Former APWU President Bill Burrus’ perspective on the survival of USPS
Over the past 50 years pundits and politicians have speculated about the imminent demise of the United States Postal Service and to date they have been proven wrong. Despite the outstanding record of existing for 30 years without government subsidy, a cottage industry emerged at the Cato Institute, a right wing think tank, that existed solely to impress upon Americans that postal services should become profit centers for investors. Throughout this period it has been predicted that successive advances in technology has rendered hard copy messages obsolete and that the Postal Service is a relic of the past to be remembered through the pony express. The real underlying message was not that hard copy and the Postal Service would go away but that profits should be generated from postal activities.
They Are Wrong
The telegraph and telephone were among the first advances in human technology applied to message exchange and upon their emergence and acceptance, predictions were abundant that the use of mail services for communications had run its course, but they were wrong then and those who presently share that belief are wrong now.
The emergence of the computer as a tool for individual communications in the 20th century and its expanded use to nearly every field of human activity is cited by the prognosticators, reasoning that society has moved beyond the use of messages conveyed via mail services and again, they are wrong.
Refusing to acknowledge the impact of technology on the communications industry, including the Postal Service, is to ignore the evidence that society is moving away from hard copy as a means of many messages, particularly single piece first class mail. An example of this transition was brought to my attention by my nephew, a young successful adult with a family and a six figure income. He is a perfect target for receipt and transmission of 30 or more first class mail pieces per month with proportional Standard mail advertisement. I was to learn that he and his wife visit the home mail box sporadically and never more than once per week. The house payment, income property transactions and all other financial and personal matters are conducted via the internet. This is the environment that his two children will learn from and adapt to as they mature.
Mail Can Co-exist With Computers
But for those who point to our technological advances as in direct competition to hard copy mail, I remind you that the year of the highest postal volume in the history of the Postal Service was the year 2006 when 213 billion pieces were processed and delivered. To recognize that society is in constant change is not to predict that the emergence of one form of communications will be at the direct expense of another. One can hardly say that computers had yet to be invented or used extensively in so recent a time frame.
The threat to the Postal Service is not the emergence of new technologies facilitating instant contact. Human beings will continue to develop new methods of communications but these new inventions pose no threat to the continuing use of written messages and their transmission via human hands.
The Economy Generates Mail
Of the many disagreements that I had with Postmaster General Potter was his repeated citation of technology, mainly computers, as direct competitors to the Postal Service and its survival. I noted with satisfaction that in the months immediately preceding his retirement that he had jettisoned such comparisons. On each occasion that I heard the stump speech extolling electronic transmission, I silently screamed “It’s the economy stupid.”
Human beings have the capacity to be innovative and human contact including messages has attracted our attention from the origins of the species. From writings on the walls of caves to the development of languages and means of transmitting thoughts and ideas via couriers, smoke, electronic signals, mail and computers have been used by successive generations for word transmission. Each advance has brought us closer together and made us more productive and efficient but the use of one form of communicating is not necessarily at the direct expense of others. My difference with Potter was his focus on computers as the reason for volume decline when in fact the economy was the driving force and there was no direct focus on increasing volume except through rate manipulation. Forgotten was that hard copy mail and computers have co-existed in the past and can far into the future.
Mail services at a prior point in the human experience have dominated the communications field but as new means have emerged they were not and are not in direct competition with other forms of communications. Mail services and computers both have their place in the human experience.
The Postal Service transmits physical objects, principally messages, from point A to point B and the United States Postal Service is the most efficient and cost effective assembly point of human beings in the world; it is a pillar of those efficiencies accounting for an astonishing 10% of GDP.
With the integration of computers into message transmission, mail services is no longer the only game in town but far into the future there will be a role for postal services, the transmission of messages that can be touched, read and stored.
Nostalgia is No Solution
And for those who cling to the past and yearn for the day when the mail service is once again used for financial transactions, personal messages, notices and other forms of communications that was dominated by mail in years past, they are destined to disappointment. Civilization does not march in reverse and those days will never again return. Over the next decade and beyond, mail service will exit as a player in this arena and can co-exist with forms yet to be invented but will surely come.
How Will Mail Services Survive?
The current serious USPS financial situation is unrelated to the future use of hard copy communications and is dependent upon decisions of Congress to alleviate the burden of future health care liabilities and/or credit retirement overpayments. These are issues that are separate and apart from the debate over the transition of messages to electronic forms. If Congress continues to insist that the Postal Service prefund future health care obligations to protect the government from shut down liabilities, it will prove to be a self-fulfilling prophesy that is unrelated to the future of mail as a means of communications.
I will proceed with the assumption that Congress continues to desire the presence of a governmental institution to perform the 300 plus year service of binding the nation together and will remove the imposed, unreasonable financial obligations and we can continue the debate over the transmission of messages via electronic means or mail services.
In future issues, I will explore the Postal Service in the year 2025 and beyond. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
Yes, it’s time to cut grass again so I will end this session and go on to more important things.