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Commentary: About that Saturday mail ...

  • Story Highlights
  • Bob Greene: Most people say they wouldn't miss Saturday mail
  • He says Postal Service has asked Congress to eliminate sixth day of delivery
  • He says there may be a backlash from people who get DVDs by mail
  • Greene: Will Americans be happy with less service from government?
By Bob Greene
CNN Contributor
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Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose new book is "Late Edition: A Love Story."

Bob Greene says most people say they can get along without Saturday mail, but would they be happy about losing it?

Bob Greene says most people say they can get along without Saturday mail, but would they be happy about losing it?

(CNN) -- You seemed a little bit interested in last Sunday's column: the one about the prospect of Saturday mail delivery being eliminated by the U.S. Postal Service.

That is what Postmaster General John E. Potter has asked Congress to authorize. Because of a budget crisis and a drastic decline in the number of items Americans send through the mail each year (an estimated 20 billion fewer items mailed this year alone), Potter wants to stop delivering mail on Saturdays.

Along with last week's column, there was a feature where readers were invited to cast their votes on the subject (not a scientific poll, as they say; I think this means that Albert Einstein wasn't counting the ballots).

More than 397,000 of you took the time to vote. The question was: "Would you miss Saturday mail if the Postal Service stopped delivering it?"

Here's the surprising thing (at least it's surprising to me):

Sixty-eight percent of you said you would not miss the Saturday mail if it stopped coming. Only 32 percent of you said you would miss it.

The votes were undoubtedly tallied correctly.

But if theory becomes fact, and if one Saturday America goes to its mailboxes and finds them empty, I don't believe the permanent loss will be met with an understanding shrug.

It goes against human nature. When people are asked to pay more for services -- in this case, by shelling out more and more, decade after decade, for postage stamps -- they generally don't accept it with a smile when what they get for their money is cut back.

So to think that the Postal Service will blithely make an announcement to the American people -- "We've been delivering your mail to you six days a week since the post office began, but from now on you won't be seeing us on Saturdays" -- and that the American people will respond with a friendly wave -- "We understand; you just enjoy your weekends, and we'll see you on Mondays" -- defies logic.

In a digital age, the U.S. mail is a throwback to a time when the only way to receive information was to have human beings -- paperboys, mail carriers -- bring it to you by hand. You're reading these words on a screen; chances are, whatever written communication you have with friends and family members in the next 24 hours will be via e-mail and text message, not by dropping an envelope into a mailbox.

The problems the Postal Service faces are real, and they're enormous. Postmaster General Potter says that getting rid of Saturday delivery would save more than $3 billion a year. My guess is that not only are they going to have to do away with Saturday mail -- the time is probably coming when delivery on other days of the week will disappear, too.

So the question is not whether the days of mail delivery will be curtailed. It's whether we will be happy about it.

Many people on various message boards said that the days of expecting anything delightful in the mail are long gone. Bills, catalogs, promotional fliers -- that's what the mail carrier usually brings, so who needs to deal with that on Saturdays?

An intriguing sidelight:

The one piece of mail that people referred to excitedly was the red envelope from Netflix -- the distinctive-looking envelope bearing DVDs of rented movies. The Netflix envelopes seem to have taken the emotional place of handwritten letters from grandma. If there does turn out to be an angry public backlash against the coming elimination of Saturday mail, Netflix may emerge as a key factor.

If enough people don't receive their Netflix envelopes on that first Saturday the mail doesn't arrive, and there is thus a hole in their Saturday nights -- well, President Obama might have to step in to cool the outrage, the same way President Dwight D. Eisenhower did in April of 1957, the only other time a permanent cessation of Saturday mail delivery was attempted. It lasted just one weekend. Americans wouldn't put up with it.

Things change. Telephone landlines are abandoned for cell phones; typewriters are tossed out in favor of computer keyboards. In doing the research for last Sunday's column about mail service, one of the sources I consulted was the February 12, 1951, issue of Time magazine. (Eisenhower, not yet president, was on the cover).

Sprinkled throughout the magazine were big, splashy advertisements extolling the glories of companies and products that no longer exist: Kaiser automobiles, Trans World Airlines, the Milwaukee Road passenger railroad, Moore-McCormack oceanliner cruises. We all turn the page, even when the page, increasingly, is not one we can touch with our hands.

Still, life will feel different if six-day delivery goes away. The Postal Service isn't a long-dead model of automobile, or a train company that has gone out of business. The Postal Service -- the post office, in the American vernacular -- is a unique part of the nation's life, one of the things that has made this vast country a true community.

Of course, there's always the chance that those results from last week's vote will be reversed. Those of you who voted did so online, which is how the balloting was conducted. Maybe there's a huge groundswell of people who believe that they will, indeed, miss the Saturday mail, and who have chosen to send in their votes on postcards.

I'm sure they'll be arriving any day now.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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