Are We About to Lose the Postal Service?
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In the next few days we may decide the future of the Post Office. The signs are not auspicious. President Obama has agreed to a plan to cut Saturday delivery. The Post Service’s management wants to close 2500 post offices immediately and up to 16,000 by 2020. Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) has introduced a bill that could end free door-to-door delivery.
Republicans have been railing at the government post office for many years. But for most of us, it is a “wondrous American creation”.
“Six days a week it delivers an average of 563 million pieces of mail—40 percent of the entire world’s volume”, observes BusinessWeek. “For the price of a 44¢ stamp (the lowest postal rate in the world), you can mail a letter anywhere within the nation’s borders. The service will carry it by pack mule to the Havasupai Indian reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Mailmen on snowmobiles take it to the wilds of Alaska. If your recipient can no longer be found, the USPS will return it at no extra charge. It may be the greatest bargain on earth.”
For all you Constitutionalists in the audience, the Founding Fathers considered the Post Office so important they included its creation on the short list of powers they bestowed on Congress, along with national defense, taxation, coining money, and regulating commerce
A Public Institution With a Public Mission
From its beginning the Post Office was a public institution with a public mission.
One mission was to promote an informed citizenry. To that end, Congress allowed newspaper printers to send each other newspapers for free, facilitating the flow of information from national and international sources to rural villages. The 1792 law also provided for the mail delivery of newspapers to subscribers at the low rate of 1 cent for up to 100 miles.
In the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville described the success of these policies, “nothing is easier than to set up a newspaper, as a small number of subscribers suffices to defray the expenses. In America there is scarcely a hamlet that has not its newspaper.”
The special rate for newspapers eventually was extended to other types of materials recognized as having educational and cultural benefits: periodical pamphlets, magazines, nonprofit publications, library materials, and books.
In the 1820s the Post Office stepped in to promote the general welfare by overcoming what in modern parlance might be called a “digital divide”. For a price, private firms began to provide a faster mail service to investors seeking advanced market intelligence. A ship docking in New York might bring news of a rise in cotton prices in Liverpool. Speculators dispatched messengers to southern cotton markets and made a killing purchasing cotton at normal prices in advance of the run up.
The Post Office responded by establishing its own express mail service to equalize access to market information.
Outraged private carriers prompted a government investigation into the propriety of public express mail. The investigation concluded, “the object of the Department was laudable and praiseworthy.” “(T)he Government should not hesitate to adopt means, although of an expensive character , to place the community generally in possession of the same intelligence at as early a period as practicable.”
Early on, the Founding Fathers realized the Post Office would find it difficult if not impossible to achieve its public objectives if private businesses could siphon off the most profitable routes, leaving only money losing routes and services to the Post Office. Thus, the 1792 law also prohibited private postal service “whereby the revenue of the general post-office may be injured.” Private firms found abundant loopholes. In 1843 Senator William D. Merrick expressedhis exasperation at “these private expresses, which had been placed on all the most profitable routes…. (which deprived) the department of the greatest portion of its revenues and thereby disabled it from reducing the rates of postage…and from extending greater facilities to the more remote and sparsely populated sections of the Union.”.