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Unmachinable, unreformable, but necessary

by Hiroaki Sato

One recent topic for The Wall Street Journal’s front-page space set aside for stories other than the daily shenanigans of business, politics and wars was the community in Florida created for retired letter carriers. (“In Florida, These Retirees Deliver a First-Class Protest,” March 27.)

The town, which is carved out of the wooded area on the north shore of Weohyakapka, a lake that lies just about midpoint between Tampa and Palm Bay, is called Nalcrest. It’s a made-up name, the acronym of the National Association of Letter Carriers Retirement, Education, Security and Training. Its residents joke that it stands for National Association of Letter Carriers at Rest.

The article caught my eye not just because the USPS has been in the news, again, as the article itself noted. Also, I’ve been exasperated by the ever more unreasonable complexities of the rules and rates the Postal Service devises.

Looking back, I first noticed the postal system in the United States when the slowdown in mail delivery became a butt of ridicule and hopelessness. One man who was so irked by it as to challenge a local post office to see which of the two, he or the government agency, could deliver mail faster was E.B. White.

White, the famed reviser of William Strunk Jr.’s “The Elements of Style” and the author of such glorious children’s stories as “Charlotte’s Web,” lived in Brooklin, Maine. His challenge was to deliver a piece of mail from his part of the coastal town of less than 1,000 people to the neighboring one. He was by then nearly an octogenarian and he used a bicycle but easily won, if I remember the story in The New Yorker correctly. Ah, bicycles! It was during the mail slowdown that the bicycle mail courier service emerged as a thriving business in New York and, yes, became a street hazard in Manhattan.

I’m sure I fondly recalled my college days in Kyoto, in the 1960s, when the letters the girl I had a crush on and I wrote each other every day were delivered punctually the next day, across town. And we sometimes wrote two or three letters a day.

It was, as a matter of fact, just about the time the exasperations with the slow mail delivery were getting to a dangerous point that I read Brenda Maddox’s biography of James Joyce’s spouse, “Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom” (1988). One thing that impressed me about the book was the workings of the post office in Dublin in the early 20th century.

There were, Maddox told us, five mail deliveries a day, starting at 1:15 a.m. — yes, in the morning! Without those frequent and punctual mail deliveries, she suggested, the fateful sexual encounter between Joyce and Nora on the night of June 16, 1904, might not have occurred.

In defense of the USPS, I say this: Following the hue and cry, its postal delivery improved markedly in the 1990s.

The recurrent problem with the USPS in more recent times is something else: money. The 236-year-old mail system is “bleeding cash” to such an extent that it’s “raising questions about whether traditional mail is going the way of the buggy whip,” as the WSJ article on Nalcrest put it.

“The post office was originally meant to be a service to the people, not a profit-making operation,” lamented Frank Writing, the 70-year-old Nalcrest resident. The former letter carrier from Poughkeepsie, New York, is right. The culprit is privatization, the American-style capitalist malaise that has swept the world. Or at least its variant.

When you check the matter a bit, you find that the privatization of this “service to the people” is not exactly called that. Under the Postal Reorganization Act that Richard Nixon signed into law in 1970, the U.S. Post Office Department became the U.S. Postal Service and, as it did so, it was mandated to be “a self-supporting corporation.”

Like any other similar move made since, the mandate was a legal duplicity. The only thing it has accomplished is to put the post office under unseemly pressure to make money, even though, like any other governmental function, it is intended to serve the people and the people pay for it.

So, Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Democrat of Delaware, who is pushing for yet another round of drastic “postal reform,” shows on his website how much the service is “losing” every second. He might as well do the same thing with every other government agency or, even better, the government as a whole. It’s a misguided enterprise, bar none.

One unintended consequence of this at any rate has been to drive postal bureaucrats into devising ever more labyrinthine postal rules and contrivances, not to mention ever growing rates. I began to notice these soon after 9/11, as you may guess. But if you want to have a glimpse of how intractable the system has become, go on the Internet to “Postage Rates: An unofficial site by Jerry Nelson.”

Nelson — or Dr. Nelson (he has a Ph.D.) — begins: “Note: mail that can’t get through a sorting machine costs more. A flat, flexible business-sized envelope is cheaper than flat, flexible manila envelopes that need bigger sorting machines and they are cheaper than thick, inflexible envelopes of the same size and weight that are UNMACHINABLE.”

This is only the beginning. As Dr. Nelson goes on to tell you, the growing complexities that the USPS piles on have become such that now postal workers themselves need quite a bit of time to figure out your postage — when you go to the post office. If you don’t, it’s well-nigh impossible to guess simple postages.

After a valiant effort to make the USPS rates intelligible to laymen like me, gratis, Dr. Nelson becomes philosophical, with a whiff of despair, and concludes:

“A token postal service, a cripple that can’t fight but can’t be killed off completely either, because the Constitution (the other Holy Scripture for the Americans) says we have to have something, that is the future we are being led to as a nation by those with power over us” — those blind believers in money making.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York.