What Kind of Post Office?

mail-carrier-350The unthinkable has happened: the Canadian government has announced that home delivery of mail will soon cease. For hundreds of years mail has been delivered to individual addresses. Over 150 years ago, governments in Europe created the modern postal service. Senders of mail paid a small fee, mail was carried by government workers to its destination and delivered in person to the exact address. The imperative to deliver the mail encouraged the building of railroads, the expansion of air travel, the penetration of roads to every house.

In my lifetime, the cost of sending a letter has spiraled upwards. From the 1880s to 1958, the cost of sending a one-ounce letter rose one time, from 2 cents to 3 cents. Then it rose a penny every five years until 1968, then by 2 cents every three years. After 1975, rates were raised about every other year, then almost every year since 2006, to 46 cents at present. That may sound like an outrageous rise in cost, but most of that was caused by the general inflation of prices. Not all, though – postal service costs have consistently risen faster than inflation during Republican and Democratic administrations.

Despite this rise in cost, postal service in the US is a bargain. Mailing a normal letter in Canada costs about 59 cents. The German postal service, by our standards incredibly efficient, charges 79 cents for a letter; in France the rates are very similar, and in England a letter costs nearly a dollar.

From personal observation, as a temporary postal worker myself and frequent sender and receiver of packages, the Post Office’s parcel post service was incompetent. I watched employees treat packages like footballs in the 1960s, and since then have received far too many destroyed packages. The inevitable result of poor practices and inadequate supervision was the expansion of UPS and FedEx as a more reliable choice for individual senders of packages.

Conservatives often claim that privatization of public services should be our ideal. But UPS and FedEx are not ready to take over mail service. There are about five times as many post offices as UPS and FedEx locations in the US. The infrastructure of daily delivery of small pieces of mail for under one dollar only exists in the Post Office.

The age of the letter is over. Telephones replaced letters long ago as the primary means of keeping in touch with family and friends. Email has made regular mail into snail mail. Enterprises of all kinds are trying to get customers to stop mailing letters and do business electronically.

But there are good reasons not to abandon the mail. Electronic communication allows electronic snooping. We have learned only recently how much of our electronic lives the government and private companies have been spying on. It would be much harder for the NSA to read our mail, or even to gather the “metadata” about whom we correspond with. Amazon doesn’t know what you buy when you send checks by mail. Mail, handled out in the open, turns out to be more private.

What kind of postal service do we want? These days that seems like a radical question. We are constantly told that we must reduce every kind of public spending. The politicians who insist that the only thing we ought to think about is the deficit never ask us what kind of services we want.

Do we want Saturday delivery? How much would we save if we let that go? Do we want a more reliable parcel post service? Should mass mailers get such a large discount? Do we want to go the way of Canada or are we willing to pay what Germans pay?

steve hochstadtI think the budget screamers are afraid of the answers. Thinking about postal service shows that we have been trying to answer questions about public services backwards. Instead of asking what we want, we look first to the bottom line. The Canadian government’s decision to end mail delivery in the near future should be a warning to us. We need a better national conversation about what public services we need and want. Cost is one of the issues, but not the only one. We are a rich country and should be able to afford excellent services. A reliable national postal system should be one of them.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives

About Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (2004) and Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (2012), both from Palgrave Macmillan. He writes a weekly column for the Jacksonville (IL) Journal-Courier and blogs for the History News Network. "His latest work is presented at www.stevehochstadt.com."

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