PhotoFor as long as Internet news sites have existed, they have periodically reported the story “Post office having financial problems again.”

That's not a coincidence. The Internet (alongside other inexpensive new communication technologies) is the main reason why the post office is having financial problems.

The post office used to make most of its income from First Class mail delivery—you know, delivering letters. For the bulk of history that happened before the Internet, writing and mailing letters was the best and most convenient way for ordinary Americans to keep in touch with friends and relatives who lived more than a few miles away, just as writing and mailing checks was the most convenient way to pay your utility, mortgage and other bills each month, before online payment became a thing.

Granted, phone calls were much faster than letters — instantaneous, in fact — but in those days, if you called anybody more than a few miles away you had to pay by-the-minute “long distance” fees significantly higher than average wages.

Talking to Grandma for an hour could cost you several hours' worth of pretax pay, so it was much cheaper to write Grandma a letter and wait for her to write back, when a postage stamp cost less than one or two minutes' worth of long-distance chat.

It's obvious why innovations ranging from “free unlimited long-distance calling” to “free unlimited email or messaging” killed most of the market for First Class mail. In 2005, the post office passed an unhappy milestone — that year, after many years of steady decline, the volume of First Class mail delivery fell below that of direct-marketing [read: “junk mail”] delivery for the first time.

That explains why you get so much junk mail today — because the post office is trying to make up for lost letter revenue. That also explains why U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donohoe has allegedly said “American citizens aren’t our customers — about 400 junk mailers are our customers,” and that any effort to reduce the amount of unwanted junk mail Americans receive “hurts our ability to serve those customers.”

No more mail slots?

PhotoNow Congress is considering a measure that would allow the post office to stop door-to-door delivery to millions of Americans, in delivering instead to curbside or communal mailboxes (although people with disabilities could get waivers, and anyone else would have the option to pay an extra fee to continue personal delivery).

The measure -- H.R. 4670, Secure Delivery for America Act of 2014 -- was approved by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on an 18-13 vote. Introduced by Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the bill would require the Postal Service to convert 1.5 million addresses per year over the next 10 years from “to the door” delivery to more cost-effective modes of delivery, including secure centralized delivery

Supporters of the proposal all make the same basic point: having postal carriers make deliveries to mailbox clusters would cost vastly less money than continuing door-to-door service which the post office simply cannot afford.

However, opponents cite a variety of objections, ranging from “in crowded urban areas, where will we find room to install cluster mailboxes?” to “forget about cutting services; if you want to fix the USPS' financial problems, try reforming its prefunded pension requirements or other financial shenanigans instead.”

Supporters say that replacing 15 million addresses form personal to communal delivery could save the post office $2 billion per year. Issa's measure now faces action by the full House and Senate. Its passage is by no means assured, so don't putty up your mail slot just yet.

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