Publick Occurrences 2.0

December 2, 2011

The Decline and Fall of the U.S. Postal Service

Filed under: Business History,Joe Adelman's Posts,Journalism history,Media — Joseph M. Adelman @ 12:09 pm

This will likely be the first of several posts (heh!) I write on the post office; anyone who knows me knows that it’s a bit of an obsession of mine.

Tenured Radical, writing at The Chronicle, has inspired me to finally offer something in this space. After a recent visit to her local post office, she speculates that it “may … simply disappear as an institution in my lifetime.” She found a business both antiquated and in tatters: the post office could not accept credit cards, and had a diagram up for children about how to properly address and stamp an envelope that seems silly to most adults. I love the post office, but I’m guessing she’s probably right about its impending demise, at least as far as a public (or really quasi-public) postal service is concerned.

What’s striking me at the moment about that likelihood is the implication of a potential closure of the post office. It will mean that, for the first time in its history (one that predates independence), the state will have left the public information business. The Post Office was one of the first institutions established by the Continental Congress in July 1775. The only institutions that predated it as representatives of the united colonies were Congress itself and the Continental Army—that’s it. The Post Office is older than the Navy, older than the Marine Corps, older than the Presidency and the Supreme Court. The first Federal Postmaster General, Samuel Osgood, was a member of Washington’s Cabinet.

Why? Information is (or was) important to the state. Keeping the channels through which information flowed open was a vital state matter, and made the post office a central player in creating an informed citizenry to participate in American democracy. (Especially prior to the Revolution, it was also a tool of state surveillance and censorship, lest I appear too Whiggish.)

Since the eighteenth century, the United States has had a more ambiguous relationship to new information technologies. As Richard John recently showed, Congress declined to take ownership of Morse’s telegraph lines, and likewise stayed out of the telephone industry. In the 1960s, DARPA, an agency within the Department of Defense, created the Internet (possibly with the assistance of an earnest Harvard government concentrator). That too, however, is now primarily in private hands.

The post office is all that’s left, and even that is really not quite public. The United States Postal Service operates independently, though it maintains universal service and meets other mandates set by Congress. But if and when it goes the government will no longer play any role in guaranteeing for its citizens the ability to transmit information. Some in the Senate seem more concerned that we should be sending more love letters, but I find the larger question far more troubling, even taking into account the real and dire financial situation in which the USPS finds itself.



  1. The U.S. Postal Service seems to exemplify our conflicted demands of government. On the one hand, we want it to run as a business, and for decades it’s been nominally independent of the government. On the other hand, we insist that it offer universal service instead of seeking only profitable markets, and for decades our ancestors were glad for its patronage system. We complain when the post office isn’t faster, cheaper, and better (i.e., more universal), ignoring how economic theory says that if that were possible a private competitor would have arisen already. We may be coming to a societal consensus that the U.S.P.S. is unnecessary while entering a lifestyle which would be impossible without cheap, nearly universal communication in the latest form.

    Comment by J. L. Bell — December 2, 2011 @ 4:29 pm

  2. Thanks for the comment – I agree completely. In fact, I saw a similar dynamic play out during my days long ago as a state-level legislative aide with the telecommunications industry. Verizon continued to be regulated for service as a public utility, but the state had deregulated telephone service to open up competition. Verizon wanted to use that as a means of escaping all regulation. The unions wanted jobs protected. And the state’s regulatory body seemed incapable of the challenge of ensuring that people got phone service regardless of the carrier.

    That’s a longer way of agreeing. I think the larger problem, as you note at the end of your comment, is that the profit motive (or the myth thereof, in the post office’s case) has tended to win out in the end.

    Comment by Joseph M. Adelman — December 2, 2011 @ 7:50 pm

  3. New guy @jmadelman getting interviewed, , based on his first posts: . That’s what we like to see.

    Comment by Jeffrey L. Pasley (@jlpasley) — December 7, 2011 @ 10:43 am

  4. Public not Publick!

    Comment by David — December 27, 2011 @ 3:17 am

  5. I love people (not) that have the Postal Service as already dead and can’t wait to throw the handful of dirt on the coffin, and much of their “information” that their opinion is based on ignorance or miss-information, for example:

    “She found a business both antiquated and in tatters(?): the post office could not accept credit cards, ……………..”

    I wonder where she actually was that wouldn’t accept a credit card??? A hotdog vendor?

    The information below is taken right from the USPS website.

    The Postal Service™ accepts the following credit cards for the purchase of most
    Postal Service products and services:
    Visa – American Express® – Diners Club
    - MasterCard – Discover/Novus – JCB.

    And if the Post Office is closed for the day, a lot of them have Automated Postal Centers (APC’s) that accept credit cards as well.

    We delivered 160 Billion (with a B) pieces of mail last year. Contrary to popular (Conservative) belief, we aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

    We aren’t going to be bought out by UPS or Fed EX, or privatized by anyone else……..

    Everyone sees the name United States Postal Service, but their brains can’t read the word “Service” or understand exactly what that is……………….

    Comment by Blockpusher — December 27, 2011 @ 5:51 am

  6. It may be that the USPS is past it’s time, but the way that the Postmaster General is taking it down is totally against business sense, offering employees Early Retirements would make more sense and that does not mean they go at a younger age as most USPS craft workers are nearing the 60 age mark, it is time in years, but to threaten and intimidate workers and Congress and the President, who is this Postmaster General?, he should be fighting all wars, seems invincible.
    Offer the VER, the Early retirements first, then dismantle.
    The threat of massive layoffs still looms for March 2012.

    Comment by Joeseph Albierto — December 27, 2011 @ 6:26 am

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