“One of the things the government can’t do is run anything. The only things our government runs are the post office and the railroads, and both of them are bankrupt.”
Lee Iacocca 1973
History seemed like it was repeating itself today with these two stories hitting headlines in the UK:
The railways in Britain have suffered from a lack of investment for decades, and commuters are now paying the price. I don’t think the general public appreciates how difficult it is to rejuvenate an industry like rail. It could very well take as long to renew as it took to decline, which puts the current Government in a difficult position. What can it possibly do to improve the railways before the next election?
The BBC’s business correspondent has an interesting albeit brief analysis of the problems plaguing the British Post Office (Drastic surgery at Consignia). As luck would have it, I visited my local post office today for the first time since Christmas. When I arrived, the queue was so long that I could barely cross the threshold. With 18 people in front of me and four tellers at work, it took 14 minutes to be served and the queue was even longer when I left. There clearly is a demand for the service, so perhaps a few of the 15,000 imminently unemployed workers should be retrained as tellers?
Ironically the Royal Mail is the best post office with which I’m familiar, the others being Canada Post and the United States Postal Service. If the recent experience of My Life As An American Gladiator is anything to go by, things haven’t improved much in the US.
Perhaps, as in other walks of life, modern technology is forcing postal services to come full circle by undermining the importance of the mail? In 1854 Henry David Thoreau wrote:
“For my part, I could easily do without the post-office. I think that there are very few important communications made through it.“
That certainly corroborates my experience these days.
What did Henry David Thoreau have against the Post Office? In 1863 he also wrote:
In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.
Of course, he’s not really criticising the Post Office in this instance, merely the people who use it as a distraction from their own reality. It’s hard to imagine visiting the Post Office in order to escape, but if you replace it with television I think his statement would be equally applicable today.