Thursday, December 29, 2011

Going, Going, Almost Gone...Postal

"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" - famous Pony Express motto
I was a little troubled by the recent announcement(s) of more major curtailments of the US Postal Service [USPS], formerly known as the US Post Office - an idea originated by Benjamin Franklin.
TIME Magazine in particular has printed detailed reports - here & here - of the problems being faced by the current USPS.

But, like many ideas, this one has unfortunately suffered from an accretion of baggage that is no longer deliverable.

One of the first divisions of the US Government, the Post Office was often used for political patronage purposes, rewarding supporters of a series of Presidents with desirable paid positions.

Remind you of anything? Like maybe certain trouble over time?
For about a year, I worked for the US Post Office in my home town; back in the early 1960's, to help pay my way through college.
But, it wasn't easy getting that relatively desirable job, mainly because the practice of local patronage by the Postmaster to relatives, friends and cronies.
I ended up taking a competitive Civil Service exam and scored high enough that I was selected, although for a duty that had relentlessly brutal hours and no 'seniority'; a concept I learned about very quickly!

It seems the desirable jobs with regular hours were reserved for those having more time in service, and these folks weren't about to relinquish any of their special rights and privileges!
Can't say that I blame them for that, either, although some were quite slow in performing their jobs and carried an 'attitude' approximating lazy arrogance.

Remember that point, because it will return.

My job paid $2.16 an hour, which wasn't bad when the going wage for unskilled labor was about $1 per hour. I was glad to get that job and busted my butt doing it well and efficiently; although some longer time employees actually seemed to resent my industry!
Guess they had their own reasons for that, but it didn't make much sense to me at the time.

My 'routine' -if it could be called that- went something like this: up @ 3:30 AM to pick up parcel post sacks at the train station and deliver them to the Parcel Post Annex; At P.O. at about 7:00 AM to sort incoming mail into carrier routes, clerk stations and mail boxes, then to collect the 8:00 AM mail, cancel it and sort it into outgoing pigeon holes; At P.O. @ 12 Noon to collect outgoing mail, cancel it and sort it into outgoing pigeon holes; At P.O. @ 5:00 PM to collect outgoing mail, cancel it and sort it into outgoing pigeon holes; then, same cycle 6 days per week.
During the time I worked a new Post Office building went into service, so after learning the old layout, I then was the first to learn the new one.

While the pay was good, my social life was pretty minimal due to the erratic work schedule, plus I missed a lot of meals at home with my family; but -hey- it was good for me anyway.

Now, years later, my situation has changed, as has my perception of a personal -selfish- need for the Post Office.

I am no longer employed by a business that regularly depends upon mail service;
I pay most of my bills via online banking and/or credit cards;
I've grown accustomed to e-mail and the almost instantaneous delivery it provides;
I abhor junk mail and throw it away without reading it;
I sometimes use delivery options that suit me, even if they are often much more expensive;
I dislike going to a -often poorly located- Post Office and standing in line for the most trivial of reasons;
I dislike keeping track of postage costs, stamps, envelopes and labels;
I dislike vehicles blocking my mail box and preventing deliveries;
I worry about mail theft and fraud, damaged or lost mail and packages left at the door.

If you haven't guessed, I am increasingly concerned that the USPS, as presently constituted, is a prototype of an inherently unsustainable institution - one that has intentionally - or unintentionally - developed practices that are not particularly satisfying for many of the purposes for which it was created and subsequently modified.

It is unfortunate that a similar fate accompanies other institutions as well that are often also associated with 'government'.

How we love to criticize and complain about our government(s) at any level!
But, is it untrue that government does play a big role in the creation and administration of agencies like the Post Office that were created out of national need and popular demand?
After all, we, the public are the ones that create that demand and communicate our needs to our elected government officials.
Then, we sometimes change our minds.

Government is often put at a severe disadvantage in correcting such situations that are either basically flawed or have otherwise outgrown their useful charter over time.

Other governmental created organizations like the military have similar problems, like excessive costs and bureaucracy, that require corrective action from time to time.
But, 'national security' seems to have a stronger hand in attracting ever-increasing Pentagon budgets, and more importantly, scaring people into supporting often questionable 'wars'.

And, just think of all the jobs that are actually created by government in the military-industrial complex, the several military services themselves, ensuing foreign aid requirements and, of course, essential medical services!

But, back to the USPS problem and its several probable causes; what could these be?
• A steady accretion of union work rules, wage & benefit demands?

• Unforeseen advances in technology, particularly the Internet?

• Private competition from FedEx, UPS and other more expensive/profitable services that 'cherry-pick' priority & so-called 'rush' parcels? [Note, the sender determines 'priority']

• The proliferation of Post Offices in often remote and sparsely populated areas?

• The decision to handle huge volumes of largely unwanted 'junk' mail?

• The lack of Congressional 'backbone' to dare do anything that could be construed as unpopular?

• Incompetence in administration?

• Simple inertia?

• Aging and lack of motivation in the workforce?

• Institutional complacency due to having a near monopoly in mail delivery?

• All of the above in some proportion?

It does seem symptomatic of our times to require a major dislocation to achieve any significant change, doesn't it?
But, such changes are not as simple to undertake as they may seem, are they?

What would you do?

How would this help maintain a valuable service that has come to be taken for granted?

What impact would a major curtailment of USPS service entail, particularly to ordinary people without the means to afford paying its full costs, or traveling long distances for routine matters?
Would this be equitable, particularly to those in need?

Could some portion of the USPS be managed as part of a program of mandatory or voluntary National Service?

Could rank and file USPS employees be organized and administered similarly to the military, where seniority and advancement is largely earned by merit?

Who is likely to be the agent of change benefiting the USPS and its many subscribers?

Think about it, because change is definitely in the wind - and overdue.
And, it's not an option just to cancel the USPS, or to accept continuous increases in the costs of delivery.