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Junking the Mails

Does the 2002 holiday season offer a sober message about the future of the U.S. Postal Service?

December 26, 2002

Does the 2002 holiday season offer a sober message about the future of the U.S. Postal Service?

When was the last time you wrote a personal letter? Letter writing is an art now falling into disuse. Most people who used to correspond by "snail mail" now do so via their computers.

E-mail is far more efficient — and you don't need to search for the stationery, look up an address or find a 37 cent postage stamp. And given software improvements, more and more people even send that once-a-year postal service's staple — the holiday card — by email.

Similarly, the Internet is ever more replacing subscriptions to magazines and journals. Why bother to receive all that stuff that creates nothing but stacks — if you can read them electronically anyway? Plus, with an advertising crisis likely to last, printing magazines becomes an ever costlier proposition.

Consumers are also increasingly discovering the ease and convenience of paying their household bills on the Internet. In business, too, old-fashioned mail is on the way out as the communications industry continues to grow.

Most data in the information age is now transmitted via e-mail, fax and telecommunications. And when businesses do have to send documents from one place to another, they tend to use private companies, such as UPS and Federal Express. Both services have proven to be faster, more flexible and more reliable than the bureaucratic USPS.

With businesses more cost-conscious and the express shippers still in need of growth, they are making inroads into the consumer business as well.

This triggers the prize question: Since traditional mail customers have defected, what fills the bag of today's typical American letter carrier? Why does he or she brave "snow, sleet, rain and gloom of night" to complete their appointed rounds — as the famous USPS slogan used to proclaim?

Why, it's junk mail, of course. One day's haul at a Washington, D.C. home recently netted 22 items — with a total weight of 3 pounds 5 ounces. Evidently, there is nothing left for the USPS to deliver — but the customary mix of mail-order catalogues, direct mailings, advertisements and offers of pre-approved credit cards.

Truth be told, the nearly 800,000 USPS employees are largely employed to process such a wasteful bounty of paper headed straight into the trash can.

But if you believe that this is a clever scheme to provide well-paid employment to around 0.5% of America's workforce, think again.

The trees that go into printing the junk mail alone make the all-in-all environmental costs prohibitively high. According to the Telluride Foundation, the number of trees wasted for junk mail purposes totals 100,000,000 every year.

This conundrum often leads to a bizarre scene on Saturdays in America. You are home — and stand at the door as the mailperson arrives. You watch him or her sweat as they lug all this useless stuff from house to house.

Of course, you don't want the stuff that the postal carrier is lugging — anymore than they want to carry it. So you smile and accept it — and toss it straight away. And if you asked the postal carrier, they'd probably be just as happy to deliver it straight into a trash can at the post office.

Provided, of course, that the execution of their duties in this efficient manner would still yield them a regular paycheck.

Of course, the volume of junk mail in the United States could be reduced by one simple measure — if the Postal Service charged first class rates, and not the cheaper third class rate, for junk mail.

But, aside from strong lobbying efforts by businesses that thrive on bulk mail, the USPS itself has no incentive to do so. Otherwise, it will lose its last remaining customers.

Thus, the 2002 holiday season offers a sober message to the U.S. Postal Service and the people whom it serves. It is high time to think hard about its present function — and its future utility.

A U.S. government focused on preparing for war has little money to spend on such extravagances as subsidizing the mail service. Plus, there are those voices who regard the postal service as too high a security risk. As the anthrax attacks demonstrated, it is a highly efficient delivery for a low-tech opponent keen on creating mass hysteria.

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