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The handwriting on the wall of the local post office is not hard to read: the United States Postal Service, established at about the same time as our country, 1775, is probably on its way out. I’ll miss it.
But the numbers are grim: even though a recent study by the Government Accounting Office found increasing efficiency in mail delivery, the USPS is facing a $7 billion loss for 2009. Mail volume is down and some 700 local post offices are slated for closure.
If it occurs, citizens of a certain age will regret the end of postal service. Plenty of Americans are old enough to remember when the average home had neither a television nor a telephone, and contact with the outside world was maintained largely through mail service and the newspaper, which was often delivered by the mail carrier.
I was born near the end of that era, into a rural household in which mail represented an important external connection. Later, at a remote Naval station in Australia, without television or phone service, my fellow sailors and I lived for the mail flight from the States. At sea, mail was hoisted from one ship to another or came aboard by helicopter, a lifeline back to civilization.
I’ll also admit to certain nostalgic connections to the Postal Service. My father was a letter carrier for 44 years, walking as many as 12 miles a day in the Texas heat with as much as 35 pounds of mail in his satchel. So my associations with the Postal Service include the unforgettable smell of starch and honest sweat in a blue uniform at the end of a long day.
So I’ll hate to see the end of it. But times change. I used to be a prolific letter-writer; now I use e-mail, just like everyone else. I pay most of my bills on the Internet, and you probably do, as well. More and more of what used to be delivered in the mailbox comes online.
Many Americans have taken to criticizing the Postal Service as an example of bloated governmental inefficiency. But if the post office comes to an end, it will be the victim, not of its own inefficiency, but of a cultural shift as profound as the invention of the printing press.
In fact, the Postal Service has performed its duties for more than 200 years with remarkable efficiency, last year delivering 212 billion pieces of mail — 46 percent of the world’s mail volume — with an on-time delivery rate of between 94 and 97 percent.
What the critics of the Postal Service forget is that it was never intended to be a money-maker. In fact, the post office has always operated with public money in order to perform a public service grounded in two democratic aspirations: first, providing the same service at the same affordable price for every citizen — right now an economical 44 cents for a first-class letter.
And, second, providing that service to every citizen. Only the post office provides delivery to every address in the nation, whether at the end of a remote country road or in a distant valley. An enterprise with these legal mandates is unlikely to operate at a profit.
But this is the part I’ll miss most about the post office, the part that the Founders probably had in mind when they produced the constitutional phrase, "a more perfect Union." For many years, the work of the post office helped perfect the union, encouraging a sense of nationhood through dependable communications among all citizens at the same price.
As the nation becomes more diverse and the gap between the rich and the poor widens, our interest in the unifying and leveling effects of institutions like the post office may recede, as well. That, combined with the technological shift, predicts the regrettable decline of the post office, an institution deeply symbolic of our best democratic aspirations.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)