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Do we still need the post office?

It's mentioned in the Constitution, but as Americans increasingly rely on the Internet, the role of the Postal Service is shrinking, and it's losing billions of dollars a year

Despite the emergence of Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail, Americans still need the post office. It is the only business whose establishment is authorized by the Constitution, and Congress would be foolish to abandon it.

Private delivery companies like Federal Express and UPS thrive in big cities and bustling suburbs. But only the Postal Service guarantees the low-cost delivery of letters, magazines, and parcels for the millions of Americans who live in sparsely settled places like Wyoming and Alaska. What's more, Federal Express and UPS could decide at any point to go into another line of business or could even go out of business altogether. Then how would retirees get Social Security checks? How would the rest of us get all our packages from Amazon?

The post office also provides a great back-up communications system if our digital communications were to fail, in the event of, say, a huge blackout or a cyber-attack by terrorists.

The post office is projected to lose more than $7 billion this year, leading some to urge Congress to pull the plug. Yet its financial record is no worse than that of many Fortune 500 corporations. And perhaps we should be more forgiving, since Congress requires the post office to perform many non-postal tasks, such as processing passport applications, that increase its costs.

In the past year, Congress bailed out the banking industry and the auto industry. Is the post office any less deserving of taxpayer funding? For much of its history, the post office has lost money and few Americans objected. That's because it provides a public service that Americans value. So long as it does, it deserves our continued support and respect.

Richard R. John
Author, Spreading The News: The American Postal Service From Franklin To Morse

As the Internet continues to erode the use of snail mail, do we even need the government to deliver the mail anymore? To me, the answer is obvious: no.

Think for a minute about the mail that comes into your home. In the modern age, very little of it is personal mail. The vast majority is commercial mail of some sort—advertisements, bills, movies from Netflix, or catalogs.

Once upon a time, says Rick Geddes, a management professor at Cornell University, the Postal Service was viewed as "a way to bind together the nation. In subsidizing mail service to rural communities, you were keeping them connected to the rest of the country."

But today, Geddes adds, "it is kind of silly to say we are binding together the nation through advertisements and catalogs."

For most of us, e-mail now performs the function of keeping us connected to other Americans. And that will increasingly be the case as broadband makes it way into, yes, even those rural areas that everyone is so worried about.

And things are only going to get worse for the post office in the long term. As businesses look to save money in the recession, they are starting to do end-runs around the Postal Service. Online bill-paying is becoming ever more popular. Evite is starting to replace mailed invitations to parties. None of that business is ever coming back.

Which is why, instead of trying to find short-term, piecemeal solutions to the current post office budget crisis, we should admit that the Postal Service is broken and either needs to be reinvented or go the way of the Pony Express.

Joe Nocera
New York Times Business Columnist

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, December 14, 2009)