Postcard From the Edge

Terrorists don't top the Post Office's list of problems.

With anthrax scares—and even deaths—making e-mail worms look like friendly practical jokes, the U.S. Postal Service is scrambling to stay out of history’s junk pile. According to press accounts, mail volume, already flagging before September 11, has dropped another 6 percent since.

The USPS had responded via a couple of arguably reasonable decisions, such as hiring the Titan Corporation to sanitize mail with “electron beam technology,” at an initial cost of $40 million. Capitalizing on patriotism with the “United We Stand” flag stamp, now available in a few cities, was a canny marketing maneuver, setting aside the larger problem that for people with day jobs, getting to a Post Office during their limited operating hours remains a chore.

But the postal officers have hatched one plan so outrageously silly that we can only assume that it was conceived out of total desperation and a lot of debilitating head-banging.

This week a Postal Service spokesman told me that every address in the nation—that’s almost 116 million residences alone—should soon receive a postcard relaying safety advice for opening mail. Included on the postcard is “common sense” information, such as a reminder not to “sniff” your mail and to beware “lumpy” packages. Two questions: Are anthrax spores lumpy? And where is the reminder not to open mail while standing naked on active railroad tracks?

It’s certainly possible that someone out there in the wild, sprawling United States hasn’t heard all about how to avoid anthrax contamination on the Internet, TV, and radio, or in newspapers or magazines. But is someone that isolated really a terrorist target?

Of course, the more significant problem with the postcards is that they don’t address the true threat to first-class mail revenue. Intelligent people in most of the country already aren’t that likely to open suspicious packages with “excessive postage” (another item on the postcard list of caveats). But people are legitimately afraid that the Post Office won’t deliver their mail reliably or on time due to clogs in the system, anthrax-related or not.

It’s not yet clear how much perceived health threats and resulting security procedures will slow down mail delivery. What is clear is that today’s problems are intensifying, not causing, the Post Office’s financial woes. Fax machines and the Internet have drastically altered the way people communicate, and Post Office officials—ever reliant on dwindling first-class mail profits—still haven’t figured out how to operate in the changed environment.

Remember that fact when Postmaster General John Potter jockeys for a multi-billion-dollar federal bailout--a process that's well underway. "It's not far-fetched to imagine this [anthrax-related issues] could hurt us to the tune of several billion dollars," Potter told the House Committee on Government Reform just this week. Or when the postal authorities use the “terrorist threat” to justify a postal rate increase in the near future. Or when they throw out loony ideas like a standardized, USPS-issued e-mail address for every U.S. resident.

In the meantime, this column will likely add a few thousand more to the ranks of those who’ve certainly heard how to deal with anthrax and therefore don’t need postcards. How’s that for a cost-cutting measure?

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