Neither rain nor sleet nor dead of night, but the economy ...

Saturday postal service could disappear in a sea of red ink at the Post Office.  The Postmaster General asked Congress to remove the mandate for deliveries six days a week in order to allow the USPS to control costs.  Otherwise, their deficit may grow from $2.6 billion in 2008 to $6 billion this year:

Massive deficits could force the post office to cut out one day of mail delivery, the postmaster general told Congress on Wednesday, in asking lawmakers to lift the requirement that the agency deliver mail six days a week. …

Faced with dwindling mail volume and rising costs, the post office was $2.8 billion in the red last year. “If current trends continue, we could experience a net loss of $6 billion or more this fiscal year,” Potter said in testimony for a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee.

Total mail volume was 202 billion items last year, over 9 billion less than the year before, the largest single volume drop in history.

And, despite annual rate increases, Potter said 2009 could be the first year since 1946 that the actual amount of money collected by the post office declines.

Why have people shifted away from the Post Office?  Electronic communication, primarily e-mail, and electronic bill paying are probably the two biggest reasons.  FedEx and UPS have been around for decades, and the market share of parcel deliveries stabilized years ago.  People rely much less on hand-delivered mail.  Getting a handwritten letter is as quaint now as a Western Union telegram, and while the volume remains huge, it has already begun a long-term, significant downward drift.

The USPS has another problem besides the sixth delivery day requirement.  They have a separate requirement to make advance payments on retiree health benefit costs, on which they must pay over $5 billion this year.  They want Congress to relax that requirement, but that sounds like a shell game.  If they can’t pay it now, how will they make it up later?

Mail service should be considered in light of these economic issues.  We no longer need daily contact by mail in order to understand our world, pay our bills, or inexpensively remain in contact with friends and family.  Two generations ago, long distance telephone calls were expensive, and e-mail wasn’t even a dream.  Now many plans offer free, unlimited long-distance service and most people have access to inexpensive Internet service through work or home.

That doesn’t mean we don’t need postal service at all, but a reduction in delivery days seems reasonable.  The AP reminds us that Saturday might not be the day that gets trimmed; Tuesday is actually the lightest day on the schedule, by some analyses.  Still, the Saturday delivery should get trimmed first, as most businesses close on the weekends and the deliveries are completely unnecessary.  Any business conducted will wait until Monday anyway.  The union might not like it, as jobs and overtime will get reduced, but it makes the most business sense.