It seems like every day now, a new Web poll asks readers whether they think the US Postal Service can survive, now that the magnitude of its financial hole is becoming more obvious to everybody. Everywhere, the signs of the post office’s demise are evident. But the slide has been going on for years: the old crusty guys working their beat at a stately pace in town here, the high rates for shipping, the poor (and expensive) tracking, and now the cutbacks in service.
A lot of people blame the unions, with their generous pensions and benefits. In truth, these guys don’t seem overly anxious to please, as they give you the fish-eye stare while you’re buying stamps, each gesture as measured as a bartender’s in a dusty Western ranch town. I’ve witnessed arguments among personnel behind the counter while a half dozen people, resigned to their fate, wait patiently in line.
Nonetheless, I will miss the post office when it’s gone. Whatever replaces it — and it’s likely to be a variety of things — will surely be more efficient. But somehow, the incipient breakup of the bedrock bond between citizen and postal service makes me a bit sad.
To indulge in the inventory of memories here for a bit, I recall when people wrote letters. Like many people, I still have most of mine — love letters from girls I once knew; the imposing, outsized brown stationary my father used for a few years when I was a teenager away at school; a record of steady solid notes from grandma, who always sent money with them; missives from crazy pals out roaming the world — but they trail off in the late 1990s and stop abruptly in the mid 2000s, victim to my leading-edge adoption of electronic communications.
Now, full disclosure here, my grandmother once suggested that I join the post office. Well before I managed to publish anything, I told her I wanted to be a writer. She was quite practical in her analysis. Writers don’t get paid much, at least most of them. So, get a day job that’s not too mentally challenging, and write in the morning before you go off to do your sorting, delivering, or what have you. As a daughter of early Marxists, she saw nothing wrong with a soft government job for those lacking in ambition or otherwise focused.
But a practical view of the situation requires traffic analysis. What is it, exactly that we get in our mailboxes?
Well, first and foremost, it’s a way for the government and legal establishment to get a hold of you, a so-called “fixed address,” an infrastructure requirement of modern civilization. When that jury summons, subpoena, tax document, or divorce paper is looking for someplace to go, that someplace is your mailbox.
Except when it isn’t. Some of these documents are so sensitive that they have to be delivered by hand. A policemen may have to serve a warrant for someone’s arrest personally. Certification of delivery is required in certain legal actions. And subpoenas sent to reluctant witnesses may have to be conveyed directly.
It just so happens that the major package delivery services, UPS and FedEx, do that all the time every day: deliver things to people at their door personally. It would take some institutional alternations, but these drivers could be empowered to deliver legal documents. There remains a sticky issue about just how reluctant certain recipients might be, but some jobs could be left to the police, if the bulk were done through the services. Call it a sweet government contract, it would still probably cost less than the post office, with all its pension obligations and other fixed costs.
And you should see these delivery folks rock on their rounds. Unlike the post office truck, which I often see parked by the river during the mandatory one-hour lunch break, the UPS driver is literally trying to run me down if I’m merely hitting the speed limit on a local road. They are all about getting to their next location, product of the difference in incentive systems.
Okay, so what about the love letters? Not much an issue for me, long-time married guy that I am, but those personal missives that used to cause such longing, what happens to them? People are still writing on those thin, blue aerogrammes that have been around forever, but that’s mostly back to Ouagadougou. Here in the connected world, all that love is going through Facebook — or at least email —these days.
Which brings us to email. To what degree could the electronic form of mail replace the paper one? My guess is about 100%. Even most of those legal documents could go by email.
Now, it’s true, both my lawyer and my accountant still want paper. The thing about a paper document is that it came into existence at a particular time. A stack of paper catalogs a history. Arguably, archived email, handled the right way, could perform the same function, essentially, a certification that a document was created at a certain time and has not been altered. But the Internet in general is a great place for history to get rewritten. Take the updating of Wikipedia, or the mere fact that any arbitrary string of bits can be written, copied, and rewritten with full fidelity. Electronic certification workarounds notwithstanding, the surety of a paper record is comforting. Still, even paper documents get forged.
So, what else comes in the ol’ physical box?
Paper spam? No need to preserve this institution, although I do feel once in a while — when separating the sheets appropriate for fire starter from the heavily recycled and glossy stock — for the poor salesman who has to call on the actual local supermarket each week to get the specials for the Friday circular. Yelp, foursquare, and AmazonLocal are all trying to reach the local advertising market, and could over time fill this gap.
Acceptances to college? Email would do. It’s probably fair to say that 99% of college applicants already have email addresses that they check every day during the season.
Invitations to events? OpenTable and similar services, if not an email from the hosting party, could easily take care of that.
Grandma’s notes? A videoconference is so much better than letters in this case. Kids are reluctant to write back to that smelly old person who keeps pestering them. Old folks sometimes have difficulty seeing, much less holding a pencil and writing, let alone walking to the mailbox or the post office itself. But a videoconference gives everyone, including the parents, an opportunity to chat for a bit, see non-verbal cues, and visit for a while. A great improvement.
Still the mailbox can provide an excuse for the housebound to get outside at least once a day, unless that person lives in Manhattan, and then it’s not much of an outing. Best just take a walk for its own sake.
Birthday cards? A plethora of online services offer animated gizmos, these days with the sender’s voice, photos, and even video, all much faster than mail, a boon in particular to those inclined to forget these obligations until the last second.
Bill payment? Set the $0.44 cost of a first class letter — and the potential of late payment — against online banking, which is cheap, reasonably safe, and secure these days, and it’s hard to see why anyone would clutch onto the former.
Still, paying bills by hand has its charms. Writing out physical checks keeps the hand muscle memory active. Who knows when you might need to actually write something? Like in cursive. You might want to stay in shape. And avoiding the electronic banking system does reduce one’s attack profile, something all Internet users should be thinking about. But many individuals and businesses already use bill payment services provided by many merchants and financial institutions such as Wells Fargo, Chase, Bank of America, and others.
Signing documents, contracts, and agreements? Services such as DocuSign have already processed hundreds of millions of electronic signatures, and DocuSign’s Ink service, an easy-to-use, free, cloud-based version of its base offering, extends to anyone the ability to sign (with a legally binding signature) and return any document via email.
In home movies? Netflix, Hulu Plus, and others deliver electronically the most recent movies and television shows for a monthly fee. One can argue that Reed Hastings, the most hated CEO of the year, planned to deep six physical DVDs all along.
So, summing it up after a nice wander down memory lane, I think we could do without the post office.
In some cases, high cost services will have to replace certain elements, but in the vast majority of instances, less expensive — and often better — alternatives will replace their current mail-friendly equivalents. I predict that the shift will be a net benefit to the overall system, despite the loss of jobs for more than a half million postal workers. I hope they don’t “go postal” on me for saying so.
Disclosure: Endpoint has a consulting relationship with DocuSign.
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