Monday, April 17, 2017

On "Neither Snow nor Rain" by Devin Leonard ****

This history of the U.S. Postal Service is entertaining and easy to read, through perhaps not the most thought provoking. There isn't a strong thesis, as one would see from most more scholarly works. Here, the point is simply to tell us how the postal system has changed over the years and give us some fine anecdotes along the way.

Leonard starts off with a preface that recounts the trips of various postal afficionados, guys with blogs who go traveling to all the various post offices around the United States. But they have to move quick, because those post offices are closing. Many were great architectural works.

And then, we're off, back in the days of colonial America, where the British post master in the colonies generally made money off commission (or really, a salary that only kicked in once one made a profit to pay it). But there were various advantages in terms of connections for one's business; for example, if you owned a printshop and printed newspapers, you could ship your newspaper using the service, and as postmaster, it cost you nill. Benjamin Franklin recognized this advantage and sought the commission for the service, eventually winning it. (Before that, he had bribed postal employees to take his newspaper, since not having the commission, he couldn't get the postal service to carry it.) He then used the commission to send his newspapers accordingly, but he also sent other's papers for a small fee. And he expanded where the service went and how fast it worked, making postal service profitable and then even more so. He and his partner made their salary and became quite well off--enough that Franklin left off actually monitoring the work himself and left it mostly to family members, while he lived in Britain (and then later, after the Revolution, in France).

Even so, sending materials via the post cost a good amount of money. Newspapers generally had a special pricing deal, but for the individual consumer, the cost was such that only the rich generally used the post or the well-connected (politicians generally could send things for free). This inspired various private companies to form, who would send mail for people--companies like Wells Fargo. The U.S. Postal Service stayed out of shipping parcels, which also gave such companies an opportunity. But the private companies could take the best routes, and thus kill off profitability for the postal service. Eventually, Congress passed a law that only the postal service could carry letters. But there were loopholes. For example, it didn't cover letters sent via boat or railroad, and so private companies continued to exploit such loopholes until they were closed. They also were the main bringers of mail to far-flung places like California. Companies like the Pony Express (which only operated for about eighteen months) managed to get mail to the far West much faster overland than the government could do so going around and overland through Panama using a company of ships.

The Postal Service in its early days usually worked by having mail delivered to post offices. People would come to the post office to collect their mail. And that's when one usually paid for the mail--it was collect. There were no stamps. Some took advantage of this by placing short notices on the outside of the letter (envelopes often were not used, because of the extra expense, since charges were by number of pages), much like in the days of pay phones, one might call someone for a ride but that person would not accept the collect call, knowing that the call itself was the signal to come pick the person up. But eventually, stamps were introduced, allowing people to pay for mail in advance. Pricing was made more competitive so that the common person could use the service. And rural routes were introduced, along with home delivery, resulting in fewer post offices. The postal service also began accepting packages, and in the early days, some folks even sent children (up to a certain size limit) through the mail (put the necessary postage on them, and off they go).

But change generally came slowly, and often slower than the postmaster general wished. Congress was often slow to take up new ideas that were being used overseas. The introduction of rural routes, for example, proved to be expensive (and caused losses), as some in the government had feared (because population density was not what it is in Britain, where such experiments were first used). Mail sorting on the railroad was also another innovation, and it sped service quite a bit.

A certain man named Comstock carried out a campaign against sending lewd materials through the postal service, and his work helped to keep various books out of general circulation until the 1930s or so.

Airmail had many fits and starts. In the early day, it was often done by the military, to give pilots something to do in non-warring times. But the military pilots often would not fly in inclement weather, and the postal service wanted to better guarantee service, so when allowed, it hired its own pilots. In some cases, it could speed up delivery by halving the time to send letters, but often weather and crashes interfered, and the service was often cancelled by Congress and then brought back and then cancelled and then put under the military again and so on. Eventually, however, it was farmed out to private carriers at the lowest bid; the proliferation of carriers, however, meant few made much in the way of profit, so one postmaster finally got Congress to lift the bidding requirement--instead, the postmaster chose four carriers to do all the work: the companies that became TWA, United, American, and Eastern airlines. This helped bring in passenger airlines as well. (As short return to military delivery in the 1930s proved a disaster, and the service entered private carrier usage again shortly thereafter.)

Stamp collecting came to be of a certain vogue under FDR, who was himself an avid collector. The post office began to issue commemorative stamps and other items for aficianados, and that generated a lot of profit for the postal service. I got the feeling that this was likely the golden age of the post office (when the postmaster even ran against FDR for the Democratic nomination in 1941). After FDR, the office began its descent. Continuing in the red, its buildings aging, its service reduced from twice a day to once a day (because of the decline in the railroad and the proliferation of phone service, even as the number of packages delivered rose), its techniques increasingly outdated (hand sorting, just as had been done in the time of Ben Franklin), the post office would not again have so much positive attention lauded on it.

That decline would reach a crisis point in the 1960s under postmaster O'Brien. So much junk mail would clog the system that there would be a backlog of mail that had become impossible to catch up on and offices too small to hold the backlog; Xmas packages would be delivered in February. The year 1963 saw the introduction of the zip code (first number for region, second for state, and the last three for post office sorting, the last one being the very closest post office). Optical recognition scanners could feed the numbers to computer if the numbers were typed (and 80 percent were, because that was the volume of business mail). The problem: the post office had only one scanner, in Detroit. Unable to raise rates or update technology because of Congressional unwillingness to spend money or raise more, O'Brien suggested turning the post office into a semiautonomous corporation, with a governing board; otherwise, Congress's micromanagement would make it continue to have billion-dollar deficits. AT&T's former CEO (AT&T was profiting about $2 billion per year with twice the volume of message) was brought in for consultation.

While that CEO would have preferred to have privatized the post office, what he ended up recommending was that the service become a federal corporation: it would have its own board, set its own rules, take in the money it needed to pay its own way, but remain part of the government. The plan would not go anywhere until Nixon's presidency, in part because of the opposition of postal worker unions. And just as the plan implementation was about to come into being, postal workers went on strike. They wanted higher wages--and in cities like New York, arguably needed them badly and aggressively. The head of one of the major unions had agreed to the postal organization plan in exchange for a 6 percent raise for workers, but that was not enough for a New York union. Other postal unions in other cities stood with those workers, and mail ground to a halt. This was the 1970s, so mail really was relied on, as it was when I was younger. Without it, paychecks could not be distributed, bills did not go out, payments to bills did not get made. Losses proliferated in the business community. It was sort of hard for me to imagine, to go back to those times, because in the past two decades so much has become electronic--bills and payments and paychecks all can and often are done electronically now. There are options to the mail; not so then.

The strike led to further concessions. Instead of a 6 percent raise, the postal service got a 14 percent raise--6 percent immediately and 8 percent upon implementation of the plan the unions were not keen on.

Meanwhile, private carriers such as FedEx, UPS, and DHL began to offer services. The founding of DHL was rather humorous. The letters stand for the initials of the three founders. They essentially started off by simply offering to deliver time-sensitive materials for people and companies. They literally went to an office, picked up the package, drove to the airport, got on a plane, and then went to where they were supposed to. That would be expensive, so truly these were time-sensitive items. But that became a business. FedEx, a story I'd heard before, began as a college paper that earned a D; the founder had an idea that he, after graduation, put into practice--again to deliver time-sensitive materials. After operating in the red for a few years, it turned a profit in 1978 or so and never looked back. The USPS wasn't happy about the competition and threatened lawsuits and other action, since it has a legal monopoly on carrying letters, but business lobbyists in Congress got USPS to stand down, since ExpressMail never has been quite as dependable as FedEx and some other carriers are.

Meanwhile, with the implementation of the postal corporation, the USPS finally started to turn a profit. Mechanicalization led to needed efficiencies. Bulk and junk mail began to take up more and more of its work. But working conditions were such that some began to feel frustrated and "go postal." Leonard traces two major reasons for this: One was that the postal service tended to hire a lot of army vets, and while they worked with vets with physical disabilities, they did not pay much attention to mental and emotional disabilities coming out of war. Another was that the culture of the postal service was such that once people worked up from regular employees to managers, previous treatment caused them to feel it was their turn to dish out meanness. But a third reason, heavily implied, was that the postal service was also seeing cutbacks--in employees and managers. No matter, the first issue was dealt with, and employees were also provided with a hotline to call to report threats, and after a decade of bad publicity with regard to employees shooting up one another, the problem dissipated.

Alas, the time of surpluses was a short one. The postal service attempted to adapt to the times. It created services such as one where people could send electronic messages to the post office, then have the post office print it out and send it as a hard copy. But these early attempts to deal with the coming electronic age were largely opposed by various lobbyists, who did not want the postal service interfering--or trying to claim a monopoly--in e-correspondence. And then, e-mail really did take off, and first-class mail began to nosedive, especially as bills and bill paying became increasingly fully electronic. The post office saw its mail drop to levels from two decades earlier. Other efforts to update or save money failed also. The post office wanted to cut Saturday service--Congress prevented it (because of the postal workers lobby), even though 70 percent of Americans thought the plan a smart one. Certain rural delivery was to be scratched, but that too was interfered with, though many post offices have been closed. That said, not as many post offices have been closed as would likely have made for more efficiencies. There was a plan, for example, to place postal service kiosks in Sears stores (replacing full-fledged office), but again, lobbyists prevented it from happening.

While the post office bleeds red, its one saving grace during the Internet revolution has been package delivery. Amazon relies on USPS more than on UPS or FedEx. But that is a dubious deal, as Leonard denotes, since Amazon could at any moment pull its support--especially once it forges more efficient means to deliver goods (most likely via its own package delivery service). Such is a quandary I know well. Publishers too find Amazon to be a dubious ally. It sells more books than most other outlets--pays its bills, doesn't return much, makes virtually any book available for purchase to end users--but by controlling so much of the market, it can also more easily dictate terms.

In this sense, the book ends on a sad note. One finds that the postal service has been a great boon to the nation but that in some ways it is aging badly. Attempts to modernize are being interfered with by the government itself. This is where those who argue that private firms do better work win. The postal service could do more to get into the black, but the government and the lobbyists who influence lawmakers won't allow it to do so and then complain when the postal service bleeds red. At the same time, there are reasons the postal service is better as a government entity--most especially because it is the only way some rural clientele are served. The market simply wouldn't provide for such customers. One wishes there were ways to strike a better balance.

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