everyone who subscribes to them has a computer or an iPad which can present these publications just as well as paper (although they do take a bit of getting used to). Perhaps the entity that would be most harmed would be junk mailers and that wouldn't be so bad, after all.

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