My wife is currently serving as a juror on a civil trial expected to last 8-10 days. During one of the breaks, while she and the other jurors were idly passing the time discussing their jobs, family stuff, current events, etc., one of the men casually mentioned that he’d heard that thieves were stealing catalytic converters off cars and selling them on the black market.
Except he didn’t say “catalytic converters.” Apparently, he was unfamiliar with the proper name for the device, because he called them “Cadillac” converters. What made this malapropism noteworthy is that two other people in the room instantly followed his lead and began referring to the things as “Cadillac” converters.
This triggered a memory of a jury incident of my own, one that occurred way back in the mid-1980s. I forgot what touched off the discussion, but one of our jurors began ridiculing the post office and, within moments, others eagerly joined in. With sneering contempt, they depicted the post office as inefficient, mismanaged, and woefully out of touch with the hip “supply side” economics that were being peddled by Ronald Reagan and his crew.
What was especially annoying (besides the factual inaccuracies) was the ease and smugness with which these good people joined in—gleefully piling on as if what they were saying was not only common knowledge, but nakedly self-evident. It was a two-pronged attack: they mocked the federal government that ran the postal service, and reviled the labor union that represented its workers.
Even though criticizing the post office has become part of our cultural landscape, it’s still fairly astonishing how glib the critics can be—how effortlessly they use the post office as their ace-in-the-hole trump card whenever anyone is discussing the virtues of government regulation (“You think the government is efficient?? Well, how’d you like to see everything run like the post office??”).
In truth, even though the USPS (United States Postal Service) is one of the few government agencies specifically mentioned in the U.S. constitution (having been founded by Ben Franklin himself, in 1775), it is no longer “run” by the government and, in fact, hasn’t received direct taxpayer dollars since the early 1980s.
Yes, at this moment, the venerable USPS is so deeply in debt, it’s been forced to borrow money from the U.S. Treasury. What happened to cause that debt? E-mail happened. The fax machine happened. And because regular, old-fashioned mail was the post office’s bread and butter—its primary source of income—the staggering decrease in the volume of “snail mail” has become the greatest crisis the USPS ever faced.
But as for the post office’s reliability and cost-effectiveness, what’s not to like? For 44-cents (soon to be 46-cents) you can still mail a letter anyplace in the U.S.—anyplace that has a valid mailing address, no matter how obscure, remote, or hard to reach it is. Forty-four cents gets you a letter sent to someone living in an igloo in northern Alaska, or in a shack in a bayou of Louisiana. Arguably, that forty-four cents is the best bargain in America.
In all my years of depending on the post office, I have never, to my knowledge, lost one piece of mail. I mean that literally. Unless it happened without me knowing, I never had one letter get lost in the mail. That is one pretty damned impressive record.
When it comes to mailing packages, compare your post office to UPS and FedEx. You’ll find that it’s no contest. You can still send a package from LA to New York by priority mail and have it arrive in two days, and you can do it at a fraction of the price UPS or FedEx charges.
The claim that the post office is inefficient and poorly run because it’s a government outfit is an urban myth. It’s one level removed from believing that Bigfoot lives in the woods of northern California. And to mindlessly repeat that claim is as simple-minded and ignorant as confusing “catalytic” with “Cadillac.”
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org