Later today, the Postal Service will be releasing a plan intended to deal with its ongoing financial difficulties, the most headline-grabbing part of which is that they want to end Saturday delivery. People will be displeased, no doubt. Who among us doesn't like getting mail on Saturdays? But there may be no way out, because the agency's financial situation is so dire. Why did it come to this? There are three reasons: politicians, technology, and the greedy American public. First, Congress has screwed the Post Office, imposing rules that make it almost impossible to balance its books. Second, the rise of electronic communication has drastically reduced the volume of mail it handles, cutting its revenues. And third, we all expect to get fast, efficient, and universal postal service at absurdly low prices. So if mail delivery ends up being just five days a week, we'll have no one to blame but ourselves.
Since I'm guessing you're not particularly inclined to peruse the Postal Service's annual reports yourself, here are some details. In recent years, the Service has been cutting costs relentlessly. In 2002 they had 752,949 career employees; a decade later it was down to 528,458, a decline of 30 percent. They've cut the number of processing facilities, the number of post offices, and the number of mailboxes, despite the fact that they have to deliver to more addresses than ever. But they can't escape the fact that Congress requires them to do what no corporation or other government agency has to do: pre-pay retirement benefits for their employees, to the tune of billions of dollars a year. Nobody on either side of the aisle in Congress defends this requirement, but the efforts to pass legislation to undo it have foundered.
Next, you've got the technological problem, which is that people aren't using the mail as much as they used to. In 2002 the Postal Service processed 203 billion pieces of mail. Last year it was 160 billion pieces, and nobody expects the number to go up again, which means steadily declining revenue. Their income in 2002 was $66.5 billion, which is $85 billion in 2012 dollars. Their 2012 income was only $65 billion.
And finally, there's the problem of us. We expect things of our Postal Service that are simply not possible to deliver in this country at this time. We want it to deliver mail promptly to every house and office in this vast nation, no matter how far-flung, for exactly the same price. We expect them to offer this delivery service on weekends. And we expect that service for as little as 46 cents, when for the same service, a private company like FedEx or UPS will charge between $10 and $20. Our postage rates are some of the lowest in the industrialized world; according to a BBC survey done last year, sending a letter in Great Britain will cost you the equivalent of 96 cents, over twice as much as in the US. In Bulgaria it'll be 68 cents, in Jamaica it'll be $1.39, in Peru it'll be $1.12, and in Norway it's a shocking $1.67.
Last year the Postal Service delivered 69 billion first-class letters. If we doubled the postage from the current 46 cents to 92 cents, that would bring in an extra $32 billion, and they'd be running a huge surplus instead of a deficit. But you'd never stand for that, would you? You'd switch over to electronic payments for all your bills (if you haven't already), and you'd think twice about mailing anything. So think about that when you complain about not getting your mail on Saturdays anymore.