Friday, April 5, 2013

Muggs: Post Office Needs New Routes

With the volume of snailmail plummeting against the expanding electronic choices for communication, sophisticates and boneheads alike are wondering what's the big deal if the US Postal Service eliminates Saturday deliveries. It's a question worth pondering in a little more depth than whether you'll get your next Netflix disc in time for your Saturday-night popcorn binge.
     When Congress and the Bush administration decided in '07 that the USPS would have to pre-fund its employee pensions for 75 years out, something that no other business or governmental authority has ever even thought might be useful or sensible, it put an impassable pinch in the postal balance sheet, turning modest profitability into billions in deficits. Faced with the stark choice of raising prices beyond the possibility of remaining competitive (which was the idea for the pols and their pals at UPS and Fedex) or cutting back payrolls and services, the USPS execs are doing what they can to remain afloat, making Saturday deliveries and the thousands of jobs behind them just the start of what will likely be a long spiral into oblivion in a few decades without major relief from a hypothetical smarter Congress in the near future.
     As you read this, maybe while sipping a latte at your favorite bistro, with your smartphone near at hand ready to alert you to your next vacuous update from Facebook and having just used it to deposit your paycheck and pay your electric bill, you may reasonably be thinking that you don't need the Postal Service anyway, so why not just let it go? It's so 19th-century, isn't it?
     In a lot of ways, you're quite right. The USPS has not kept up with changing technology or culture. Information has higher value when it moves faster, so moving it on trucks and planes is ultimately doomed. The USPS is locked into that 19th-century model, both by law and by habit. But it doesn't have to be, and I submit that with the application of some imagination and vision, it could again be one of the most important services in our society.
     Take a look at Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. (You've got a copy handy in your smartphone right?) It's there, right between coinage and patents, as one of the few services that the founders thought important enough to assign to Congress forever: "The Congress shall have Power ... To establish Post Offices and Post Roads."
     I'd like to parse this quaint image for what it meant in the 18th century. In the days when words on paper were the only way of communicating anything other than by direct word of mouth, the post offices were facilities for distributing communications to everyone, and the post roads were the designated routes for those communications. Under this mandate the federal government not only created the postal service, but the interstate highways as well to carry the mail. The reasoning underlying this was that efficient, low-cost communication was necessary to holding the nation together and informing the voters. Obviously It's no less necessary today, but now we seem to accept it can be better done by private enterprise.
     That's how it is, as far as it goes, because the USPS dropped the technological ball with the advent of telegraphy. Focused entirely on the movement of things, it failed to keep its eye on its mission of communication. It could have absorbed and owned the railroad-based telegraph services that became Western Union. Out of that, based on the same infrastructure, we could have had a national telephone service, as many nations do today. From that the service would have naturally flowed with new technology into telex, facsimile, email and Internet delivery of all sorts of communications. The offices and roads of the 18th century are the servers, wires and airwaves of the 21st.
     Just as the package-delivery services found a niche in competition with USPS for higher-end services, there would still have been plenty of space for electronic competitors. But the basic services would be secure, and that's the point.
     Today we hear the President talking about the need to extend broadband and high-speed services to rural and lower-income Americans, to provide them equal access and opportunity to prosper. Private enterprise is not getting the job done because it would have to accept low or negative margins in some markets, as the Postal Service must now with the mail. I don't hear him talking about having them pre-fund their pensions, of course.
     Public support for communication and access for everyone are principles clearly set out in the Constitution, and for good reason. The founders knew nothing about electricity, but they clearly understood that if we want a functioning democracy, we can't just leave some of the people out of the conversation because they can't produce enough profit.
     Making change on this scale at this late date would be very difficult, mostly in terms of untying a mountain of legal knots, but if given priority, it could happen. Sixty years ago, to address the breakdown of Japan's banking system with the end of the war, the postal system there began securing and transferring cash for its customers. Today it's one of the largest nonbank financial systems in the world, and its customers love it and use it as an adjunct to the regular banking system.
     I see us approaching a similar crisis moment in our domestic communications. We're already paying a lot more for much slower service than people are anywhere in the developed and much of the developing world, not just an annoyance for users, but a drag on commerce and competitiveness as well. For today's businesses and connected individuals, the wired and wireless communications infrastructure is as important as the rail and road networks, if not more so.
     Rather than let the USPS fade into history, I think it could be very smart and profitable for all of us to expand on its 18th-century mission and pull it into the 21st with a national broadband infrastructure based on the existing publicly owned backbone network to provide baseline access and services, as well as the necessary physical infrastructure appropriate to the local conditions and population, for everyone in this country.
     This goes far beyond your convenience in picking up personal email or streaming Stephen Colbert. Online business activity brings money into local communities, where it's more likely to stay and circulate. Giving middle-class entrepreneurs the realistic option of living and working in high life-quality areas like ours is a far surer bet for the future than trying to attract manufacturing businesses or tourists, with far lower impact. Connected schools better prepare young people for the careers of the future, and better access gives them better prospects for staying in the community.
    We used to be able to think big in this country. I have to think it still might be possible.

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