Happy 237th Birthday United States Postal Service!

Fairbanks Pony Express Monument. Image Credit: National Park Service

Today marks 237 years since the introduction of the venerable United States Postal Service – something that’s always a topic of interest when it comes to technology.

That’s because the USPS is the poster child of the dark side of technology – the negative impact it can have on human society. USPS has had to cut, and will need to cut, thousands of jobs due to monstrous operating losses and shrinking mail volumes in the last few years, which are projected to continue. On its face, the cause of USPS money woes seems easy to identify – snail mail is increasingly unnecessary, and the USPS is losing billions of dollars because of it.

It remains to be seen whether or not that’s really true – believe it or not, the USPS reached its peak for annual mail volume fairly recently, in 2006. Mail volumes only began to plummet when the recession started. Problem is, the United States’ economic woes aren’t going anywhere for a while, and it’s hard to see why people would turn back to the USPS once the economy recovers.

Regardless of the reason for the USPS’ decline, there will always be calls for the USPS to adapt to modern technology and there will always be claims that the USPS business model is outdated. Those are both true, but they miss the point. Adapting to modern-day communication would be like trying to put out a house fire with a garden hose – the truth is, the USPS’ business model can only ever be outdated. An overhaul (a move away from the focus on snail mail towards network-based communication) would require the government program to try to compete with more successful companies like Google in a sphere (technology) where they have almost no experience – something it has neither reason nor money to do. Despite being a government entity, it receives no funding from the government outside of subsidized loans – it’s a public entity that’s more or less expected to act like a private one. Unfortunately, its current position would spell death for pretty much any other private company out there. That doesn’t leave much room for R&D.

But, it’s not all doom and gloom for the USPS, because there’s one thing that we’ll always need that technology can’t provide (or, won’t provide for a very long time). That would be package delivery, and it’s something that the USPS does for much cheaper than rates you would find at UPS or FedEx. Customer dissatisfaction with USPS has always been strong, to the point where the USPS might be unfairly stigmatized. The lines are never fun (and there are always, always lines), but the base services aren’t bad, and the rates are often very cheap compared to FedEx or UPS. The distressing part is that improved shipping income can only benefit the USPS if the operating losses from conventional letter-in-an-envelope mail are done away with – and that means thousands of jobs for mail sorters and postmen jettisoned, because most of the USPS’ expenses (about 80 percent) are labor costs.

The USPS is, at heart, a government entity. Change comes slowly, and in very small steps. The USPS will only ever be a snail mail service, and that means a lot of pain for the entity right now. Maybe the most unbelievable part about the USPS, considering its financial woes, are just how cheap its services are. Rates for delivery services are typically far cheaper than anything you’ll find at UPS or FedEx – if you’re a seller on eBay or Amazon and need to ship a lot of items, the USPS is probably your best option.

Hey, look at that. The USPS and modern technology can be friends after all.