What Can Be Said for Nine Digits? Zip!

Zip. Zero. Zilch. The zenith of zaniness.


Who needs the proposed nine-digit zip code? The Postal Service, says the Postal Service. Well…consider the source.

Nine digits can create just one short of a billion numbers. That's enough combinations to give every man, woman, and child in the United States his or her own personal zip code with more than 750,000,000 combinations left over. In fact, nine digits are enough to give a zip to everyone who has ever lived in this country. Every postman and every postal box could have a number and only six digits would be neededseven at most.

If the zips were distributed geographically, nine digits still seems to provide an excessive number of combinations. The United States and all its territories and possessions contain only 3,619,623 square miles; each square mile could have its own zip code with 6,380,376 left over. On the other hand, why not go whole hog and use 10 digits? Then every quarter of an acre of mountain, desert, and plain could have a postal zip. A letter could be precisely directed to the crater of Mt. St. Helens, your favorite parking space, or a particular spot in the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

It seems curious that no one has suggested using longitude and latitude. Then, cities, towns, and states could be eliminated. This in itself would save postal workers an untold amount of labor. Those folk who find it tedious to read long words such as Ohio and insist we write OH would surely welcome this change.

Of course, if letters were used instead of digits, zips could be shortened considerably. Twenty-six letters can be made into a greater number of five-letter combinations than can nine digits. Of course, the Postal Service's reluctance to use letters of the alphabet is quite understandable. Some of the combinations of letters would spell words, you see, and some might be X-ratedold Saxon words that, although Judge John M. Woolsey described them as "words known to almost all men and, I venture, to many women," they would undoubtedly prove offensive to many. Even worse, the use of letters might lead some misguided citizens to think they could address letters in simple English.

Mr. Walter E. Duka, assistant postmaster in charge of communication, whose job it is to extol the virtues of the nine-digit zip, says that the greatest advantage to these magic numbers is that they will save postal employees 16,000 manyears of work. Allowing for weekends, vacations, holidays, and sick leave, we can reckon this to be about 31 million personhours. This seems a curious argument when compared with the number of hours ordinary citizens will spend looking up the numbers and writing or typing them.

Ignoring for the moment the exigencies of all businesses, industries, foundations, and bureaucracies, if just 50 million individuals mailed only 100 letters, checks, and packages in a year, and they required, on average, only a single minute to find and write down the nine-digit zips, they would spend more than 83 million personhours (or about 43,000 manyears, to use the preferred postal image). In other words, we of the hoi polloi would spend considerably more time than the postal workers would save.

In fact, though, these are imaginary statistics. According to the US Postal Service, it processes 105 billion pieces of mail every year. Since much of this is machine-processed, let us assume that, on average, only three seconds would be required to find and apply the zip. This would still require 87.5 million personhours, or 45,000 manyears. Much as we all want to save postal employees their hard work, we can still wonder at the cost.

What is difficult to understand is why it is considered efficient and in the national interest for citizens and their institutions to spend nearly three hours in order to save a postal worker one hour. Something seems quite wrong. Logic seems to have wandered off into an Alice in Wonderland scene in which those we employ to serve us now demand that we serve themreasoning by which our servants' time is deemed more valuable than ours. But perhaps postal workers are no longer public servants.

Businesses will be hurt worst when the nine-digit scheme becomes a reality next October. Every business with a mailing list will have to change every address, and the Postal Service estimates that there are about eight billion address listings. Even if companies can change an address for only 20 cents, the change will cost $1.6 billion. It's no good saying this is a one-time expense; that was what the Postal Service said when it introduced the five-digit zips. These unwanted business expenses will, of course, be passed on to consumers. That's us.

Just because the Postal Service hopes to save $550 million annually by 1987 (this amount only if 90 percent of us correctly and consistently use the nine numbers) does not mean that we users of the service will pay less. Savings in one area are not to be paired with expenditures in other areas, however closely they may be related. Actually, we are going to be asked (forced, in fact) to pay 28 percent more in postal rates.

One reason for this is that the Postal Service has already invested $887 million in automated equipment that works best if nine-digit numbers are used. (No explanation is offered as to why such equipment was purchased before Congress authorized nine-digit zip codes.) Furthermore, the postal bureaucracy plans to ask Congress for an additional $1 billion dollars (that's a ten-digit number) for more automated equipment. Although the Postal Service's previous experiences with automated equipment have demonstrated its inability to use it either to cut costs or to improve service, it takes more than experience and proven incapacity to impress bureaucrats.

It would be difficult to find many people outside of the Postal Service who look forward to nine-digit zip codes. Even the Postal Workers' Union has howled its objections. Nearly every major and minor newspaper in the land has condemned the scheme in editorials, and more than a hundred congressmen have begged the postmaster general to desist. In spite of this roar of protest, and in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, the postal bureaucrats claim that we will all adore their nine numbers once we get used to them. They have conducted a survey. (What would we do without surveys?) Happily, they discoveredas have all pharmaceutical companiesthat surveyors can tell clients what the questioneers want to hear.

As a result of one small survey of 1,000 people (out of 240 million), Postal Service bureaucrats claim there will be "wide acceptance" of their nice new nine-digit numbers. All who believe this, clap your hands, and Tinker Bell will come back to lifealong with the three-cent postage stamp.

Byron Farwell is the author of six books and the mayor of Hillsboro, Virginia. His articles have appeared in Harper's, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.