Despite woes, Postal Service is a national asset
Has the U.S. Postal Service reached the end of the line and become as relevant as the hand-delivered telegram?It's a question worth debating carefully and thoroughly as the combination of technological change, questionable political policy, and a real budget crisis threatens to derail an institution created by the Continental Congress in 1775 - before the Declaration of Independence was announced, before the Constitution was written, and before the United States became a country.Congress is debating competing House and Senate bills to deal with the dramatic operational changes on tap at the USPS. These changes are anything but minor and will impact every home and business in every town and city in the country. USPS managers have created plans to end six-day mail delivery, close up to half of the nation's 30,000 or so post offices and more than 200 of its regional mail-processing centers, and lay off more than 200,000 workers.At the risk of too much hyperbole, I am not the only who believes this is the equivalent of institutional suicide.Every American and every American business has a stake in the fight, which makes it a unique situation that transcends the typical battle of special-interest priorities one sees in Washington. Simply put, a weakened USPS can lead to economic consequences that go far beyond the multi-billion dollar budget debate that grabs the headlines.The USPS had always had its share of critics, but there is little debate about how its development has benefited the nation's economy. According to the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, a 2010 study revealed that the overall impact of the mail industry remains strong.The study determined that there were approximately 8.4 million jobs and $1.139 trillion in sales revenue associated with the mailing industry in 2009, the most recent year for which data is available. This represents about 7 percent of the nation's Gross Domestic Product and 6 percent of the nation's labor force.Reforms necessaryOne of the interesting findings in this data is that while volume and revenue for the USPS decreased slightly from 2006 to 2009, there was a strong positive shift in delivered goods sold through e-commerce and in e-commerce sales through mail-based advertising.From 2008 to 2010, sales revenue in the mailing industry, which includes private mailers and printing companies, grew by 10 percent and increased jobs by 16 percent. The most significant hub for this activity is the massive infrastructure, reliability and affordability of what the USPS offers. If the post office ceases to exist or is hobbled, a large part of the nation's commercial activity - from direct mail to catalogs to magazines - would not have grown or been severely limited.Beginning in 1970, the USPS has been required by law to be an independent federal agency and economically self-sufficient. According to the USPS, the only taxpayer funds involved after the mid-1980s were subsidies for mail for the blind and official mail to overseas voters. The roots of much of the current crisis were partly of the USPS' own making and that of Congress, which in 2006 required the USPS to use operating revenues to prepay beyond actuarial needs future health insurance and retirement costs of up to $58 billion over a 10-year period. If the same mandate were imposed on a private business, it would be impossible to operate.One can advocate for a healthy USPS and still push hard for necessary changes. We are in a new age and reforms are necessary to streamline its infrastructure, enact common-sense budget cuts and help the USPS by eliminating its onerous pension demands.The history of the USPS shows that it has changed with the times - it was only a few generations or so ago when carriers made twice-a-day delivery to homes and up to four times a day for businesses. The USPS has increased revenue opportunities in winning back some package delivery, introducing the Every Door Direct Mail Program, and in revamping pricing with some classes of mail. Congress could also help by allowing the USPS to become entrepreneurial and let it run more like a business with fewer governmental restrictions.The Founding Fathers mandated the establishment and maintenance of a national postal service in Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution. It is crucial in this time of change and crisis that we act wisely or risk the long-term destruction of the irreplaceable national asset that connects all Americans.Kevin Boyarsky, president and owner of NH Print and Mail Services in Concord (printingnh.com), is a member of the New Hampshire Postal Customer Council.