The Postman Winked and Chirped

No more next-day first class mail delivery? This is just the latest sign of an American institution that is quickly outliving its usefulness.

People within and outside the U.S. Postal Service saw the changes coming back in the mid-1990s. In 1995, then Postmaster General Marvin Runyon foresaw the future but didn’t get it quite right. He penned a column for Insight Magazine entitled “Postal Future Is in the E-mail” (Sept. 25). Trying to justify the post office’s existence in the year 2010, he simply confirmed how out of touch government bureaucrats can be.

His scenario had a future business person “opening his computer” which “winked and chirped,” showing him “how to get his message into the postal system.” It would be delivered quickly to the post office near the recipient, then printed out and delivered by a postman the next day. The next day, rather than the next minute. Mr. Runyon apparently didn’t understand that the computer was invented in part to get our messages out of the slow postal system and onto the fast Internet, all the way from sender to recipient.

After eight paragraphs trying to convince us that his government agency had a future, he inadvertently stated the obvious. The greatest innovation by the year 2010 in his view: “Post office lines will be a thing of the past.” While there are still long lines in 2011, especially during the holiday season, he eventually will be proven right since you can’t have lines forming in front of counters in an agency that has been replaced by competitive, Internet-based alternatives.


Steve Buckstein is Founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Posted by at 04:30 | Posted in Economy, Government Regulation, Public Employee Unions, Public Employees Retirement System | Tagged , , | 21 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Rupert in Springfield

    I will say that the Post Office has many problems. However as a government agency they really have done better than most in some areas.

    Although there is no lower standard than compairing one government agency to another, one has to credit the postal system with some innovation.

    Innovation 1 – Online package processing. Following the lead of private industry the postal service offered a system similar to Fed Ex and UPS in that one can now process a parcel and have it picked up all from ones home. The postal service did this within five years of private industry. A remarkable accomplishment.

    Innovation 2 – Server access for web processing. Here the postal service was actually very close on the heels of private industry. Any web site that wishes to can now access US postal servers and API’s that will post real time shipping rates on their web site. This is an amazing accomplishment. I cannot think of a single government entity that has ever implemented something like this as fast the postal service has in comparison to private industry.

    Is the postal system perfect? No, it has many serious problems. It’s chief problem is obsolescence of its main product, the letter. It also has ridiculously high labor cost as it pays people career wages for jobs that are not careers. Delivering mail or handing out stamps are no more career positions than is running a cash register at Wal Mart.  

  • Bob Clark

    Geez, to me, droping saturday delivery is a no brainer.  Very few folks are so dependent on snail male that they can’t do without Saturday delivery.  Heck you could probably even drop one other day as well.   Four delivery days a week doesn’t seem unreasonable. 

    • Rupert in Springfield

      Do you know if parcel delivery is something the postal service loses money on, or if it is something that helps their bottom line? If the latter, and they drop Saturday service, they will lose tremendous market share in the parcel delivery business.

      If parcels are one of the more positive things on the USPS ledger, then dropping Saturday delivery would be a no brainer – don’t do it.

      If parcels are one of the more negative things on the ledger, then dropping Saturday is a no brainer – do it.

  • 3H

    “Mr. Runyon apparently didn’t understand that the computer was invented in part to get our messages out of the slow postal system and onto the fast Internet, all the way from sender to recipient.

    The computer wasn’t invented to get messages out of the postal system at all Steve.  That’s a pretty bad understanding of the history of the computer.  Email wasn’t even developed to supplant the postal service.   It may turn out that way for personal correspondence..  but that’s a latter development.

     Your understanding of the past is worse than Mr. Runyon’s understanding of the future.  At least in the case of Mr. Runyon it’s a guess and not something he could look up. 

    • Steve Buckstein

      3H, I guess my attempt at mild sarcasm fell as flat with you as Mr. Runyon’s attempt to foresee his agency’s future did with all of us.

      • valley person

        New technology creates winners and losers. The Postal Service “business” model has taken a big hit, no question. Whether a director in the 90s could have or should have foreseen the impact is a good question. Poking fun at someone for not guessing the future completely right seems like bad form to me. And using it to bash government in general, which I suspect is your motive, doesn’t hold up so well when you consider all the private sector wreckage out there at the hands of the digital revolution.

        Kodak, a quite successful near monopoly business for nearly 100 years, did not foresee the digital camera and its impacts on their core business. Even if they had foreseen it, what could they have done? Probably not much, just like with the Postal Service. Print media is having similar problems, as are brick and mortar retailers. The list of failed or failing businesses due to technology changing is very long.

      • 3H

        ahhhh!  With me it did.  That could be reader error though.

      • Rupert in Springfield

        Oh please, can we get real for a minute here? This was hardly a tough call in the 90’s. In the 80’s the postal service was worried about the FAX machine replacing mail. By the mid nineties the future of US mail was clearly in question and Mr. Runyons statement was absurd at the time. Snail mail had become so dubious in its future validity that Seinfield even did an episode on the absurdity of it. 1997’s “Junk Mail episode, in which Kramer tries to opt out of the postal service. Kramer lists, in that episode, FAX, email etc. having largely replaced it.

        Mr. Runyon made a dumb call and people knew it at the time. Let’s stop pretending whether it was in question anyone could have foreseen it. People did foresee it, Seinfield did an episode on it, and it had been going on since the 80’s.

        • Steve Buckstein

          Rupert, thanks for the Seinfeld reference. As perhaps the only American who didn’t regularly watch that show, I first thought about ordering it through the mail, but then realized that the Internet solved this problem too. Here’s the key section of the episode:

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JpUqLjjKk4Y

          PS I hope valley person doesn’t think Seinfeld is anti-government. It’s just a TV show, after all.

          • valley person

            Did Seinfield also do an episode on Kodak’s inevitable demise? Or did you simply miss my larger point? 

          • Steve Buckstein

            As I said, since I didn’t watch Seinfeld I have no idea if it did an episode on Kodak. 

            I did get your larger point. Of course many private sector companies have suffered from what economists call creative destruction. But it’s the government post office that had, and still has, a monopoly on first class mail.  I think that protection sets it apart from the examples you mentioned, and has played a big part in its decline.

          • valley person

            Yes, and Kodak had a virtual monopoly on film. A monopoly on a product that is encountering a rapid decline in demand due to a new technology becomes worthless, like Kodak stock.

            The post office monopoly on first class mail is as much an albatross as it is an advantage at this point. Its like having a monopoly on the pony express after the railroads were built (with government help I might add).

            The Postal Service has been a trustworthy and valued government service since the days of Ben Franklin. But if its business model is dependent on 1st class mail, and if there is not logical replacement, and  given their high legacy costs built up when they had a much larger income, then there isn’t much they can do but undergo a strategic shrinkage, probably eventually to zero like Kodak.

          • 3H

            Hmmm….  As a strong advocate of private property, I would guess that, yes, you did check to make sure that the person posting the clip had the right to do so?  That you weren’t passing along a clip that violated copyright?   Or, you have made arrangements to pay royalties.  

          • Steve Buckstein

            I assume that such excerpts fall under the “fair use” doctrine, but if not I do know that YouTube is pretty diligent in taking down protected content.

            See…
            https://www.youtube.com/t/copyright_permissions

        • Anonymous

          C’mon Rupert, tour talking about 3H and Valley Person here. These guys are so thoroughly liberal they can’t see any answer to any question other than big government. They can’t see it even when the big government…the Post Office in this case…is falling on its ass.

        • Anonymous

          ***You’re talking*** dang typos.

  • Ladywriter

    Without Saturday mail how would I get my free food stamp credit card in time for the big game??

  • Bite It Loser Boy

    Say whatever you want, but cutting saturday service would trim the Post Office’s current expenses by 15%. And yet they think it’s an okay idea to slow down delivery of the first class mail people want; but are doing nothing to stop the flow of junk mail that noone wants.

    • valley person

      The businesses who pay for and send the junk mail want us to have it. Are you saying that the government should censor out private sector products you label as junk? Do you want to empower bureaucrats to decide what is junk and what is legitimate mail?

      Congratulations dude. You are now more of a socialist than I am.

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