The Post Office
Neither snow nor rain
Nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers. But the internet will
鹅毛大雪 倾盆大雨 炎炎烈日,昏暗夜色都无法使邮差停止送信。但因特网能。
Aug 20th 2011 | LOS ANGELES | from the print edition
THE US Postal Service has an unofficial creed (above) that harks back to Herodotus, who was admiring the Persian empire’s stalwart messengers. Its own history is impressive too, dating to a royal licence by William and Mary in 1692, and including Benjamin Franklin as a notable postmaster, both for the crown (which dismissed him in 1774 for his revolutionary leanings) and then for the newly independent country. Ever since, the post has existed “to bind the Nation together”.
But as ever more Americans go online instead of sending paper, the volume of mail has been plummeting (see chart right). The decline is steeper than even pessimists expected a decade ago, says Patrick Donahoe, the current postmaster-general. Worse, because the post must deliver to every address in the country—about 150m, with some 1.4m additions every year—costs are simultaneously going up. As a result, the post has lost $20 billion in the last four years and expects to lose another $8 billion this fiscal year.
And although the recession made everything worse, the internet is the main culprit. As Christmas cards have gone online (and “green”), so have bills. In 2000, 5% of Americans paid utilities online. Last year 55% did, and eventually everybody will, says Mr Donahoe. Photos now go on Facebook, magazines come on iPads. Already, at least for Americans under a certain age, the post delivers only bad news or nuisances, from jury summonses to junk mail. Pleasant deliveries probably arrive by a parcel service such as UPS or FedEx.
Quasi-independent since 1970, the post gets no public money. And yet it is obliged (as FedEx and UPS are not) to visit every mailbox, no matter how remote, six days a week. This has driven the average cost of each piece of mail up from 34 cents in 2006 to 41 cents. Yet the post is not allowed to raise prices (of stamps and such) willy-nilly; a 2006 law set formulas for that. So in effect, the post cannot control either its costs or its revenues.
Nor can it buy companies as freely as postal services in Europe, Canada or Asia have been doing for the past decade. Many European countries, as well as New Zealand and Japan, have already privatised or liberalised their postal services. Combined, foreign posts now get most of their revenue from new businesses such as retailing or banking for consumers, or warehousing and logistics for companies.
So America’s post is looking for other solutions. It is planning to close post offices; up to 3,653, out of about 32,000. This month it announced plans to lay off another 120,000 workers by 2015, having already bidden adieu to some 110,000 over the past four years (for a total of about 560,000 now). It also wants to fiddle with its workers’ pensions and health care.
Ultimately, says Mr Donahoe, the post will have to stop delivering mail on Saturdays. Then perhaps on other days too. The post has survived new technologies before, he points out. “In 1910, we owned the most horses, by 1920 we owned the most vehicles.” But the internet just might send it the way of the pony express.
The United States Postal Service has no official creed or motto.Often falsely cited as such, "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" is an inscription on the James Farley Post Office in New York City, derived from a quote from Herodotus' Histories (8.98), referring to the courier service of the ancient Persian Empire.