Going Postal in the Year 2022

As the U.S. Postal Service struggles to find its 21st century business model, it competes with FREE–that is, the 4.6 zillion emails we write, send and read every day, and with a fairly spiffy FedEx, and a reliably massive United Parcel Service. If I want to send somebody a message, I use email (or texting). If I want to send somebody a package, I use FedEx or UPS.

Today, I visited my neighborhood mailbox and learned about the 13-ounce rule. (Yes, it was new to me, too.) The sticker on the mailbox says, if the package weighs 13 ounces or more, you cannot drop it into the mail box. Instead, you must take the package to the “retail service counter at a Post Office.”

Yes, the USPS is behind the times. According to Wikipedia, the USPS is also:

(a) the second largest civilian employer in the United States (574,000 workers)

(b) the largest vehicle fleet operator in the world

(c) legally obligated to serve all Americans, regardless of geography, at uniform price and quality

(d) a protected monopoly in certain categories (non-package mail, use of mailboxes, etc.)

(e) operates 31,000 individual post offices

(f) delivers 600 million pieces of mail to more than 100 million delivery points — every day!

The knee-jerk reaction would be “well, let’s just modernize the whole darned system.” Or, let’s digitize it, or perform a magical internet transformation. The USPS and the K-12 school system have been mostly untouched by the digital revolution. The status quo is just too strong.

“To establish Post Offices” is among the powers assigned to Congress in the U.S. Constitution. One reason why we insisted upon Post Offices was to distribute newspapers in the 1700s. Within ten or twenty years, there may be no physical newspapers, and the future of print magazines, paper bills and invoices, legal notices, and other flat mail is equally dim. For the USPS, there are fewer letters to deliver, and fading enthusiasm for their once-vital services. To make things worse–as only a large government bureaucracy can do–the U.S. Postal Service is hobbled by a strange political situation that resulted in huge unfunded Federal mandate.

So as I find an alternate means to mail my 14-ounce package without using a 13-ounce-limit mailbox, here’s a thought experiment for a late winter’s day:

If you were in charge of a future version of a U.S. postal system–government operated or otherwise–how would you construct a 21st century system?

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