Where 'Snail Mail' Beats the Electronic Alternatives

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USPSShorts.jpgFollowing this item yesterday, referring to three other pieces: from the Atlantic, Salon, and Think Progress.

1) I am sorry I had not seen before Jesse Lichenstein's "Do We Really Want To Live Without the Post Office," in Esquire. I've seen it now, and recommend that you read it too. It explains very eloquently what I was trying to say about the civic functions of a national postal system.

2) From a reader who says the sluggish old post office is indispensable to the operations of the high-speed modern economy:
I was amused to read the following in your latest post: "-- I hate the casual slurs against "snail mail," the assumption that its employees are all loafers [though some are], or the idea that blue-uniformed postal workers symbolize the sluggish Old Economy that a modern America is leaving behind."

Those of us who work in the "cloud" understand the utility of snail mail to solve the problem of transferring large amounts of data - amounts that would take days or weeks on a high speed network. Amazon Web Services has a data-transfer solution called the AWS Import/Export service. The following is from the description:
-- AWS Import/Export accelerates transferring large amounts of data between the AWS cloud and portable storage devices that you mail to us. AWS transfers data directly onto and off of your storage devices using Amazon's high-speed internal network. Your data load typically begins the next business day after your storage device arrives at AWS. After the data export or import completes, we return your storage device. For large data sets, AWS
Import/Export can be significantly faster than Internet transfer and more cost effective than upgrading your connectivity. Email is much faster than snail mail when you send a few bytes of data. But snail mail wins every day except Sunday (and soon Saturday) when you want to send Terabytes.
3) From a small-business person in the northeast:
I recall back in the days when the Republicans were torpedoing Hillary's healthcare proposal, the royal Texas gas bag Phil Gramm thought he'd scored real points when he announced his opposition government controlled health services by saying something to the effect of, "I'm not going to let you turn the greatest healthcare system in the world into the U.S. post office." My own reaction to this was that our healthcare system should be aspiring to match the service of the post office, which is universal, affordable and still makes house calls.

The small, nonprofit publisher I work for ships packages every day, larger ones by UPS and smaller ones via postal service. In dealing with two of our three major delivery services, I'd take the post office any day. Get the address wrong on a package sent UPS, and it is returned to you a week or two later, and you have to pay for the return shipment. Get it wrong with the post office, and nine times out of ten they find a way to deliver it anyway. And if they have to return it to you, there's no added fees. It's true that the post office doesn't always take the best care of your mail, but they are angels of mercy compared to how UPS handles the parcels in its care. We get regular deliveries via UPS, and the boxes often come split open. They're inevitably covered in a thick coating of dust. The drivers are under so much pressure to make their schedule they can hardly afford to be gentle, and I don't know what happens in their terminals, and I don't want to know. I'm not trying to lambaste UPS, just drawing a comparison with the post office, which is so unfairly maligned.
4) From a reader in the South:
My grandfather was the postmaster of [a small city in] Florida for a long time. So I appreciate the postal love.

Also worth noting, although might not be a can of worms you want to open, is that the postal service, like public education, long served as an economic pathway to the middle class for blacks.

The old refrain, as I understand it, for black advancement was "Pullman or postal." That's what what you could do as a black man in the pre-civil rights era. So, of course, we know where the "loafing" slurs come from.

In fact, I think you can draw many sociological parallels between the attacks on public education and on the postal service. A certain segment of the society has every personal and political incentive to harm and/or lie about the competence of both.

5) About the politics of the showdown:

I think it might be worth pointing out the other aspect that makes the Post Office's gambit an interesting study.  After attempts to shut down a day of service (I've read Wednesday or Saturday as the preferred days) has been rejected by Congress, along with other measures that would cut costs inflicted by the 2006 bill, the Post Office has taken the opposite tactic. They are acting and daring a dysfunctional, super-majoritarian Congress to act.  Congress can't just sit back and complain, which is something that it seems that Tea Partiers are best at. 

It'll be interesting to see if Congress can act, if Congress has to resort to the courts (which is an admission of dysfunction and its inability to act), or if they'll let this rebellion slide.  If the third, then that spells some trouble for independent government groups, such as the Fed, Fannie/Freddie (although they might, for good reason, be more reluctant), etc, who might feel empowered to rebel against non- or anti-sensical demands from Congress.

Boy, count me as on the edge of my seat for this, slow-moving drama it might be.

6) And, from someone who I think missed the emphasis of my earlier item but makes an interesting point:

Why no mention of the cap on the percentage that the USPS is allowed to raise the price of postage?  Heaven forfend it would suddenly cost $0.52  to send a letter the whole way from Maine to Hawaii or Alaska to Florida.  Or the foolishness of the unending expense of millions of gallons of gasoline required for home delivery to millions of acres of suburban subdivisions.  Or the perennial attacks from the Right to dismantle another large, unionized workforce.
 
But no it's none of these.  What you've chosen to highlight is the funding of pensions negotiated by contract and the rural post offices.  The key is to de-democratize the Post Office by recasting it as an urban institution, like the Post of a Virginia Woolf novel where a letter mailed in the morning arrives that afternoon, full of life-altering innuendo.   What craven nonsense.

I am getting on a plane at the moment. More to come shortly. (Also, the Atlas Shrugged guy is back ... )

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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