- Henry David Thoreau
The written word - you know, the actual written word - has become somewhat of a lost art. This time of year we tend to get a lot of holiday greetings by postal mail, and the anticipation of opening each letter returns, if ever so briefly.
We have friends that I shamefully say our only contact each passing year is the exchange of holiday cards. Some are sent out of obligation for some friends whose time has perhaps come and some are from the guilt for not doing more to stay in touch. And some are the beautiful punctuation of another year's worth of friendship, cooperation and love between people near and far.
And so with all due respect to Mr. Thoreau, we are proud to receive our fair share - and perhaps more than our fair share - of postage paid greetings each year.
Let's take a unique, opinionated (duh) and informative journey back to how it all happened shall we?
The US Postal service was born in 1775 under the decree of Mrs. Silence Dogood, er I mean Ben Franklin. Since then, they have ballooned into the 3rd largest employer in the United States (behind Wal-Mart and the Federal Government).
They employ the all of the females that live in Sacramento County California. Okay, not really, but they do employee about the equivalent: 685,000 folks. That's a bunch of knee-high blue postal socks.
The post office consumes over 120 million gallons of fuel per year in their nearly 220,000 vehicles that they operate. I bet they are a huge customer of those little Christmas tree shaped air fresheners too.
If the Postal Service were a private company, with their $75 Billion annual operating revenue, they would rank in the top 25 of the Fortune 500. Yep, at .42 cents at a time too...since they don't rely on tax dollars for their funding; only sales from postage, shipping boxes and collectible Elvis stamps.
They deliver more than 700 Million bills a day, er, I mean bills, letters, packages and cards per day. The Postal Service are the de facto experts in "pushing paper", literally and figuratively.
When was the last time you spent 10 minutes in a post office? Waiting in a featureless line to conduct a piece of postal business with a grumpy clerk at a featureless counter. I mean really, would it kill them to pump in some music? I feel like going postal just at the sheer inefficient grind of their antiquated customer service process.
One area they are most in excellent in though is their law enforcement division, or Postal Inspectors. They are some of the most creative, effective and eager cops I've ever had the pleasure to work with. And it was one of them in 1963 that created the idea for the ZIP code to ease the complexity of routing mail. For those keeping track, ZIP is actually an acronym that stands for "Zoning Improvement Plan". Don't you feel better now?
Ah, but I digress....
Another often under appreciated factoid of the postal service is their presence in our neighborhoods and their impact on our society. During the commission of delivering those 700 million mail pieces a day, they also, on average, save at least one person's life, at least one person's home ... or both. Every day. If you have ever lived near an retired person with a retired state-of-mind, then you also know that the mail's arrival via the postal carrier can be the highlight of their day.
This holiday season, the postal service is handling about 1 Billion less pieces of mail than typical holiday shipping seasons of 20 Billion pieces. Of course, they blame the economy. No, not their economy, but the world economy.
You see, like so many company's in this climate, they seek to blame their own inefficiencies, strategic missteps and failing sales on the big, burly, nebulous "world economy". Hey, why not? Everyone else is!
What will get missed of course in any public dialogue is the reality of the US Postal Service's own economic realities. Because of their unique position as a government sanctioned monopoly in what they do (called the PES, or Private Express Statutes that prevents others from competing at delivery mail and prohibits access to our mailboxes by other companies), they are permitted to continually raise postal rates to absorb the losses incurred from - among other things - our exodus to other more efficient forms of communication. (Holiday cards notwithstanding of course.)
Sure we send Holiday Cards by mail, and hopefully Thank You cards by mail too. But bill pay? Correspondence? Fuggetaboutit. We forward thinkers embrace the currently available technology and use email and the Internet and more customer-centric services like United Parcel Service (UPS), right? So is it fair that we also get penalized by paying more for a service that is falling further and further behind the times? How would like to pay a premium price for a Beta video tape? A cell phone without a camera or Internet? A desktop computer? Jeez.
Because of their monopolistic status, the US Postal Service is guided by what is called the Universal Service Obligation, or USO. Essentially, the USO is a broad document that serves as the government's tool to tell the post office what is required in exchange for protected, government agency status. It is therefore also the document that would dictate their change of direction to serve their government and their public differently, such as pursuing other funding mechanisms, restructuring their workforce or privatizing more of their operation.
Under increasing pressure from government leaders, economists and the public, the Postal Service has attempted to defend itself and the trillion dollar mailing industry.
The Postal Service said that the USO should continue to be broadly defined and there should be no changes to the postal monopoly.
But change they must and change they will. In December 2008, the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) is expected to submit, under order of the Postal Act of 2006, their suggested list of changes to how the Postal Service operates.
In what can be seen as perhaps a preemptive move on their part, the Postal Service has also announced the first ever layoff of it's workforce: up to 40,000 people starting in 2009. Hmmm.
They are called changing times for a reason I suppose.
Better get those Holiday Cards and Thank You cards in the mail!
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