If you listen to the pundits on the radio and scan the print media, you may have concluded that when Santa arrives at the headquarters of the United States Postal Service (USPS) in Washington, he will find it sealed up like a tomb with a note affixed to the chimney:
Dear Santa and Your Helpers:
After 219 years of delivering the U.S. Mail to the American people, service personnel and friends and families overseas, this was our last Christmas season. What will become of our 574,000 employees and their grayish-blue woolen uniforms, their saddle leather carrying bags, countless buildings, and a fleet of 218,000 vehicles, I cannot say. All future mail will be stamped “Return to Sender” and after Jan. 1, 2012, please use UPS, Federal Express, e-mail, or other modern ways to deliver your mail, packages and gifts. I, as postmaster general and at one time the last in line in the Order of Succession, will move to New York City, where I will share an apartment with former Postal Worker Newman (of Seinfeld fame), who now works for Federal Express.
Santa, whose mail service has long been the envy of the USPS, would be the last person to be surprised by the news. After all, the U.S. Mail—as it used to be called—has been in trouble for years. New technologies and private delivery companies have eaten away at its reserves.
The news that USPS is on the verge of bankruptcy and will try to stave it off by closing half of its sorting centers, raising the price of first class stamps by a cent, and firing 100,000 people will have little impact on a generation that uses electronic devices to communicate and has never set foot in a post office. But when post offices are shuttered in rural areas and mail boxes in urban areas are removed, millions of Americans, especially the elderly, will find themselves confronted with a host of problems. Under the new plan, it will take three days for a first-class letter to arrive at its destination and a week for time-sensitive magazines. Late fees will be the order of the day.
But for all Americans, the very idea that the U.S. Mail will most likely declare bankruptcy is just another sign of the gradual decline of another American institution, less a victim of the Great Recession than the advent of a world no one could have imagined decades ago.
USPS may have to turn to Congress for a bailout, which is the last thing our representatives are inclined to do, all the more so in an election year with the bailouts of the Great Recession still questioned by millions. Technological advances in communication will only accelerate in coming years and fewer and fewer people will use stamps. In fact, revenue from postage stamps has declined 27 percent in just a few years. While stamps used to be the main source of revenue, today money is made in the shipping of parcels of all sizes.
Short of complete privatization, perhaps one solution to the ills of USPS is to use the massive fleets of military planes to carry the mail, since as a semi-governmental agency, Congress still has a major hand in the future of USPS. Some people have suggested that one way to raise revenues is to permit people to place their images on stamps for a price, but that would be akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the RMS Titanic. By the way, RMS (Royal Mail Ship) was a lucrative contract in its day.
A small and more efficient postal office may be at hand. We may see a very different institution that has caught up with the 21st century. A year from now, even Santa may be surprised.
Less than a year from now, we will mark an important milestone. A full decade will have passed since the greatest attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor nearly 75 years ago. But at Ground Zero, reconstruction has moved at a snail’s pace, only equaled by the opening of the Terrorist Trial against those charged with the planning of 9/11. For the moment, the Justice Department is apparently still looking for a new location, but Foley Square in Lower Manhattan is still a possibility. However disruptive it will be, there are those who argue that it is appropriate to hold the trial close to where this horrible act was executed.
The middle of the 10th year of the first decade of the 21st century is now behind us. We expected much from the new century, hoping it would be kinder and more peaceful than the one just exited. The 20th century left an estimated 167 million people dead through two world wars, genocide, mass murder, and a long list of other horrors. The Cold War followed the Second World War and with it the Atomic Age. The future of humankind seemed conditional.
The epoch of chain wars and the fear of another world conflict came to an abrupt end with the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989. With the Soviet pull back from Eastern Europe and its implosion in 1991, an epoch quickly faded into history. Confidence was in the air.
Everywhere we looked positive changes were taking place. Democracy was on the march. The two Germanys became one. Democracies replaced the systems imposed by Stalin in Eastern Europe. The new global economy uplifted the lives of millions. Overnight, China transformed itself into the new workshop of the world. Our service economy was hailed as the start of a new era, the age of brick and mortar industries a thing of the past. Even the intractable Israeli- Palestinian conflict seemed on the cusp of resolution in the twilight days of the Clinton years.
Adolf Hitler was born in the small provincial town of Braunau on the Inn River in the most westerly part of the Austrian Empire, the Viertelwald. Ten days after his 56th birthday, he committed suicide in the Führerbunker deep under the war-torn streets of Berlin.
A week later, German surrendered unconditionally. In the course of his lifetime, he accelerated the pace of historical change more than any other individual in the 20th century and almost single-handedly willed the coming of the greatest and most destructive war in history.
For an older generation of Americans—those who remember the days when imports were rare—it is inconceivable that the Big Three could go under. But we live in very difficult times. History tells us that once the consumers sense that a major company may go under, their products are avoided. No one wants an orphan car.
As we learned with Packard and Studebaker, the announcement of bankruptcy is tantamount to a death notice in the media. When GM pulled the 100-year-old Oldsmobile brand, it went unnoticed by most of us. Few realized what it represented, perhaps the beginning of the end of a company whose name is so closely associated with American industrial muscle and inventiveness. In retrospect, the death of Olds was equal to the extraction of Lehman Brothers on Wall Street, the symbolic transformation of our economy, the start of hard times.
A worldwide recession now appears inevitable. Economic news from the European Union and former Soviet bloc nations does little to inspire confidence. Poland, Latvia and Hungary have been hard hit. On the other side of the world, in Asia, the fate of the furniture market is a case study of what can go wrong when a sector of the economy in a distant place collapses, in this case, the U.S. housing market. Demand for furniture has dropped by more than 25 percent and several major American outlets have closed their doors.
For the first time in eight years there is talk of a global recession or worse, a depression. It is a word that sends shivers down the spines of even the most hearty and confident among us. It conjures up images of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Its opening date was in October 1929 with the Great Crash on Wall Street.
Within a few short years, the world economy went into a freefall, what was called in those days “The World Slump.” Collective efforts by the great industrial powers came too little. What followed still haunts us and is reinforced by countless programs on The History Channel, epic-making films, shelves of books, and references to the chain of events that followed the slump: mass unemployment, breadlines, the appeal of fascism and communism as alternatives to capitalism, Hitler in Germany and Japanese aggression in Asia, and the coming of the Second World War.
In 1900, about 8,000 cars were registered in the United States. Today, some of these classics can be seen in museums, their names long since forgotten but nearly all of the essential mechanics still recognizable.
In the first years of the Automotive Age, a variety of power sources were used to propel the more than 200 nameplates, most of which quickly faded away. Electric cars were quite popular but took a long time to charge the batteries and they had to be renewed often. Steam-driven cars were also available, the most famous made by the Stanley Brothers between 1897 and 1925.
Each year, millions of tourists descend on the EternalCity and weave their way past the extant remains of ancient Rome. No trip to Rome would be complete without a visit to the Imperial Forum, once the administrative hub of the Empire of 82 million that helped lay the foundation of today’s Europe, Great Britain, North Africa and the Middle East.
We do not have to ask the people who calculate the Nielson ratings why so many people hit the channel button on their remotes and turn to reruns of Seinfeld, reality TV programs, dance contests, or Turner Classic Movies to avoid watching the news or listening to the talking heads pontificate on the day’s events. The news has been so dismal for the past year that we may be reaching the psychological tipping point, the current cliché for escapism.