I n the span of a single week, I had reason to make several trips to three US Post Office locations in Santa Fe, at various times of the day. During each visit, there were at least 10 people waiting in line, and no more than two postal officers in attendance. At one location, an elderly man pulled a chair into the line to sit because standing so long presented a hardship. While most of the postal workers were good-humored and helpful, several were surly and showed the impact of being overburdened with service responsibilities as well as, perhaps, being undervalued as public servants.
While I realize that Santa Fe has a unique and checkered past with mail delivery service, I couldn't help but be saddened at the state of our local branches of this once proud and revered institution. I thought to myself, How can so vital a public service have fallen into such a beleaguered state? But, as soon as I asked this question, common sense kicked in with the answer: It's business as usual.
In 1996, a congressional committee held hearings on the privatization on the US Postal Service. The claims used to justify its privatization included, but were not limited to, inefficiency, outdated technology and the fact that it was an incompetent business monopoly. (One could make the same argument about the US House of Representatives, but that's another column.) This was the same decade, not coincidentally, when I also noticed a proliferation of Mail Boxes Etc. stores springing up in the Virginia suburbs where I lived.
While privatization didn't happen in one fell swoop, as those who testified in its favor hoped, little-by-little, the champions of privatization have gotten their way. And we, tax-paying American citizens, have once again been made to stand in line behind the interests of business. Our government officials, and their business donors, in this process have counted on the stereotype that we Americans have short memories. But I do not, and neither do many other Americans.
I am of the generation when business systems salesmen claimed that computers would make us a paperless society, and fax machines and email would make obsolete ye olde Postal Service, as would other expedited mail services like FedEx. These exciting and outrageous claims were circulated nonchalantly in the halls at my first job at a Fortune 500 company. I was young and naïve and believed these so-called experts.
Today, despite computers and email and text messages and Google docs sharing, there seems as much paper as ever in offices where I work. I can't drive two blocks in Santa Fe without seeing a UPS or FedEx truck. The fact that I'm waiting 30 minutes in line for stamps and that those private trucks are hauling professional and personal parcels everywhere I look are indicators that the need for mail hasn't perished from the earth. In fact, online businesses have exponentially increased the need for postal and expedited shipping services.
Here's the thing: Somebody, or a lot of somebodies, got the "paperless society" and supply-and-demand trend on postal needs wrong. In the past 20 years, shipping businesses and office stores have grown and diversified to fill the void left by a cannibalized Postal Service. This, because our basic mail services have been cut, strained and diminished in efficiency. Which do you think came first? The goal of privatization or our so-called "obsolete" USPS?
Andrea is an American Studies scholar who writes and teaches courses on US politics and culture. You can reach her with your thoughts at: email@example.com