Saturday, February 25, 2012

My Troubles with the U. S. Postal Service

The troubles of the U. S. Postal Service have been in the news over the past year. Unfortunately, its financial situation continues to deteriorate with no conceivable path to solvency in sight. This saddens me because I have always liked the business of the post office—the delivery of actual words on paper—typed, printed or written by hand—to any person in the United States. But, modern technology has rendered much of what the Postal Service does obsolete, and in performing the tasks for which it still has a purpose it functions badly. In fact, “self-destructive” might be a better description of its methodology.

To be fair, the Postal Service is in a position that is by definition untenable. It is suppose to function as a private company without the need for government subsidies. In principle, that would require it to keep its expenses in balance with its revenues. Of course any private corporation with falling revenues would be forced to slash expenses or face bankruptcy. The Postal Service cannot undertake either action without Congressional approval. It cannot cut services without Congress intervening at the behest of constituents who continue to demand every service that they have been accustomed to in the past. Nor can the Postal Service simply cease to exist, as is the case with most insolvent corporations.

But what does the Postal Service do today? Currently, I receive three types of mail:

• Junk Mail: The economics of the modern junk mail phenomena perplex me. It must cost a great deal of money to produce, print, and ship the myriad catalogs, circulars, and direct mail solicitations that go directly from my mailbox to the recycling bin. I have found that if I make a single purchase from a vendor, no matter how small, I will receive mail for years to come, even if I never buy another thing. How can they make money from that practice? Even I want to buy again, I have found that a Google search is faster than getting up from my desk and searching for a printed catalog. Therefore, there is no reason to keep a printed catalog, which I use to do in the past. When will the advertisers catch on to the amount of waste involved with junk mail?

• Invoices: Companies plead with me not to have paper invoices sent. Most vendors prefer that I receive statements via email and pay the bill with an electronic check. Evidently billing departments are more conscious of the cost of paper than marketing departments. However, I still receive and pay most of my bills the old-fashioned way, with paper statements, checks, and first-class stamps. I do this so that my wife can see how our money is being spent and a private email account would hide that information from her. I have heard of couples opening up an email account with a shared password just for the purpose of receiving and paying bills. That is not a bad practice to consider.

• Periodicals: I still like to read printed magazines. Subscriptions have become incredibly cheap as publishers struggle to attract eyeballs just so that they can charge for advertising. I think publishers have given up getting readers to pay for the actual cost to produce and mail magazines. I might be old fashioned in regards to periodicals because the paper format is probably on the way out.

But, it’s only in this last category of mail—periodicals—that I find enjoyable to receive. However when it comes to the delivery of periodicals the Postal System is at its worse. I speak both as a receiver and sender of periodical mail. I routinely receive weekly magazines two to four weeks late. I’m certain that it is not because of the publisher.

I also work for a publisher—The Correspondence Chess League of America (CCLA)—editing and mailing a periodical—The Chess Correspondent. That job requires me to navigate the byzantine practices of the Postal Service’s system for Periodical Mail.

The price for mailing a periodical is computed using a multi-part, multi-page form 3541, laden with cryptic jargon and acronyms, which is so complex that no one at my local postal office understands it. When I walk into the post office, I am not a customer that the postal clerks want to see. My arrival means that one of the clerks will have to take money from me in payment for a service that they are unsure of how to price. In the bureaucratic, CYA (cover your ass), mentality of employees of the Postal Service, it is better not to have customers than risk being held responsible for messing up completion of a form.

The clerks all complain that they have not been “properly trained” in filling out the periodical mailing form. You would think learning the form would be a routine part of the job. However, the training for periodical mail involves spending a week at a special school in Oklahoma. As a result it is not uncommon for the clerks to procrastinate on processing my periodical mailings.

In mid-December, I mailed an issue of The Chess Correspondent that vanished for nearly four weeks. It showed up in no one’s mailbox, including my own mailbox just 3 miles away. (I always send a copy to myself to make sure they process my mailing.) Only after I returned, spoke directly to the postmaster, and asked for my money back, did issues start being delivered.

I find it ironic, that my post office would rather not process my periodical, which is about playing chess using the mail, a practice that appears to be about as old as the game itself. While much of modern correspondence chess has migrated to the Internet, there are still many correspondence players who continue to send their moves on postcards through the mail system. Many players enjoy receiving hand written postcards from distant opponents, and believe or not, prefer the slower pace of a correspondence game played in the manner that it was for centuries before the Internet— using regular mail.

Companies in trouble should be happy to see paying customers. Even better, I am a customer with a publication that promotes the use of the U. S. Postal Service. Instead the postmaster told me when I complained that forced cutbacks have decreased the resources that he can allocate for periodical mail service.

In the mean time I’m encouraging more of my readership to subscribe electronically. Like most periodicals, we publish dated material that needs to be read by a certain deadline. Given the delivery problems, it would be cheaper and easier for our organization to not have to deal with the Postal Service. For a discount on membership fees, The Chess Correspondent can be delivered in PDF format via email. Transit times are measured in seconds, not weeks. Better still, if you lose it I can easily send you another one. That is something I can’t do for the many members still waiting for their paper copy, nearly three months later.

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