Ten months ago, while researching a piece on the technology behind campaign targeting, I asked the folks at the D.C.-based data firm Catalist to run my name so I could see just how much their computer knew about me. It pegged my political views precisely right and knew, among other details, that I’m a childless Jewish non-smoker.
One spot-on but surprising tidbit stood out to Laura Quinn, the firm’s CEO. “You’re someone who opens your mail,” she told me, explaining the factoid’s value in deciding to whom to send political fliers. “That’s unusual these days. Especially for someone your age.”
But it’s true. I love the mail. Today, when some 600 million pieces are expected to begin their journey through the system on what the United States Postal Service expects to be the busiest mailing day of 2013, at least 100 cards plus a few packages will have my return address on them.
The much-maligned USPS is, to me, a symphony of efficiency and human determination. I was 5 when my grandmother instilled this awe, muting the TV in frustration because folks were whining to a reporter about an upcoming postal rate hike. “So it costs two pennies more, so what?” she groused. “For this tiny, tiny bit of money, they’ll take my letter from my stoop here and deliver it a few days later anywhere I want. Even Alaska! Think about that! Hawaii, too!”
I’ve never stopped thinking about it, actually. I practically prance to the mailbox on afternoons when I gleefully realize when my partner hasn’t gone first. I feel a beat of disappointment on weekdays that turn out to be federal holidays, and I eagerly anticipate the mounds I’ll have to explore when I return from trips. There’s rarely anything in there that’s all that great; I often read my magazines on my iPad and pay bills online days before either arrive in dead-tree form. But a check, or a card from a far-flung friend may lurk to make my day, and if not there’s always those Humane Society solicitations and packet of oil change and home decor coupons.
The mail is also my secret social weapon. Because so much of our communications are via text message, email and status updates, the many letters or cards I randomly mail to friends — sometimes along with a colorful dried autumn leaf or a clever, perfectly appropriate comic clipped from the paper — always land to uncommon gratitude. It’s as though people have forgotten that the mail is even there or that, as my grandmother ranted, someone will hand-deliver their tiny rectangle of paper somewhere far away with incredible precision for less than the cost of a candy bar.
Oh, I know the post office is deep trouble. It is overwhelmed by pension obligations and losing market share to private carriers and new technology. The losses mount and the possibility of reduced services loom, both of which are unfortunate results of changing times. It may very well be that the USPS will have to do as Canada Post just announced it will by 2018, eliminate door-to-door carriers and force everyone to get their mail from communal, strategically located boxes.
This downturn in the USPS’s fortunes is seized upon by conservatives eager to sell it for parts and who attack it as another bailout-needing Big Government program that the private sector can manage better. Yet who would move my letter that far that fast and that accurately for that little? The start-up costs alone would be stratospheric. The variety of new products they provide—the if-it-fits-it-ships concept, 24-hour automated kiosks and home stamp printing to cite a few I’ve used in the past month —show they still have good ideas. That the USPS still handles 40 percent of the world’s mail shows that a significant part of the world economy — including that which has been born on eBay, Amazon and craigslist — still rely on it.
Conservative attacks on the post office are most baffling because there’s little in American life more old-fashioned or community oriented. The Founding Fathers decreed it as an essential function of the federal government right there in the U.S. Constitution, and Norman Rockwell, the right’s go-to artist for traditional values and nostalgia, canonized the letter carrier as an adequate stand-in for Santa in his classic “The Jolly Postman.” What’s more, the news is routinely filled with heroic tales of the mailman who sensed something was off at a house he’s served for decades and managed to stop a crime or call paramedics for an incapacitated resident.
A couple weeks ago, many otherwise level-headed people got excited about Amazon’s absurd plan to deliver packages by drone. Once the hype subsided, though, the publicity stunt had the unusual effect of reminding people why the human postal carrier is so effective, trustworthy and safe. “Can you imagine how expensive delivery would be that way?” laughed Lucy, the counter attendant at my post office in Ann Arbor. “I’d like to see them try that. Some guy will build a huge net and steal all that stuff out of the sky. Then just watch how fast people come back to us.”
I hope she’s right. And I hope there’s a USPS to come back to by then.
Friess is an Ann Arbor, Mich.–based freelance writer and former senior writer covering technology for Politico who teaches journalism at Michigan State University. The views expressed are solely his own. You can follow him on Twitter @stevefriess.