February 6, 2013
Going the way of Blockbuster...
Going the way of Blockbuster…

During D.C.’s relatively undramatic version of Hurricane Sandy, one of the most pathetic sights was the postal workers, straggling valiantly through the high winds and sheets of rain, toiling heroically up the walk to the postal box — all to deliver six damp catalogs we did not want.

Starting August 1, the Postal Service will halt its Saturday rounds — except for package delivery. Thank heavens. These heroics are largely pointless. The postmen are the runners who come all the way from Marathon to announce the victor of the battle before collapsing, dead, at our feet — when we got the email with the news days ago. They give us, daily, with tremendous care, things that we did not ask for and do not value.

This is the tragedy of the Postal Service. Still bound by its universal service obligation to deliver mail every day but Sunday, across the nation, never mind sleet or hail or dark of night or biting dog or — worst of all — the sheer indifference of the mail’s recipients to the latest sheaf of unrequested credit card offers, it straggles valiantly on, providing a service that daily grows less essential.

First-class mail volume, loosely defined as “Mail You Want” — letters, postcards, even bills — is steadily declining. And it is not likely to return once the recession levels out.

Even the volume of standard mail, loosely defined as “Mail You Do Not Want” — the countless bushels of catalogs and credit card offers and advertisements that you dutifully ferry from your mail slot to your recycling bin — has dropped, never mind the Postal Service’s numerous attempts to incentivize businesses to send it in bulk.

Most businesses, confronted with the blunt fact that an ever-increasing number of people have no use for the service they offer, would be able to contemplate such measures as, say, closing unprofitable offices, decreasing the number of days on which they operate, or even firing employees. Not the USPS, burdened with an obligation to deliver that dates back to the days when the postal service was the nation’s nervous system.

Package delivery will continue. But no more will we get mail on Saturdays. And good riddance! This is only one of a slew of cost-cutting measures needed to save the Postal Service. But it is one of the most approved — more than 70 percent of Americans polled were in favor of the cut.

Last year, the Postal Service reported a record 15.9 billion in losses. Of the estimated $15.9 billion in losses, $11.1 stem from the USPS’s obligation to prefund its retirees’ healthcare benefits. Yes, other agencies lack such requirements — but the USPS, unlike other agencies not taxed with this requirement, is not expected to be solvent when these benefits are due.

More troubling yet, more recent estimates have shrunk the USPS’s long-treasured theoretical overpayment into the Federal Employees Retirement System from 11 billion to just 2 billion — as much as the service hopes to save by cutting a day of deliveries. And the former overpayment into the Civil Service Retirement System is now a deficit of billions. The long-cherished hope of falling back on these magical caches of money was always a wild dream, but lately it has been looking more like one than ever.

The postal service hopes to challenge some of the assumptions involved in the shift, but it has no control over the most critical assumption — changing long-term interest rates from 5.75 to 5.25 percent.

Every year or so, Congress gets together and dutifully hits the snooze button on the Postal Service’s obligation to prepay its employees’ retirement benefits. But the cost of doing this without any accompanying reform is now too high.

A majority of Americans supports switching to 5-day delivery. Those damp catalogs can wait. And anyone who complains that cutting down on the number of days we receive these deliveries erodes the Postal Service’s mission misses the point: That mission has been eroding for years under the deluge of new technologies and faster ways of communicating and paying bills. Meanwhile, the damp postal workers keep straggling along the walk with the catalogs.

At a certain point, even Sisyphus gave it a rest.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.