Abolish the Postal Service?

Here’s my tale of woe.

The front wheel fell off my electric bike. Luckily, this did not occur while I was riding it, but while I was transporting it on the back of my car. Back in September I arrived home after a nice ride on the Vilas County Trails without a front wheel. Today I assume it lies in the woods somewhere between Boulder Junction and Land O Lakes. Anyway, I was not going to find it. I ordered a new one.

That new wheel arrived a couple of weeks ago and here’s where the trouble started. The wheel was delivered not by UPS or FedEX but by the good old United States Postal Service. I didn’t actually get the wheel, though it must have been in my building long enough for the postal worker to fill out a form telling me they would hand it over when I handed them $114.53 for postage due.

Free delivery had been promised by the bicycle company. There must be some mistake. So, I got online and tapped in the long tracking number on the USPS form. Several times. Each time the computer told me it had no record of that number. So, I called the USPS customer service number. After a short wait a rep got on the line. He took the number and told me that the computer was right — there was no record of it. He was nice enough, but the only thing he could do to help me was to open some sort of case file for a lost item. He told me my local post office would contact me.

I waited ten days. My local post office did not contact me. So, I contacted the bicycle company. Their friendly rep gave me another tracking number and, sure enough, that one worked. Except this time the computer told me that the postal worker had attempted delivery but couldn’t access my security locked building and they would try again. This could not have been true since the postal form was placed inside my mailbox, which is (you guessed it) inside my security locked building. And since it was inside the mailbox it could only have been placed there by a postal worker. Also, no new attempt was made to deliver it or at least no second form was left for me.

Why does this still exist?

The bicycle company told me that, sure enough, the postage was free and that I sure didn’t owe them $114.53. They suggested I wait until the package was returned to them, take my refund, and then reorder, but specify that it be delivered by anybody other than the USPS.

I could have just left it at that, but I had visions of the box hanging around the post office for months and by late March I’d like to have a front wheel for my bike as biking without one is extremely slow going. So, I put my head down, took an extra helping of fortitude and patience, and trudged off to the post office.

I encountered a line. I expected that as it was between Christmas and New Years. Fine. But a line at the post office is like what I imagine a line in the old USSR was like. There’s this feeling of resigned dread. Nobody is sure why they’re there. We all expect we will stand in this line for hours only to be told there’s nothing that can be done. Then Next! And we will shuffle off, head bowed, back to the dreary parking lot. On the drive home we’ll think about the futility and meaninglessness of life. This really is all there is, isn’t it? Endless lines. And then suddenly it’s Next! and we’re dead. What was the point of it all?

But it didn’t turn out quite that way. The line actually moved fairly briskly and, within about 20 minutes, I was there. I had time to evaluate my three postal worker choices, though of course it wasn’t my choice, but the universe’s choice of which worker had shed the previous customer first. (Three windows were closed and the thought crossed my mind that in what could be expected to be a busy period maybe you’d want to be fully staffed. I vowed not to bring this up when I got up to the window and I even tried to banish the thought from my mind, not wanting to offend the Postal Gods.)

Two of my possibilities looked friendly and maybe even helpful. But the third was a stern looking woman with a Russian accent (reenforcing my USSR analogy) and I said a brief prayer that it not be her.

Next! It was her. I stepped to the window. I managed a smile. I showed her the form and started to explain. She cut me off. “I have to find the package first,” she said, and disappeared. In a few minutes she was back with my box, just the size of a wheel. It was so close, I wanted to reach across the counter and snap it up and flee into the parking lot. But, probably sensing that very thing, she kept it well out of my reach and she pointed to it with disgust. “They sent it first class!” she said. “Something this big. First class! You can refuse delivery.”

I said I understood, though I did not understand. I mean this company ships stuff everyday all over the place. How could they get the postage wrong? This was not for me to understand. This was above my pay grade. I refused delivery.

On the drive home, in addition to contemplating the meaninglessness of life, I thought back to my sled. Earlier in December I ordered a sled from Amazon. Then I found a better sled at a lower price at the Ace Hardware store, so I went to UPS to return the sled. The line was short and the worker was friendly. She pointed out that I couldn’t just send the sled back unpackaged. She tried to find a box for me, but the only one she could find would have set me back $20. “You know, you really just have to wrap it. Anything will work.”

So, I went home and wrapped it in a couple of plastic garbage bags. I returned to the UPS store a few days later and she remembered me. “That works!” she said brightly. It cost me $13 to ship the sled back. Thirteen dollars. For a sled. Not $114.53 for a bicycle wheel. Note: the sled was bigger and heavier than the bicycle wheel.

Okay. So now that is the longest setup I have ever written to get to my point of the day, which is: Why the hell does the damn United States Postal Service even exist?

I know why it has existed. Almost all business was conducted through the mail and we needed a responsible authority to make sure it arrived. But now almost all business is conducted electronically and we have super efficient private businesses like UPS that do a great job at delivering packages. So, why do we need the post office?

Your answer may be that UPS does not deliver the mail. No, but they or another private entity could do that. England, Austria, the Netherlands and New Zealand have privatized their postal services. Works fine.

When I went online to hear the arguments, the first thing that pops up is a paper from something called The Economic Policy Institute. The EPI offered a handful of reasons to save the USPS.

It’s a “beloved American institution.” It is? I’m not loving it these days. I just want my bicycle wheel.

It provides “good middle class jobs.” What? And UPS and FedEX don’t? And anyway, no organization exists for the people who work there. It exists for its customers. It does a good job for its customers. They’re happy. The business prospers and the workers do better.

It is a model of efficiency and responsive to changing customer needs.” Really? See above.

And if the USPS has any failings at all it’s because Amazon lobbies Congress to hobble it. Maybe so, but Amazon actually relies on the USPS to make deliveries in some rural areas that are difficult to serve. If anything, it seems to me that Amazon has an interest in a well-functioning post office.

My own view is that the USPS is a big, inefficient, calcified government bureaucracy that has long out-lived its usefulness. The private sector can, and does, do it better.

All I want is my bicycle wheel and a meaning for life. Is that too much to ask?

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

6 thoughts on “Abolish the Postal Service?

  1. Wow. Not sure where to start on this comment Dave. Did you follow the attempted and somewhat successful hobbling of the USPS during Trump’s reign? Forcing them to pre-fund their pension by 75 years? Forced closing of important distribution centers, like the one in Madison? (ever tried mailing something to someone in Madison? It now goes to Milwaukee first.) And what happened and is ongoing with covid overworked, underpaid and understaffed?

    From your description, your bicycle company gave you the wrong tracking number. You don’t call someone and get another tracking number with getting another shipment. Since they gave you the wrong tracking number, odds are they got the postage wrong too.

    Amazon ‘gives’ their rural business to the USPS because it’s dramatically less profitable. What would happen to rural postal deliveries without a semi-public organization?

    We use the USPS for the great majority of our shipments. Their failure to deliver rate is only slightly worse than UPS or FedEx. Most of the time, they are much less expensive than either one.

    Yes, they certainly have a lot of bureaucracy and could use help getting better organized, but they have been making improvements there as well.

    So why should they exist? Because most of the time, they do a better job – less expensive, same amount of time for the urbanites and because they serve the less profitable too.

    Petulance doesn’t serve policy discussions.

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      1. I don’t think that was true here. This was a form provided by the Postal Service and their number was different from the number provided to me by the company. It would make sense that the USPS would assign the tracking number. Somehow, the tracking numbers they provided on the form and the one the company had were different. I don’t see how that could be the fault of the company.

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      2. Certainly possible Dave, but it would be very unusual. One of the (appropriate) efficiencies that USPS (and UPS, FedEx) uses is to have the shipper complete all forms. It eliminates the type of error you’re describing.

        The UPS and FedEx drivers I’ve spoken with are happy working for their companies. Amazon appears to grind their drivers. The grunts in the distribution centers are the ones who bear the brunt of this distribution method.

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  2. Your anecdotal experience is the direct opposite of my anecdotal experience. I have found the private carriers intolerable and always prefer to do business with USPS.

    I concede that the USPS isn’t critical infrastructure in the same way that it once was, but it is still nonetheless. The private carriers want USPS to stay in business for the same reason charter schools want public schools to stay in business: to offload difficult/expensive work to the public sector, who can’t refuse the task. Rural unprofitable route? Give it to USPS. Difficult student with a disability? Give them to the public school.

    This is how it works: the public goes to great expense to set up a service for the people. A private entity eventually enters this now-established market to compete with the public entity, but focuses solely on the most profitable aspects of the market (naturally, they are not attempting to be a universal public service). The public entity loses revenue and efficiency due to the piggybacking, then is demonized.

    “It does a good job for its customers. They’re happy. The business prospers and the workers do better.”

    This is said like it’s an inevitability. There are many prosperous businesses where the workers do not do better. The key is to keep workers desperate and unorganized enough to keep the advantage on the employer. This is an explicit goal, it’s not a secret. UPS and FedEx don’t need to be nice to their workers to stay comfortably profitable, they just need a general poor state of affairs for the working class to keep a steady supply of replacements available and to keep unionization efforts away.

    That is so much smarter than competing with each other over workers and driving up costs. There is window dressing to make it seem not so because reality is unsightly, and there are always enough (liberal!? Haha!) media voices around to keep the falsehoods plausible to enough people.

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