Tuesday, December 6

Hardships of the USPS

Hard times at the post office: facing default on a $5.5 billion Treasury loan, the USPS is planning to cut out its overnight delivery of First Class mail—so plan ahead—and lay off about 30,000 workers. Also, First Class stamps will rise one cent to 45¢ on January 22. Invest in your Forever stamps now, kids.

Me, I've got packs of the things because I strategically stashed them in very clever places I couldn't possibly forget. Once in a while I find another one. Of course, all First Class stamps are being generated as Forever stamps and now they're all interesting-looking, but I did this back when the only style was the Liberty Bell, so I've got packs and packs of these boring old stamps to share with Postcrossers around the world who are normally vociferous in their praise of more-interesting stamps.

But my plight is nothing compared to what the USPS is facing. They suffered net losses of $8.5 billion in FY10 and $3.8 billion in FY09. The reduction of six billion pieces of mail (increased competition with the Internet) between those two years represented a revenue loss of $1 billion. In an effort to save $3 billion in expenses this time, they're planning to close half of the nation's nearly 500 postal processing centers, which will lengthen the delivery time (and distance) of mail to be processed, kicking up the normal one-to-three-day delivery to three-to-five-day delivery for First Class mail.

When I used Netflix mail service, I could drop a DVD in the mail and see it checked in at the local office within 20 hours. I thought that was impressive. Similarly, I could write a friend in Madison, WI, and she'd let me know my letter arrived the very next day. I suppose this downgrade in postal services means it's settling back down into my original expectations, as opposed to remaining planted in the realm of pleasant surprise.

It's in the Constitution that we have a Post Office—"...one of the few government agencies explicitly authorized by the United States Constitution"—and I would rather have my tax dollars go to its support than so, so many other places they're allocated, yet the Post Office does not receive support from our taxes. I heard mention of a poll (but can't find its citation) that 85% of Americans said the Post Office was their favorite Federal department, but I suppose there's a wide difference between loving something and using it every day when advancing technology offers more convenient and immediate solutions.

Believe me, I've had impassioned arguments over what makes a book—the paper and ink or the story contained—when discussing traditional wood-pulp books versus e-readers. Being precious about tradition or habit doesn't serve anyone, and I say this even as I've converted to refillable fountain pens and shaving soap/brush. Getting rid of my physical book collection and stocking up on e-books was a great boon... until my Kindle screen broke for no reason other than being two-and-a-half years old, and Amazon's tech support only offered to sell me another one. So, to access my virtual library, I must always have some kind of electronic device, whether a tablet or my laptop, to access it, which in turn relies on the grid being in place for the rest of my life, and every few years I'll have to buy a new $70-250 tablet/e-reader since these manufacturers fully subscribe to planned obsolescence for their business model. That's a strong argument for books-on-the-shelf right there.

So there are advantages to advancing technology and to retaining the old-fashioned way, and there are detriments to each. What's best? There's no simple and uniform answer to that. In the meantime, I'll continue to use the USPS and send out my frivolous little postcards around the world, continue to write letters to people who don't write back, and rely on it for disseminating holiday cards. (You'd think the wedding stationery industry would rally some support for the USPS! Gods know that's where the money is.) Why? Because I like practicing my handwriting; because I know people like receiving mail that isn't junk; and because I enjoy the illusion of communication for what it is. Because it's a luxury and not a requirement, it's fun and not a chore.

But my contribution, buying stamps and sometimes padded mailers, is about as helpful to the system as my recycling catalogs and glass bottles is to the environment: better than nothing, but not to any appreciable degree.

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