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The postal service solution

Although receiving a letter is one of the ties that bind us, we'll all survive if the post office has to cut a day of service.

February 10, 2009

The U.S. Postal Service is seeking congressional help with its multibillion-dollar losses. Businesses have cut down on mail, and the weight of the service's billions in retiree healthcare obligations is crushing the budget. It's a familiar situation; our first reaction is, "Hey, buddy, move to the back of the line." But the postal service, since 1775 the carrier of our most heartfelt messages as well as our most depressing monthly bills, is a strangely unifying institution. Door-to-door mail service hearkens back to the days of the milkman, and before such delivery became common, the local post office was the community center of America. It gave us the corny motto that starts, "Neither snow nor rain ... ." Pop culture derived the term "going postal" from a series of work-rage tragedies in the 1980s and '90s.

The mail service survived the invention of the telephone and telegraph, and even made it through telex, fax and FedEx. It is faring less well against the Internet, e-mail and texting. We now bank, pay bills and file tax returns online; on April 1, college applicants look to their e-mail rather than snail mail. So the postal service wants permission from Congress to cut back delivery to five days a week, probably eliminating Tuesday delivery, when the loads are lighter.

Aside from the very real need for the service to renegotiate its retiree health benefits, the idea of five-day-a-week delivery makes sense. Most mail could wait the extra day, and for the little that can't, there's an excess of other options -- faxing and overnight delivery services. If the price of stamps rose dramatically, people would have that much more reason to abandon traditional mail.

It seems almost quaint that, at a time when we're asked to scan our own groceries and hardware in self-serve checkout lines, there is still a service that involves a live person coming to our door each day but one. Yet to this day, there's a sense of anticipation to opening the mailbox that can't be matched by opening an in-box. Sure, it likely will contain bills, and it absolutely will contain junk mail, but you never know when a long-lost friend will send a long, newsy letter, something with a little more to it than "imho noyb lol." Our ability to find out almost anything instantly makes the delivery of a letter, sent whole days ago, all the more rewarding.

As employees in another business engaged in delivering information on paper, door to door, every day, we can't help feeling a certain kinship with the U.S. Postal Service. We could live without Tuesday mail delivery, but like that first great postmaster, Benjamin Franklin, we will always value messages from the outside world, held in our hands and savored at length.

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