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Europe provides important lessons for the Postal Service
Amid news of a faltering economy, the U.S. Postal Service continues to suffer heavy losses. Email and other forms of digital communication have been displacing the postal service for some time, but the recent recession has put it on an alarming path to insolvency: BusinessWeek reports that by the end of the fiscal year the postal service will most likely default on its debt unless the federal government bails it out. The urgent need for reform has called the postal service's purpose and future into question.
Former governor and presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, when explaining his plan for the economy, made the radical suggestion that the USPS be eliminated since the services it provides can be found on the private market. But while private services like UPS and FedEx offer quick delivery to most locations, they cannot come close to matching the low cost, convenience, and reliability of the USPS.
There are over 30,000 post offices across the nation, and a 44 cent stamp will mail a letter anywhere within the United States. For many in remote and rural areas, private delivery companies do not offer adequate services or reasonable rates. For example, mailing a one-ounce letter from the isolated Northwest Angle to St. Paul via USPS would cost the aforementioned 44 cents compared to over ten dollars via FedEx or nearly thirty dollars via UPS.
Unlike UPS and FedEx, the postal service is not committed to making a profit but rather to providing a service, one that Americans still rely on. Although reforms are necessary with insolvency looming, we must make sure to preserve the USPS’s convenience and affordability.
Many European nations have successfully restructured their postal services, proving that it is possible for the USPS to retain its unique advantages over private carriers. Some have moved post offices to alternative locations such as convenience stores. Although initially unpopular, this measure has saved costs without compromising services, and may be a good way for the USPS to become financially viable without compromising its extensive network.
In addition, European mail carriers have been adopting new technologies to provide the public with innovative products and services. Swedes can convert their digital photos to postcards through their postal service, and will soon be able to mail letters not with stamps but rather with numerical codes received via text message. Innovations like these can help make the USPS even more cheap and convenient and ensure that it stays relevant into the future.
The USPS’s impending insolvency may mean that it has long since become financially unsustainable, but it does not mean that the services it provides are no longer vital. By learning from other countries that have faced the same problem we can restructure the postal service in a way that does not compromise the reliable services it has offered since its inception. Neither radical solutions like complete disbandment nor a simple bailout will create an effective solution; we must instead acknowledge the challenge that technology poses to the postal service and address it accordingly.