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PORTSIDE  May 2011, Week 5

PORTSIDE May 2011, Week 5

Subject:

The Postal Service Faces the Future

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Date:

Mon, 30 May 2011 01:25:33 -0400

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The Postal Service Faces the Future
Paul Waldman
The American Prospect
May 27, 2011
http://prospect.org/csnc/blogs/tapped_archive?month=05&year=2011&base_name=the_postal_service_faces_the_f

Astute readers will recall that I'm a fan of the Postal
Service. That's right -- they perform a mind-blowingly
enormous task every day, and the services they provide
are absurdly inexpensive to consumers. As Business Week
tells us in a cover story, the Postal Service is in
crisis. But first:

    The USPS 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. For
    the price of a 44ยข stamp, 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.

But the USPS is losing lots of money, in part because
mail volume is dropping even as they have to deliver to
more and more addresses every year. They could end their
economic difficulties pretty quickly if, like Federal
Express or UPS, they just refused to service far-flung
areas of the country and charged you $18 to send a
letter. But they can't do that -- they have to serve
every American, and for next to nothing, because that's
what we've come to expect from them. One thing they can
do, however, is to get out from under a statutory
requirement that they prepay retiree health and pension
benefits, which no other federal agency or private
company has to do. This prepayment costs the USPS
billions of dollars every year. Democrats in Congress
are trying to eliminate the requirement; Republicans are
balking, for no apparent reason other than it's
something Democrats want and the postal workers unions
support.

But the real question is whether they are going to
fundamentally alter the way they do business, doing
things like shutting down thousands of post offices,
installing privately run stations in places like
supermarkets, and finding new ways to take advantage of
digital technology. In Europe, many of the postal
systems have privatized part or all of their operations
and undertaken a variety of experiments to keep up with
technology and hold down costs:

    Itella, the Finnish postal service, keeps a digital
    archive of its users' mail for seven years and helps
    them pay bills online securely. Swiss Post lets
    customers choose if they want their mail delivered
    at home in hard copy or scanned and sent to their
    preferred Internet-connected device. Customers can
    also tell Swiss Post if they would rather not
    receive items such as junk mail. Sweden's Posten has
    an app that lets customers turn digital photos on
    their mobile phones into postcards. It is unveiling
    a service that will allow cell-phone users to send
    letters without stamps. Posten will text them a
    numerical code that they can jot down on envelopes
    in place of a stamp for a yet-to-be-determined
    charge.

The big question for us isn't so much whether these
kinds of things are possible here, but whether we're
willing to pay the necessary price -- not in money, but
in a change to the way our mail has always been. It
would require abandoning the comforting knowledge that
there's always a post office within a few blocks, you
can rely on your friendly mail carrier coming to your
door six days a week, and sending mail costs almost
nothing. Can we give that up?

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
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