EVERY few years I write a column about the United States Postal Service. In 2009, I just about wrote it off.
That year, the Postal Service faced a $7 billion revenue shortfall, and 700 post offices were slated for closure.
The problem wasn’t inefficiency or mismanagement. The previous year the post office had delivered 212 billion pieces of mail—46 percent of the world total—with an on-time delivery rate between 94 and 97 percent.
Still, mail volume was dropping and the Postal Service appeared to be an inevitable victim of a cultural shift as profound and revolutionary as the one that occurred when the printing press was invented 500 years ago.
The typewritten or handwritten letter was already deeply obsolescent in 2009, and a huge proportion of correspondence (bills, bank statements, advertising) that would have reached us via our mailboxes had already migrated to the internet.
The future seemed clear, and it was unlikely to include the U.S. Postal Service.
But I wrote another column in 2013 that was more optimistic about the future of the post office. Mail volume had dropped to 175 billion pieces per year, but efficiency was as high as ever.
And even though few people were writing traditional letters in 2013, Americans were still very, very fond of stuff—physical objects that can be held and handled. Online shopping was burgeoning, and the stuff had to arrive at our homes by some method.
Many Americans still valued the distinction between a virtual greeting card and a handwritten note and signature by a real person at the bottom of an old-fashioned Valentine’s Day card. Maybe there was hope for the P.O., after all.
In 2013 I referenced an Esquire article titled “Do We Really Want to Live Without the Post Office?”—a detailed discussion of the problems and potential of the P.O. that is as relevant now as it was in 2013.
In the article (which is readily available online) writer Jesse Lichtenstein does the best job that I’ve seen of describing the basic dilemma of the Postal Service: Even though it does not receive taxpayer money, Congress has imposed a set of mandates, obligations and restrictions that virtually guarantee that it will operate at a deficit.
While its critics demand that the Postal Service operate more like a business, it is legally obligated to perform services at rates that no business could manage.
But this is probably what I love most about the Postal Service: its capacity and obligation to provide every citizen with the means to connect with every other citizen who resides at any established address in the United States, from midtown Manhattan to the most remote valley in Montana.
And always at an affordable, egalitarian price. Everyone pays the same and gets the same excellent service.
Now we are in 2020, and President Donald Trump calls the post office a “joke,” largely because, he asserts, it delivers packages for Amazon at a loss. He declares that he will not help until it quadruples what it charges Amazon.
It’s worth noting that Trump can’t stand Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who owns the Washington Post. Further, it appears that Trump is simply wrong about this. Politifact called his statement about the unprofitability of delivering for Amazon “False,” and the Washington Post gave it four Pinocchios, which equals “whopper.”
Besides being wrong about his chief complaint about the post office, this is what Trump doesn’t get: From the beginning, the Postal Service was meant to be a service, not a profit center. The Founders established a Postal Service before they established our republic, and for most of our history, it has played an important, unsung role in uniting the nation.
Pandemic 2020 reminds us how much we depend on physical artifacts that arrive in our mailboxes from elsewhere. It reminds us also of the importance of national unity.
For 245 years, the Postal Service has served as our most deeply American institution, unifying and connecting us around the principle that everyone is equal. We cannot allow the Postal Service to be neglected and destroyed by ignorance at a time when we really need it.
John M. Crisp is an op-ed columnist for the Tribune News Service. This commentary was distributed by the Tribune Content Agency, LLC.