Our mail slot is in our garage. I recently had it moved so that its only about three feet from our garbage/recycling bins. It’s quite efficient that way, since fully 90% of what we receive goes directly out (usually unopened) and much of the rest contains extra packaging or extraneous material (official disclaimers and notices, etc.).
As I was working on last week’s posting on Fragility and Sclerosis, it struck me that the U.S. Mail was as fine an example as we are likely to find of a deeply embedded institution that is unable to/not allowed to change. This applies to both the US Postal Service as well as the general process of using dead trees and lots of labor to move information from one place to another.
I cannot speak based on any sort of scientific survey of residential communications/information patterns, but in one reasonably tech-savvy, economically well-off household, using the US mail is pretty much of a waste of time and money. Almost all our bills are sent electronically and paid directly from the bank. Financial statements, ditto. We get a smattering of catalogs (cringe) and the bulk of the mail is bulk mail. A bit over half consists of requests for donations, about 20% (seasonally-adjusted) is from various political organizations (again seeking money), and there is some straight commercial mail including real estate agents and stores which we went to twice about a dozen years ago. Occasionally, there is something worth looking at from the government or some investment deal. Magazines and newspapers are mostly on-line. Once in a blue moon, there is an actual piece of correspondence from another human being!
From whatever source, much of the mail is driven by mailing lists that are, to put it mildly, uncurated. We still get mail for the woman who lived here before we bought the house (1994). When my dad died a few years ago, we forwarded his mail to our house here and he is a regular recipient of charitable and political requests. I am offended both in my general sense of order and efficiency and especially in environmental terms. There is part of me that would like to cut all these off, but I can’t build up the resolve to spend 10-15 minutes chasing down the right spot (website or customer service agent) to terminate the flow from each of these.
I have a particular problem with the mass mail from groups (either charitable or political) whose goals I support. It’s a rare month we don’t get a dozen fancy brochures addressed to members of the “Leadership Council” or some-such. I like these groups. I support their cause. I just wish they wouldn’t waste my donated money in this way. The environmental groups particularly should know better. They could probably boost their support by making “You’ll get 50% less mail” as a benefit of donations at a higher level. (By the same token, I am delighted that the various Republican groups my dad supported are still throwing their money after him!)
The whole thing reminds me of King Canute.
At the macro, USPS, level, the continuation of daily residential mail delivery shows the power of the relevant labor unions and the inability of Congress to get out of the way of rational economies. Package delivery or express services excepted, I can’t think of anything we get that couldn’t wait a few days for delivery. Once a week would probably do it. And even if we try to gradually lower the workload so that no USPS worker gets fired, we could easily start with dividing up the current residential routes into a MWF delivery group and a TTS delivery group.
Historically speaking, there is much to be said for the role of the postal service in weaving the country together. From the days of Benj. Franklin as the (pre-independence) Postmaster General to the Pony Express, the mail is the stuff of national myth. There’s even a (not bad) sci-fi novel by David Brin in which a postman helps the restoration of a post-apocalyptic USA (made into a bad movie starring Kevin Costner).
Overall, it’s a large national service run by the government; reasonably effective considering the constraints under which it operates. That’s enough for some notoriety on its own. Even in this electronic and ‘Amazoned’ age, it’s hard to see the USPS withering away entirely; but some change would be good, for both the organization and major users alike. It is thus a fine example of the sclerosis of the modern age: too tangled up by political management, captured by unions on one side and boxed in by private competitors’ lobbying efforts on the other, and therefore unable to recast itself in light of changing demographics and technologies. If GM is ready to ditch the internal combustion engine, then we can see that substantial change is possible, if only Congress can get out of the way. Perhaps we could even start with ending discount rates for bulk mail.
Perhaps the romance of the slogan (“Neither rain, nor hail, nor sleet…”) and the mythology of the role of paper in national formation will prevail, despite the mounting costs (eventually to be borne by taxpayers). More likely, inertia will triumph. Unlike other fields of government inaction, this will not cause the end of the world; but it would make living a little simpler.