Mail fascinates me. I have no idea why. (Then again, I have no idea why I am fascinated by 90% of the things which fascinate me.) It’s not that I like sending physical letters; I don’t. I have converted every bill I can to electronic payment. And it’s not that I get a lot of mail I like to receive. My Wall Street Journal is delivered by the USPS, but that is just an oddity. I get a few magazines once a month. Netflix red envelopes are nice. An occasional letter; very occasional. Yet, every day when I get home, I wander down to the mailbox to get the mail and somehow this doesn’t seem like a tedious chore.
These ruminations are prompted by Bradbury’s “The Great Wide World over There” all about an illiterate woman living in the middle of nowhere who is insanely excited and fascinated by getting mail. (Pretend there is a story surrounding that description—there isn’t, but it will make you feel better if you imagine there is a story.) The idea of getting mail is exciting too; actually getting mail is never exciting. Why the disconnect?
Now e-mail, I like. Quick, efficient, easy. I understand why I like e-mail.
All of which prompts me to wonder: how much of the National Tolerance with US Postal Service is pure nostalgia? Growing up in California, I was mesmerized by the idea that "Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail" would ever stop The Mailman. I believed that. Then reality came crashing down on me after I moved to New England and mail delivery was cancelled due to a blizzard. Apparently Eastern mailmen are not as reliable as California mailmen. Either that or the saying...just wasn't true.
But, as a business concern, the postal service is a mammoth joke. What kind of business promises to deliver letters to every single address six days a week for under 50 cents per letter? How does this make sense? Think about all the mail delivered on any given day. Now ask: if all of that mail had been delivered one day later, how much damage would be done? I can only remember once receiving a piece of mail which would have caused harm if I had not received it until the next day—we received our Visas for India the day before departing for India. Surely, there is time-sensitive business mail—but would anyone, anyone at all, send a time sensitive piece of mail through the US Postal Service? Next Day Mail. Cheap, guaranteed delivery the next day. Who wouldn’t use that for something which needed immediate delivery (besides the Indian Embassy, of course)?
Now if the Postal Service were to drop guaranteed delivery to every address from every day to every other day, that would be a rather dramatic cutting of costs—you would need only half the mailmen (does anyone call them mailmen anymore? I thought not.) A pretty obvious cost cutting measure, yet I have never seen it mentioned. Instead, they are talking about cutting Saturday delivery—and one would think not receiving mail on Saturday is a sign of the Apocalypse from the political outcry. The same goes for stamps—where did we get the idea that the price of mailing a letter should be below the cost of mailing a letter?
We treat the US Postal Service like a natural monopoly, and honestly, it probably is a natural monopoly. I think it is easy to make the case that the US Postal Service is also a Public Good. So, unlike the libertarian types, I am not fired up about abolishing the whole enterprise. Yet, even if I am right about the Public Good nature of the whole enterprise, I cannot see any reason for the size of the operation. Having the ability to send relatively cheap letters to anyone in the country is a good thing, but is there any reason that daily, instead of, say, weekly, delivery of mail is a public good? This is the sort of discussion we should be having, but strangely, we are not.
None of which explains why I like the idea of mail so much. I know my feelings are not universal—Janet hates the mail—she viscerally loathes going to the Post Office and she would never remember to go collect the mail every day. And my kids? I am not sure they even know how the mail system works. (They also don’t know lots of other things—Janet and I were watching Star Trek with Clara last night and there was this planet…well, the plot doesn’t matter (“Shore Leave” for the Trekkies)…an antenna played an important part in the story—it looked an old-style TV antenna. When it shows up, you react with an “Oh my!” Janet looked at Clara when it showed up and asked her if she knew what it was. No idea. Then Clara was incredulous that there used to be such things on the top of houses. Anyway, Clara’s knowledge of the mail is only marginally greater than her knowledge of TV antennas.) I suspect there are quite a few people under the age of 25 who literally have no idea how to send a letter through the US Postal Service.
So, 20 years from now, when DVDs are obsolete (so no more Netflix envelopes), when all magazines are read on your iPad, will daily physical mail delivery still exist? I doubt it. And then, this song, will make no sense to anyone.