Shortly after 2 p.m., on Presidents Day, when government offices were closed, I dropped a Netflix envelope in the box outside our local post office. Fifteen hours later, I was notified via e-mail that a Netflix branch, about 85 miles away, had received the DVD.
I mention this because it underscores several truths about the U.S. Postal Service. The first, cited by critics and budget-cutters, is that the government provides levels of mail service that may be too expensive in today's deficit-plagued environment. The second, on which I prefer to focus, is that the nation's mail system works remarkably well, and is something worth preserving -- at least for now.
The Postal Service lost $8.5 billion in its last fiscal year, a lot of money even in today's upside-down economy. It operates more than 35,000 post offices and support facilities and employs more than a half-million Americans, despite cutting a third of its work force in the last decade. Plus, almost taken for granted in the financial debate, last year, it delivered 170 billion pieces of mail.
In the next few weeks, the government will begin closing nearly 2,500 post offices. It will also give greater consideration to the possibility of halting Saturday deliveries.
Every use of tax money is under intense scrutiny these days -- from health care, to education, to repairing highways and bridges. Technically, the Postal Service doesn't use tax dollars; however, it borrows from the Treasury, so it is very much a part of the nation's financial headache.
One thing that separates the Postal Service from most other government services is that it actually works properly. With basically the lowest first-class postage rate of any nation on the globe, the U.S. Mail gets delivered on time -- or, in many cases faster than promised -- with incredible consistency.
But there are other considerations to be reviewed with care before closing any more post offices. The real value of a U.S. Post Office branch is often measured in inverse proportion to the facility's balance sheet. Small offices in the most rural corners of America are frequently the only places where citizens can be in contact with their government.
Like the cop on the corner, whose job I'd also argue is worth preserving, the mail carrier is for many Americans an anchor in a stormy world.
Perhaps, it's logic of convenience to relate every domestic budget problem to the expense of conducting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but here are the facts: the entire annual deficit for the Postal Service is less than the cost of three weeks of war.
Early in my career, before there was such a thing as e-mail, I did a story for the New York News Sunday magazine about the smallest post offices in New England; even back then, several were threatened with closure. What I found, at every stop, was that the smaller the office, the more important it was to the residents' sense of community.
One post office, no bigger than a medium-size closet, was run by a woman who explained that on some days she handled no mail whatsoever. "Isn't that a valid reason for closing you down?" I asked. "People here count on me," she replied, "whether there's mail or not. Like the flag hanging outside, I represent our country. People like knowing that."
That particular post office in northern Connecticut is long gone. But the point is still valid, maybe more than ever.
President Obama has spoken wisely about using a scalpel for delicate cuts in the nation's spending. Small post offices and the services they provide are part of the fabric of America that should be trimmed with only the greatest care.
Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker, and
also the long-time host of "Candid Camera." He may be reached at www.CandidCamera.com. This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.