What It Do: Going Postal

Despite all the shrieking and rending of garments—along with predictably breathless editorials about this latest evidence of society’s decline—the recent decision by the United States Postal Service to cease Saturday delivery in August is no big loss. In fact, they probably should have taken that step some time ago.

The days when Americans relied on letters as a primary means of written communication are long gone. Between email, texting, and social media, there is little reason to wait days or weeks for mail correspondence, and few people do, unless it’s to create a sense of intimacy.

Important, time-sensitive information is conveyed electronically, and even legal documentation sent by certified letter is normally directed towards someone who probably doesn’t even work weekends. And when it comes to bills, most companies offer electronic payment, and paper copies generally arrive well before the due date.

The only people really affected by the change in delivery schedule—aside from the poor saps actually employed by the Post Office, of course—will be people who deal in direct mail marketing. This includes everything from outright junk mail hawking collector coins minted in Liberia to political fundraising mailers to sales circulars from stores you might actually patronize.

It’s those respectable retail companies who are making the most noise about the change, as their “weekend sales events”—never has a phrase more succinctly captured the shallowness of our times—involve carefully timed mailings that blanket the market from Thursday to Saturday. After August, advertising that would have arrived Saturday will be delayed until Monday, too late to influence potential spenders.

While my heart gently weeps for the marketing executives who must now find other ways to convince people to impulsively spend their Saturdays prostrate before the retail god, their convenience is hardly a compelling social necessity, or a reason for the Postal Service to continue to operate in the red.

That being said, the $2 billion expected to be saved by this move only compensates for a fraction of the red ink the venerable service currently finds itself saturated with. In 2012, for instance, the USPS turned in a loss of $11.1 billion. This year, some projections place the operating deficit upwards of $16 billion, and the future isn’t looking too bright for the agency’s potential for significantly reducing that number.

Certainly, part of the problem facing the USPS is how to stay in the black when their primary product—traditional envelope delivery—is constantly declining in value. Package delivery remains profitable (and will continue on Saturdays) but the USPS has to compete with UPS and FedEx—two private firms currently experiencing their own challenges in adapting to the new realities of the marketplace—in that arena. They can continue to raise the price of stamps, but the higher that number goes, the more people will seek alternate means of communication.

But this is where the situation get squirrelly, and any conversation about getting the USPS back to solvency is rendered somewhat pointless. Because half of the red ink on the USPS balance sheets comes from the Postal Accountability And Enhancement Act, passed in the 2006 lame duck session by Republicans seeking to do as much damage as possible before the Democrats took over.

This piece of legislation saddled the Postal Service with onerous requirements regarding the pre-funding of retirement obligations—meaning retirement obligations accrued during the year had to be placed on that year’s books, rather than the year in which they were actually paid out. This is an accounting maneuver that makes sense in certain situations, but not for an organization already having trouble staying in the black. For comparison, less than 25 percent of private sector firms exhibit similar requirements.

This means that doing away with Saturday mail delivery—which I don’t oppose—won’t save the Postal Service. Nor will any of the other cost cutting measures currently under discussion. Whatever they do, they are simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The Postal Service was severely wounded in 2006 by spiteful politicians on the eve of their loss of power, and unless the pre-funding requirements are removed, that wound will prove to be fatal.

Conservative animosity towards the USPS has little to do with their deficit obsession, as the service isn’t funded by tax dollars. Instead, one tends to think it has more to do with the Postal Service’s historical role as a friend to labor and a prime example of a social good. It may not be taxpayer funded, but it is a government agency, and so it must be proved inefficient, even if said inefficiency must be forced upon said agency by shady acts of Congress.