The other day I stuck a piece of mail paying a bill in the front door slot where it was picked up by the postman when he made his daily delivery. The next day when I went out to retrieve the newspapers I found it soaking wet on the walk where he had dropped it. It was the second time.
One would think that this would be enough to convince even a dinosaur like me that perhaps one of the most important institutions in the daily lives of Americans finally had become obsolete, at least as a first class delivery system. But my 20th century mindset is still intact and I firmly believe a viable, reliable postal system is necessary -- that it assures the privacy and protection that the Internet with its enormous vulnerabilities doesn't.
The U.S. Postal Service, of course, is the victim of the dramatic evolution in communications of the last two decades. Actually, the decay began much earlier than email. It started with the service's failure to meet the competition from private systems that stole much of its lucrative package delivery and then its business clients.
That loss had its roots in what now looks like a very bad decision, the privatization of the U.S. Post Office. That now dubious action created a convoluted two-tiered process reliant on Big Labor to represent the then non-union letter carriers and others on the front line of the delivery system. The new service's costs escalated exponentially, helping to turn fledgling private delivery companies like Fed Ex and UPS into financial behemoths.
Well, so much for what seemed like a good idea at the time. What was sold to us as a way of improving efficiency and removing the political taint from an institution once a haven for political patronage has turned out to be a system largely ignored by the government, wallowing in debt, and facing extinction. To avoid such a cataclysmic occurrence, the Postal Service is now contemplating whacking billions of dollars out of its menu, including overnight delivery; once again raising the cost of a first class stamp, and cutting tens of thousands of jobs at a time when the nation can ill afford more unemployment.
Raising the price of the first class stamp alone after a long series of such moves would merely further the demise of what is now called "snail mail" and force millions more Americans into online bill paying and banking. Gone soon may be the cards and letters of a more literate age. While one's Christmas or birthday or get well cards can be created and sent on the computer, the care and intimacy that is explicit in a well chosen expression isn't quite the same. We understand when receiving them that someone has gone to the store, browsed the offerings, paid the clerk, gone home and addressed them, put on a stamp and mailed them. That was a process that exhibited a lot of time and effort, far beyond sitting at home picking out a sentiment from an online array and hitting send.
So what can be done about the mountain of losses sustained annually? It may be too late, but Congress should first of all move to bring the postal service back to solvency, staving off the inevitability of its total collapse. To do that, it may have to rescind some of the institution's independence and be ready to permanently subsidize its annual budget. Obviously, that requires a determination that it is worth saving and a requirement that its operations are closely overseen by a committee that puts aside partisanship to serve the country's interests. Both are a tall order in today's Capitol Hill atmosphere. Letting it succumb might be easier even if it is a long death rattle.
The days are gone when the friendly mailman with his familiar leather pouch over his shoulder was as familiar in your neighborhood as the cop on the beat or your family doctor, making house calls. It was a time when the sound of your mail being put in the box or through the door was as comforting as the early morning clank of the milkman's bottles. Now sadly they are all of the same disappearing piece.
E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at email@example.com.