Going Postal


If there is one federal employee

more absurdly titled than the US

Surgeon General, it is surely

the US Postmaster General,

currently one William J.

Henderson. While General

Henderson does not bear the

physical humiliation of sporting

a Cap'n Crunch uniform at all

public (or, one suspects,

private) functions, he

nonetheless commands a ragtag

army of low-output,

high-maintenance employees whose

chief contribution to the last

years of the American Century

has been to displace psycho

Vietnam vets and flower-wielding

Hare Krishnas as a locus of fear

among the civilian population.

Little wonder, then, that the

nation breathed a collective

sigh of relief when the mail's

commander in chief, like Rommel

after the Normandy invasion,

admitted recently that the end

of the Postal Service's

government-granted monopoly on

first-class mail was in sight.

Such a happy development is

partly a function of technology

(the Postal Service defeatedly

concedes most faxes are already

substitutes for letters; email

and electronic billing have also

increasingly allowed people to

bypass the mailbox) and partly

political (even a porkchopped

Congress can't be expected to

enforce an unpopular monopoly


While not exactly guaranteeing

to bring the boys home in time

for Christmas, a dispirited

General Henderson did the next

best thing: He signed a test

agreement with Mailboxes Etc.

that would let the chain

essentially operate as a

full-scale post office in 11

urban areas. Admitting that an

operation as execrable as

Mailboxes Etc.—formerly

best-known for charging Weimar

Republic prices for bubble wrap

and packing peanuts—would be a

clear step up from the USPS is

itself the equivalent of an

unconditional surrender.

As the fourth-class box office

of mailman-oriented cinematic

bombs like Greg Kinnear's Dear

God and Kevin Costner's The

Postman suggest, perhaps the

only person in America fully

satisfied with the Postal

Service was Theodore Kaczynski,

who no doubt disdained FedEx's

and UPS' easy-to-use

computer-tracking software and

who seemed to be in no

particular rush to see his

packages delivered to the

correct address. Pity poor

Costner for not realizing that

the average moviegoer's

post-apocalyptic idyll is

precisely a world without a

USPS. While the American

moviegoing public can deal with

– indeed, will flock to see—an

imaginary world in which damn,

dirty apes have evolved from

humans, it simply cannot stomach

the notion of a massively

irradiated future in which a

descendant of Cheers' Cliff

Clavin, Seinfeld's Newman, and

Son of Sam killer David

Berkowitz has not only survived,

but has metamorphosed into the

last action hero.

There are, of course, obvious

and not-so-obvious reasons for

widespread disgust with the

Postal Service—an attitude,

interestingly, that extends to

the federal government itself.

Since 1990, whenever the Feds have wanted

to make absolutely, positively

sure that a priority package

got somewhere overnight,

they've turned not to their own

USPS but to Federal Express,

which delivers both better rates

and better on-time performance.

While the Postal Service's

willingness to be an official

sponsor of the Olympics may make

Americans swell with national

pride every four years, the

benefit of such image

advertising is more than offset

by more frequent discoveries of

yet another cache of

undelivered, urine-soaked mail

in the apartment of a postal

employee. Indeed, such image ads

– not to mention sad-sack

initiatives like National Card

and Letter Writing Week

("Letters express the thoughts

and feelings that have shaped

civilization")—are routinely

undone simply by the next

lunch-hour trip to any post


Beyond questions of lost and

damaged mail (and even more lost

and damaged employees), the USPS

is almost brazenly O.J.-like in

its willingness to court bad

publicity. After a few years of

actually eking out operational

profits, it proceeded to lobby

for a postage increase. Earlier

this year, it gave the

equivalent of a 21-gun salute to

outgoing Postmaster General

Marvin Runyon, spending over

US$100,000 on a goodbye dinner,

including more than $3,000 to

cover the expenses of actor Karl

Malden, who served as the

evening's emcee. That the Postal

Service would bestow such

largess on a fellow who

undoubtedly would have been

happy to bus tables in exchange

for leftovers speaks volumes

about large-scale organizational


As does the USPS' penchant for

offering the customer everything

but courteous and reliable mail

service. Rather than dazzle the

public with, say, weekday hours

that extend past 5 p.m., a

full-day operation on Saturdays,

or a public flogging of Karl

Malden, the Postal Service has

taken a different tack, one

designed to cash in on the

"corporate branding" and

"franchise extension" crazes. It

has plastered its walls with

cartoon characters shilling

everything from Bugs Bunny

Postal Cards ("That Wascally

Wabbit is back! And he's all

yours! While supplies last") to

Sylvester and Tweety Character

Profiles ("Jumpin' Jupiter—What

a Stamp!") to movie-monster

mouse pads. In a curiously

past-tense tribute to the

courageous men and women of our

mail system—"Heroism was not

limited to those who rode the

plains and flew the skies, but

was shared by those who braved

our streets through rain, sleet,

and snow"—the USPS also offers

such gotta-have items as Holiday

Tree Boxers, "clerk vests" in

denim or wool, "postal blue"

T-shirts, and an entire line of

Pony Express wear (the last

being a particularly ironic

tribute, since the USPS helped

run the competing Pony Express

out of business).

Such mercantile shenanigans duly

inspire contempt, but the root

cause of public disaffection

ultimately stems from that which

allows the Postal Service to

continue existing: the monopoly

on non-urgent first-class letter

delivery. Though the USPS no

longer receives direct operating

subsidies from the federal

government, all analysts agree

that this guaranteed exclusive

franchise (which also gives the

Postal Service sole access to

residential mailboxes, among

other perks) is the service's

cash cow, subsidizing, among

other things, its laggard effort

to compete with FedEx and UPS in

the potentially lucrative

overnight delivery business. But

as F. Scott Fitzgerald—a man

with the wisdom and will power

to drink himself to an early and

obscure death—once suggested,

Americans may be peasants, but

they resent being serfs. Choice,

even the relatively tiny choice

between DHL and RPS (or, in

Fitzgerald's case, champagne and

scotch), matters.

As evidenced by their latest

image campaign, the Postal

Service powers-that-be recognize

the desire for

self-determination and have,

like an uneasy military junta,

tossed the public a bone, one

that merely revisits the

territory of no-choice explored

some years back with the

infamous Fat Elvis/Skinny Elvis

vote (that the latter won is

prima facie evidence of ballot

stuffing). Hence, the ongoing

Celebrate the Century program,

in which customers are asked

to vote for their "favorite"

stamps of the 1950s through the

1990s from a set number of

choices. Begun earlier this

year, the postal plebiscite is

currently collecting votes on

the 1970s: "How do you picture

the '70s? Is it polyester?

Women's Rights? Sesame Street?

Or the the CB radio, good

buddy?" Among the other

definitive choices: the

Bicentennial, A Chorus Line,

jogging, and The Oakland A's. As

with most rigged elections, no

write-in votes are allowed: no

Herpes Scare, Three-Mile Island,

Deviated Septum, or Nelson

Rockefeller Busts Blood Vessel

While Banging Mistress need


While such postal perestroika is

an attempt to pacify an

increasingly disobedient public

– one that is as dedicated to

writing conventional letters and

cards as it is interested in

buying "postal blue" T-shirts –

such initiatives merely

underscore what good old General

Henderson has already granted:

The end of America's occupation

by those "heroes" who "braved

our streets through rain, sleet,

and snow"—in other words,

employees who, like the rest of

us, show up for work on a

semi-regular basis—is not a

matter of if, but only of when.

And we're betting on

two to three days, one week at

the latest, with a small possibility

of never, and a strong

likelihood of whenever—no


Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in Suck, and can be viewed in that format here.