It's hard to believe that the Postal Service wasn't doomed the first time AOL announced "You've got mail" almost two decades ago. The continued embrace of technology for bill-paying has also done its damage. Since 2006 alone the Postal Service has seen a 20 percent decline in mail, and it lost $12 billion between 2007 and 2009. Labor costs are 80 percent of its operating budget. New efficiencies are clearly needed.
But there's also other major factors contributing to its current crisis: the Postal Service, the third-largest employer in the country, is required to pay for future health and retirement benefits of its employees. Making a $5 billion payment to that fund, and trying to get a return of an earlier overpayment of $5 billion into one such account has sparked its current problems. And unlike the rest of the universe, the Postal Service's pension fund is fully funded.
Also not insignificant: In 2003, the Postal Service earned a $38 billion profit, the most ever. (The Postal Service gets no taxpayer support and runs entirely from its revenues). The point is, during flush economic times, the system seemed to work just fine. Now, like so many business, the economy has forced a major rethinking.
Consider that service: near-daily delivery to nearly every home and business in the country, which is pretty remarkable. (As remarkable as guaranteeing every child in the country a free education.) Of course it's worth asking if the Postal Service's current level of service is necessary - and worth asking about other efficiencies the system should make.
But the talk of having this service run better by private industry strikes us as absurd as one senator's idea that we all send each other more letters to stave off the crisis. Much of what the Postal Service does already has been privatized: by the Internet, for free; and by the other services like UPS, FedEx and postal stores, at higher prices.
The Postal Service's woes are as real as are the travails of the public-education system, but our default assumption that the private sector could do it better, at lower cost, is as outdated and inefficient as the systems in trouble. The radical opposite of government is not always "private sector"; the radical opposite of government is better thinking about how to do the job right.