Why We All Have a Stake in the U.S. Postal Service

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Technology may have lessened our dependence on it, but downsizing it would carry a massive cost

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In his book The Road Ahead (1995), Bill Gates wrote:

The computer was our toy. We grew up with it. And when we grew up, we brought our toy with us. Now the computer is in our homes and in our offices. It has changed our lives and it is changing them again, because now the computers are coming together to make a new system. In this system, computers all over the world are beginning to work together. Our computers will be our telephones, our post office, our library, and our banks.

Whatever the impact of information technology on telephones, libraries, and banks, it's the post office that's had the greatest challenge in adapting to the Web. (Gates seemed to expect, at one point in the book, that post offices like libraries could become public computing centers.) It's hard to be nostalgic for mailing checks, or to bemoan the decline of junk mail. But even the most die-hard electronic enthusiast must acknowledge that there will always be some paper documents that must be delivered, and many other products most economically delivered by postal services or private organizations like them (usually at significantly higher prices), even to and from Redmond, Washington and Palo Alto. So the fixed costs of the system remain and must be paid for by a shrinking base, leading to a reduction in service levels that can become a self-reinforcing spiral.

What's less apparent to IT people, though, in their zeal for transformation, is the social capital side of organizations. Not that they reject the concept. When their own companies are challenged by new models like open source, some of them have reacted as though Western civilization itself were at risk.

Microsoft has not been a great direct U.S. jobs creator; it has only 54,305 employees in the U.S., an average of about 1,100 people per state. Apple, Inc. has 49,400, Google, Inc. only 24,400. By contrast, for example, AT&T Inc.still has 265,410, Verizon 194,400. Of course that's much of the point about a high-tech business, maximum revenue based on intellectual property with a minimum of permanent staff. The US Postal Service has more than the two largest telecommunication companies combined, plus Microsoft and Apple, 574,000 workers, of whom 120,000 will be dismissed under a new emergency plan.

A Washington Post article explains why the Postal Service matters, beyond birthday cards and clothing catalogs.

"To get a job at the postal service meant an entrée into the middle class," said Harley Shaiken, a professor who studies labor issues at the University of California at Berkeley. "For generations of Americans, it was the route to sending their kids to college, to having a decent life."

Nationally, the Postal Service reflects the diversity of Americans. But for generations of rural residents, immigrants, and especially African Americans it was a key to a stable middle-class family life, especially during the Great Depression and the flight of industry from cities starting in the 1960s.

In time, the postal service stayed in urban areas as other employers moved out, said Gary Burtless, a labor market expert at the Brookings Institution. "They still have sizable pockets of employment in communities that do not have lots of other good jobs. These jobs have decent wages, good health benefits and vacation benefits."

Bill Gates is a philanthropist who surely never wanted to put anybody, except maybe executives of competing companies, out of a job. But in the celebration of "creative destruction" and "disruptive technologies," enthusiasts who strive to create vibrant organizational cultures of their own leave other people's social capital out of the equation. Postal workers quoted in the Post article cite esprit de corps and family spirit, contrary to the stereotype of tension and violence. When we consider deficits of the organization, we also have to consider the costs of massive layoffs to communities, and the cost of eliminating decent jobs for young people of all backgrounds.

Understandably, there are other hard-working people earning less than postal workers who may object to paying taxes to support the remaining stability and camaraderie of others. On the other hand, they (as well as the better-off) may have to pay higher taxes anyway for welfare and Medicaid after the ensuing job destruction. Everyone has a social and economic interest in the post office's future.

Image credit: Carlos Barria/Reuters

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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