The Lost Genius of the Post Office
June 13, 2017 2:18 PM   Subscribe

When Americans think about the most innovative agency in the government, they think about the Pentagon or NASA. But throughout much of its history, that title could just as easily have fallen to the Post Office, which was a hotbed of new, interesting, sometimes crazy ideas as it sought to accomplish a seemingly simple task: deliver mail quickly and cheaply. The Post Office experimented with everything from stagecoaches to airplanes—even pondered sending mail cross-country on a missile. For decades, the agency integrated new technologies and adapted to changing environments, underpinning its ability to deliver billions of pieces of mail every year, from the beaches of Miami to the banks of Alaska, for just cents per letter.

We think a lot about how innovation arises, but not enough about how it gets quashed. And the USPS is a great example of both. Today, what was once a locus of innovation has become a tired example of bureaucratic inertia and government mismanagement. The agency always faced an uphill battle, with frequent political interference from Congress, and the ubiquity of the internet has changed how Americans communicate in unforeseeable ways. But its descent into its current state was not foretold. A series of misguided rules and laws have clipped the Post Office’s wings, turning one of the great inventors of the government into yet another clunky bureaucracy. As a new administration once again takes up the cause of “reinventing government,” it’s worth considering what made the Post Office one of the most inventive parts of the nation’s infrastructure—and what factors have dragged it down.
posted by kevinbelt (47 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's not government mismanagement that's hurting the PO. It's Congress. They passed legislation saying the PO had to fund its pension for 75 years of future retirees in ten years. This has sucked $5B a year from the PO.

Basically, Congress passed laws specifically to hurt the Post Office so republicans could say that the PO, and thus all government programs, can't work.
posted by notsnot at 2:29 PM on June 13 [65 favorites]


Well, it's been all downhill since they stopped accepting children as parcels in 1920.
posted by Grumpy old geek at 2:34 PM on June 13 [14 favorites]


I used to love the post office. Now I yell at anyone who sends me anything that is not a letter through the USPS, because there is something north of a 50% chance that I won't get it. And don't get me started on SurePost! It is really sad.
posted by grumpybear69 at 2:35 PM on June 13 [1 favorite]


Dude sure hates postal unions.
posted by andorphin at 2:39 PM on June 13 [3 favorites]


The Post Office should be building the optical fiber grid, not Google. Some things are obviously best done by technocrats.
posted by Bee'sWing at 2:44 PM on June 13 [15 favorites]


The Post Office should be building the optical fiber grid

The last mile? It seems almost sensible to make sure monopolies can't just gouge the citizens extract rent from those who can't go elsewhere for services.

But that's just not the American way.
posted by Talez at 2:46 PM on June 13 [5 favorites]


Roughly:

1. The Post Office tested mail delivery using cruise missiles.
2. Mail is not delivered with cruise missiles.

∴ Governments cannot efficiently provide services.
posted by ethansr at 2:57 PM on June 13 [11 favorites]


Don't forget the Alameda-Weehawken Burrito Tunnel (previously).
posted by pullayup at 3:24 PM on June 13 [7 favorites]


from the beaches of Miami to the banks of Alaska, for just cents per letter.
I remember a co-worker of mine making fun of people complaining about the cost of postage going up.
He said something like 'All I want is for someone to come to my house, pick up a letter, take it across the country, take it to my friend's house and put it in their mailbox.
And they want to charge me 43¢! Ridiculous!'
posted by MtDewd at 3:51 PM on June 13 [38 favorites]


One of my favorite Charlie Pierce essays:

The Post Office Is Not an Other. The Post Office Is Us.
There is a reason why we used to build buildings the way we built the post office in Geneva, with its mural and its marble, and its great arching windows and its Doric entablature. It wasn't because we were profligate. It was because we considered self-government, for all its faults, to be something precious that belonged to all of us, and that it should be housed in places that looked as though we valued it enough to celebrate it and protect it at the same time. They were monuments we raised to ourselves, because we deserved them.
posted by Rhaomi at 5:04 PM on June 13 [33 favorites]


I was surprised to learn that air mail was such a driving force in the development and use of airplanes.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 6:03 PM on June 13 [2 favorites]


...because there is something north of a 50% chance that I won't get it.

I have heard complaints like this before, but it's so very far from my experience that I have to wonder why the P.O. in my area is so magical.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:25 PM on June 13 [10 favorites]


Yeah, wow, the problem isn't lack of innovation by the USPS (who basically solved OCR within the last 20 years), but refusal by Congress to let them expand beyond their current physical mail delivery (retail banking and internet service would be logical extensions) and Congress's insistence on hobbling USPS financially.

This piece also leaves out the massive leaps in USPS technology and service spurred by the Civil War, when the Post Office created money orders, universal stamp costs, started using train cars for mail transit, and massively sped up delivery speed and improved logistics, to get mail to the soldiers at the front to keep morale up. The improvements in postal logistics spurred improvements in military logistics, and vice versa, especially w/r/t the use of trains to move men and material ... and mail.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:34 PM on June 13 [15 favorites]


I loved hearing stories before of people consistently mailing something in the morning and it being delivered towns over that afternoon. The Post Office used to be the definition of reliability. I think it's sad what we've done to a great institution.
posted by greermahoney at 6:41 PM on June 13 [3 favorites]


Part of the rationale for developing a national post office was to facilitate the dissemination of news, as it was thought that a well-informed populous would better resist corruption and tyranny within the government.

*bitter laughter devolving into quiet weeping*
posted by dephlogisticated at 6:43 PM on June 13 [13 favorites]


"The Post Office used to be the definition of reliability. I think it's sad what we've done to a great institution."

"I have heard complaints like this before, but it's so very far from my experience that I have to wonder why the P.O. in my area is so magical."

The Post Office is still pretty amazing. It may not be as amazing as it once was (and it's absolutely true that it's Congress's fault, not some inherent inefficiency), but I'm not giving up on them yet. There's the old joke that if you think socialism is a good idea, imagine a world run by the Post Office. If that's the case, then maybe I'm a socialist. USPS does its job pretty damn well. I'd prefer a world run by the Post Office to one run by Walmart, that's for sure.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:09 PM on June 13 [17 favorites]


I've been impressed by the USPS since 1992. I was getting ready to leave for a year abroad, and I checked my passport to make sure it wasn't going to need renewal before I planned to return. Turned out it was expiring not in 13 months (as I thought) but 1. So I went to the main Post Office downtown and filled out the renewal paperwork, and I checked the box that requested expedited service. I think expedited service cost an extra $20, so I paid the higher renewal fee and noted my departure date on the form. That was Monday.

That Saturday night, I was watching SNL when the phone rang. It was the Post Office. They had a Special Delivery from the State Department and wanted to make sure someone was there to receive it. I told them it could wait. In fact I had to insist that it could wait. So Sunday afternoon a USPS van pulled up in our driveway, and the letter carrier (who I'm pretty sure was the same guy who'd called the night before) said Special Delivery doesn't wait.

Bonus International Edition of Post Offices are Awesome: a friend moved to Ireland for work and rented a house, but in the process he wasn't ever told its address. So he went to the post office to ask what his address was. They asked him what house, then they asked him his name, and they said "you'll get your mail." He did. I'm pretty sure his mailing address was just his name, the name of the town, and the county.
posted by fedward at 7:29 PM on June 13 [8 favorites]


My experience of the USPS vis a vis the Royal Mail is that a parcel such as a book or some miniatures coming to Australia will be a couple of dollars from the UK, versus upwards of $50 from the USA. I basically never buy anything via Amazon or ebay from the USA due to extortionate costs.
posted by wilful at 7:39 PM on June 13




...retail banking and internet service would be logical extensions

Please explain, cause it doesn't logical at all to me.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:12 PM on June 13


I have heard complaints like this before, but it's so very far from my experience that I have to wonder why the P.O. in my area is so magical.

I've bought and sold countless eBay auctions around the world and never had a lost or substantially late package. I think they do an amazing job, especially considering the volume they deal with. When I go to the post office I always tell them they're doing a great job.

from SaveThePostOffice

They have our historic old main post office, sold to a production company. Also, nearly all mail boxes have been removed from the downtown area streets. It's infuriating.

Basically, Congress passed laws specifically to hurt the Post Office so republicans could say that the PO, and thus all government programs, can't work.

They hate the post office. It's infuriating.
posted by Room 641-A at 8:36 PM on June 13 [4 favorites]


Please explain, cause it doesn't logical at all to me.

For banking, the logic is that they have a large number of branches (offices) already in place, and they already offer services like money orders. Doesn't seem like much of a stretch at all to me.
posted by jimw at 8:41 PM on June 13 [2 favorites]


...retail banking and internet service would be logical extensions

They used to do retail banking, apparently.

Please explain, cause it doesn't logical at all to me.

It's not uncommon for national postal systems to do retail banking. Also, I think the post office's traditional position as a long-distance communications provider could be reasonably extended to having some role with newer technologies. Though all the late-90s jokes about the post office charging 25¢ to send an email probably killed that idea forever.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 10:16 PM on June 13 [1 favorite]


I have mailed around one thousand packages a year for the past eight years, and the USPS has lost a grand total of THREE of them, and I believe that one of those three actually was a lady lying about not getting it. The USPS, like public libraries, is one of the great foundations of our democracy. It serves us all, and mail is delivered to the hinterlands and the inner cities alike. When Congress finally gets around to making it impossible for the USPS to function through stupid requirements, as mentioned above, and privatizes it because it "isn't working,"
we will be much impoverished. When it becomes for-profit, who will suffer the most, as always? The rural, the elderly, the poor. I adore the United States Postal Service, and I will hear nothing said against it in my presence. I mourn it already, and expect that when it is gone, so too will be my beloved small business, which depends on the USPS to function at all.
posted by thebrokedown at 10:54 PM on June 13 [26 favorites]


Some background on the USPS pensions controversy, for those who are not familiar. (CNBC seems to be about the most neutral source I can find on the topic.)

Basically, there was a — not invalid, but perhaps overinflated — concern about the USPS potentially building up an unfunded pension liability that the US Government would end up footing the bill for, if the USPS for some reason ceased to be able to pay the bills. I don't think this deserves to be totally poo-poohed; there is certainly some valid public interest in the creation of long-term obligations that could fall onto the public if a Federal department's independent revenue doesn't suffice. (It's not as though those pension obligations would simply go away if postal volume fell in the future.) And so in the 90s, amidst questions of whether email would destroy the viability of the traditional mail system—and, admittedly, with no effort made to broaden the Post Office's scope—the USPS was made to fund its pension obligations upfront rather than relying on PAYGO with an implied USG backing for its obligations.

We can argue about the wisdom of this, and certainly it's worth considering that the DoD, by contrast, is not required to fund out of its present revenues (ha) the infinite-horizon pension obligations of each soldier it carries on its books. (That said, the DoD also doesn't let its soldiers unionize, and has historically screwed them out of pensions on the regular.) It's certainly fair to note that the requirement for the USPS to fully fund pension obligations upfront carried with it a sort of implied question of whether the USPS would exist in the future. It's sort of like having your shifty, reprobate roommate pay his water bill in advance: it's not the thing you do to someone you expect to stick around long term.

But it's worth examining why the public, via Congress, fell out of love with the Post Office so quickly; I don't think blaming it on "the Internet" is really the whole of the story. Some of the story involves the unions — the APWU in particular — and starts before most people had even heard of the Internet. And, at risk of exposing my own personal pet theory here, it's sort of a microcosm of the US over the same period.

Prior to 1970, postal workers were represented by a variety of lobbying organizations (the United National Association of Post Office Clerks, the National Federation of Post Office Clerks, the National Postal Clerks Union, etc.). By the late 60s they were legitimately agitated about the state of postal workers' conditions vs. the rest of the economy, and I see no reason not to take most of the union leaders' at their word that they were lagging substantially, and the Post Office had become essentially an employer-of-last-resort in an upwardly mobile economy. By the late 60s the situation got bad enough that the largest wildcat strike in US history, by number of employees, started in New York; it triggered a national emergency. This led the Nixon administration into what I think — regardless of what you might think of his later behavior — as something of an interesting compromise for someone often regarded as a right-leaning political figure: he gave postal workers collective bargaining rights via the APWU (though without the right to strike), and in doing so created one of the largest unions in the world.

Had the US economy continued on the same trajectory that it had taken throughout the 50s and 60s, I don't doubt this would be regarded as a watershed moment in labor relations...

But it did not. Instead, looking back on it in hindsight, the late 60s and very early 70s were a sort of glorious indian summer, just before a very hard frost. The American worker's compensation's share of GDP hit a peak in early 1970 from which it has fallen and never recovered. You can pick your favorite economic indicator, but most of them show the wheels falling off the wagon for non-college-educated workers somewhere in that period.

Unfortunately for the Post Office as an institution (although perhaps not for its employees) the collective bargaining power of its post-1970, consolidated union, and unique economic position of the USPS prior to the fax machine and email, allowed the unions and the organization as a whole to dodge some of the worst of the 1970s and 80s recessions. But this good fortune soured public perception, which was surprisingly (to a modern eye, anyway) favorable to postal workers during the 1970 strike, into contempt, and that contempt led to de facto no-confidence votes in the USPS as an institution as soon as alternatives emerged in the 90s.

I don't know exactly what the takeaway lesson is. The NALC strike in 1970 probably seemed like the right thing to do at the time, and by later Administrations' standards (e.g. Reagan and the ATC strike) the Nixon response seems to have achieved what could have been a reasonable compromise in the end. Neither side foresaw that they were dancing in the last days of economic summer. The APWU's efforts during the 70s and 80s, aimed at maintaining real salaries and benefits for new and existing postal workers, were rational from the perspective of their membership, but the disconnect between their members' pension-based economic security and the average blue-collar worker's in the rapidly de-pensioning private sector likely contributed to the weak political position of the USPS in the 90s.

I don't think there's much evidence that the drown-it-in-the-bathtub conservatives sought out the USPS; they'd happily drown any Federal agency and its employees given the opportunity — but when they saw an opportunity, as a result of public apathy and discontent, to make the USPS simply evaporate financially, they took it—in 1996. The endgame is still being played out. But I don't think it's worth spending too much time analyzing the 1996 "reform"; the important point is that once the public loses confidence in an institution, its days are numbered. By the time you get down to arguing over reform bills, you're just negotiating over what temperature you want the water in the bathtub to be for the drowning, and if you want to clock the poor thing over the head first or just gleefully shove it in until it stops kicking.

It's a testament to the original vision, dating back to Franklin, of the postal service, that it has survived so long since that de facto no-confidence vote. As it turns out, there's a lot you can't send by email, and a lot of places that UPS and FedEx don't want to deliver to. (Also, FedEx, with its nightmarish hierarchy of "independent contractors" run by what I assume is a glowing assemblage of grinfucking meatpuppets animated by the spirit of Mammon himself, ought to be enough to spontaneously transform every copy of Atlas Shrugged it delivers damaged and late into pristine versions of The State and Revolution.) But I think there's still an unresolved dispute over the control of critical infrastructure, which has simply moved into another arena. Having rejected the role of public employees by crippling the post-1970 Post Office, the public is now on its own to try and curtail the unlimited ambitions of the private sector.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:19 PM on June 13 [26 favorites]


What can we do to help the post office?
posted by gucci mane at 11:21 PM on June 13 [2 favorites]


Here's an object lesson on just how bad the USPS is not: My son is working in Tel Aviv. He has asthma, and the atmosphere there is maybe the worst possible for an asthmatic, so he needs inhalers. They are practically unobtainable for him in Israel, so he gets his doctor here to send a prescription to the drugstore here. I pick the meds up and mail them off to Israel. They reach Israel, as shown by USPS's tracking system. Then they catch their breath for a while in Israeli Customs. Eventually, they reach the post office that serves my son's neighborhood. And sit. My son visits the P.O., where they deny knowing anything about any package for him. Repeatedly. Six months later, my son returns to the U.S. for a visit. While he is here, the package arrives at my door, sent back as undeliverable by the Tel Aviv P.O. Variations on this have happened more than once. That doesn't happen here, in my experience. If it does in yours, I suggest agitating with (or about) your local postmaster, because the USPS has hundreds of years of experience making mail move as it should, and when it doesn't, somebody is actively fucking up.

Is the private sector better? No, it is not. There's a major UPS terminal in my town. According to the local paper, it's fairly common for desirable items to disappear while passing through there. Handguns. Meds. T-Tops for a Camaro. You name it. On the delivery end, The UPS and FedEx drivers typically toss packages on the front steps and drive away, without so much as ringing the bell. That's even if a signature is required, because I once signed on their electronic pad, so now they can copy and paste my sig on any delivery. The USPS letter carrier always rings the bell and waits for someone to come to the door when delivering packages, signature required or not. Again, if you're not getting something like that level of service, complain, and escalate when necessary.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:46 AM on June 14 [6 favorites]


once the public loses confidence in an institution...
I think the Post Office has always had the problem of being the federal agency that the public most often has to deal with face to face.
'I have to stand in line? And wait??'

I overheard this in an elevator:
1- 'You know, the post office delivers more items in a day than UPS does in a year.'
2- 'No wonder they're so screwed up.'
(note- this was 15 years ago. With PO down and UPS up, it's now more like 2 days)
posted by MtDewd at 5:36 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


I am ride or die forever for the Post Office.
posted by sperose at 6:12 AM on June 14 [10 favorites]


It would appear, from the various anecdotes here, that YMMV when it comes to experiences with the USPS. My experiences in NYC and Philadelphia have been uniformly bad, with packages that end up behind the counter at the PO with no indication that a delivery attempt was even made (this is *with* USPS tracking which marked the packages as either delivered or "we don't know.") That was to the point where, if I didn't get a package within a certain timeframe, I would just walk down to the PO and look behind the counter. Trying to "agitate" with anyone just resulted in death stares from both employees and the people waiting in line behind me, along with zero in the way of any sort of resolution. As a result of this consistently terrible experience (for packages, not letter mail) I had everyone who sent stuff to either me or grumpybearbride to mail packages to my coworking space, because commercial addresses with mail rooms get a much higher and more consistent level of service.

With UPS and FedEx, hey, at least their tracking works.

The USPS letter carrier always rings the bell and waits for someone to come to the door when delivering packages, signature required or not.

That... that sounds magical. I really wish that we were living within the service area of a PO like that.

And don't get me wrong - I would much rather that the PO be a courier that I could depend on. It is an important source of jobs and, as has been noted, a real innovator in multiple areas. FWIW sending all of our books and vinyl via Media Mail when we did a cross-country move was both cost effective and hassle-free.
posted by grumpybear69 at 6:20 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


the DoD, by contrast, is not required to fund out of its present revenues (ha) the infinite-horizon pension obligations of each soldier it carries on its books.

It actually is required to do that, a change that was made in 1984. The thinking is that, when entities carry significant accrued liabilities for employees, they should be required, as a matter of prudent management, to fund those liabilities as they are earned rather than when they are paid. It's the same reason we have ERISA for private pensions.

The USPS funding at issue is retiree health care, not pensions. Most entities don't have significant retiree health care liabilities, but that the USPS's liability is enormous: it's almost as big as the total retiree health liabilities of all of the companies in the S&P 500 combined. So, while most entities don't fund retiree health liabilities as those liabilities are accrued, no other entity has a liability that's even remotely close to being as large as the USPS liability.

That's very likely why the PAEA of 2006 passed overwhelmingly and with broad bipartisan support.
posted by jpe at 6:49 AM on June 14


That was a fantastic comment, Kadin2048, and then you leveled up with "FedEx, with its nightmarish hierarchy of "independent contractors" run by what I assume is a glowing assemblage of grinfucking meatpuppets animated by the spirit of Mammon himself, ought to be enough to spontaneously transform every copy of Atlas Shrugged it delivers damaged and late into pristine versions of The State and Revolution.)"

Thank you for that.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:28 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


Trying to "agitate" with anyone just resulted in death stares from both employees and the people waiting in line behind me...

Ah, yes. Complaining to the lowest-level public servant is going to get the lowest level of results. Also, written letters, or even emails are much more effective than forgettable verbal complaints. By "agitating," I did not mean trying to sway a counter-worker to address your needs. Write a letter of specific complaints to the postmaster of the office. If that gets no action, escalate by writing to that postmaster's superior. Keep escalating to the Postmaster General and beyond, if this is important to you. Somewhere along the way, you will find someone who takes citizen complaints seriously.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:51 AM on June 14


TFA: Now the USPS is piloting its own version of Outbox’s service.

I love their new "Informed Delivery" service. It's only been a few weeks, but I look for that email every day and compare my physical mail pieces to see if anything is missing. When I don't get the email, it means nothing important is being delivered that day and I don't have to hurry to the mailbox that afternoon to collect the mail.

For those who are not aware of this service:
"Get images of the mail that will be placed in your mailbox each day. Black and white images of your actual letter-sized mail pieces, processed by USPS® sorting equipment, will be provided to you each morning. Flat-sized pieces, such as catalogues or magazines, may be added in the future. Informed Delivery is now available to eligible residential consumers in the majority of ZIP Codes™ across the country."
They seem to take security pretty seriously too - I ended up having to go to a Post Office branch to verify my address, since I failed the online verification questions (likely information from one of the three credit bureaus). But I guess the enhanced security is a good thing - they don't want unauthorised individuals seeing images of someone else's mail.
posted by cynical pinnacle at 10:19 AM on June 14 [7 favorites]


I love the post office. I have never had anything lost. On the contrary, I have an amazing story of a retrieved package. I ordered something on PayPal and neglected to change my address. The package was sent to my old address in Massachusetts, then forwarded to my new address in California. Something happened to the label, and the package was getting bounced back and forth between my local PO and the distribution center. I talked to someone in my local PO, who knew exactly what package I was talking about when I called and promised to look out for it. The package ended up getting sent back to Massachusetts, so I called someone in the PO there, who found it in their sorting system, repackaged it, and sent it Express Mail to me at no extra charge. It took over a month, but I got my package!
posted by apricot at 10:47 AM on June 14 [3 favorites]


We'll never get rid of the post office because then people wouldn't be able to blame them for losing their bill payments.
posted by Room 641-A at 11:07 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


Holy cow, cynical pinnacle, that Informed Delivery thing looks cool! I just signed up!

And I think the USPS is awesome. When I lived in England for a while In The Before Times, the twice-daily delivery of mail blew my damn mind -- but I knew enough not to get used to it when I came home to a much larger country. I am still well satisfied with Monday-to-Saturday mail, and the Sunday delivery of Amazon items seems a little over the top.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:40 AM on June 14


A series of misguided rules and laws have clipped the Post Office’s wings

YES! Did not even RTFA yet but as a citizen with a Magical Post Office I often talk about their attempts to do things like electronic mail delivery way back before email was really a thing when I'm talking to libraries about innovation. Old stamps (which are still legit for postage) are practically free on ebay nowadays. People probably know how I've made a hobby of getting totally randomly addressed mail into my box. I also ask the post office all of my mail delivery questions (I have many) and have been forwarding my mail all around the US for the past 25 years or so. I've even gotten and received General Delivery mail. I get that it doesn't work for everyone and I am furious that they can't find a better solution to the pension issue. But those are (often) good jobs especially relative to what other jobs someone could get that have a real career trajectory in them.

Thanks for the post, looking forward to actually reading it.
posted by jessamyn at 3:09 PM on June 14 [2 favorites]


I find it hard to believe that the USPS isn't innovating anymore, by the mere fact that they are still around despite what Congress has pulled on them.
posted by ckape at 3:15 PM on June 14 [2 favorites]


"looking forward to actually reading it"

TBH, the actual article is kind of mediocre. I just posted it to generate discussion because I love the Post Office so much.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:15 PM on June 14 [7 favorites]


"Please explain, cause it doesn't logical at all to me."

Yeah, in a lot of countries the national postal service provides a very basic banking service, free savings accounts basically with a nominal interest rate (and often these days a debit card). There's often a cap on how large the account can get. The point is to provide banking services to people who are otherwise unbanked and only have access to extortionate payday lenders or check-cashing places, and to let even very poor people have access to savings accounts. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have both advocated for the return of postal banking in the US.

"My experience of the USPS vis a vis the Royal Mail is that a parcel such as a book or some miniatures coming to Australia will be a couple of dollars from the UK, versus upwards of $50 from the USA. "

This isn't the fault of the USPS per se but of your international postal treaties. The USPS is by far the most efficient national mail service in the world -- it delivers twice as many letters per employee as the next most efficient -- and one of the cheapest in the world (also keeping in mind the USPS is entirely self-funded and receives no tax subsidy; many other countries' post offices do). People who move from the US to another first-world country are often shocked by the low quality of postal service; contrarliwise, people who move to the US are mystified as to what Americans are complaining about with their post office. There simply is no better, cheaper, more efficient postal system in the world, and it's astonishing that it's in such a big friggin' country with so many rural areas, and does it with no tax support. It's a model of efficiency and cost-effectiveness while serving very expensive last-mile customers by law that corporations would do well to learn from.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:18 PM on June 14 [10 favorites]


Hi Metafilter!
I came in here to make sure the USPS was defended. I am so happy to find so many of you speaking up for them.

I lived in Germany for 5 years. The USPS is better than Deutsch Post, which is run by DHL, and can not think their way around a corner (um die ecke). Literally. The USPS has a culture of the top priority being to deliver. The Deutsch Post's priority is being regulation. Simple as that. A door around the corner can not be the same address as a door on the main street. ABSURD.
posted by Goofyy at 5:56 AM on June 16 [1 favorite]


That Informed Delivery thing is awesome! Now I know if I need to walk down to the mailbox, or if it's just another piece of Scientology junk mail!
posted by apricot at 1:18 PM on June 16


Wow, another satisfied Informed Delivery customer. That's amazimg, thanks for mentioning it.
posted by Room 641-A at 1:52 PM on June 16


Informed Delivery is neat because it's sort of a win-win. The USPS has those images of each mailpiece anyway, as a result of how its new generation of sorting machinery (the AFCS 200, which is a pretty neat piece of kit) works, and the post-9/11 security requirements mean they have to store them, so it's — while certainly not trivial — not a vast amount of work for them to provide a web interface that lets you see incoming mail as soon as it goes through the sorting machinery and gets recognized as being on its way to you.

I think the reason not everyone can sign up for Informed Delivery is because you have to live in an area where your local sorting facility — the place that handles your mail, which might or might not be your actual post office — has to have one of the newer machines and not one of the older (AFCS-OCR) ones. But eventually as the machinery is replaced, everyone should be able to get it.

In my very pleasant Ideal Parallel Universe (this is the one where Google bought Flickr and Sarah Palin got eaten by a bear, among other things), the USPS realized the complementary nature of physical and e-mail early on, and decided to make itself a key player in the real-world verification of electronic addresses and identities. They offer validated email addresses under a special usps.gov subdomain which can be used to securely receive government correspondence and documents. They're encrypted, naturally, via a PKI which they administer; this is easy for them to do since the physical key distribution is handled via Registered Mail (fits in nicely along with the diamonds and DoD SECRET materials they already handle). Oh, and they do a pretty nice micropayments system, built on the infrastructure that allowed print-your-own stamps. It's a pretty nice place, my universe.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:35 PM on June 18 [3 favorites]


you have to live in an area where your local sorting facility... has to have one of the newer machines

I live in BFE and I was able to sign up for it, though it's been underwhelming so far. This is probably because I also forwarded my mail for the summer at about the same time and those two things may intersect. I was at the PO earlier in the week and got some of these sportsball stamps. I've been pretty "Eh" on plastic stamps since ... they were introduced in 1992 but these are really cool. Also I learned that self-adhesive stamps were first tested in 1974!
posted by jessamyn at 6:53 AM on June 19


Ooooh. I need to buy more stamps, too. Might have to see if I can get those. Non-square stamps!
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:47 PM on June 22


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