My local post office in suburban Seattle seems to be rigged to discourage customers these days.  When you ask for the slightest bit of “consumer assistance”—as their cheerful mission statement on the wall promises they’re only too happy to provide—they seem to get ferociously cross.  I was once read the riot act by a young postal clerk because I asked if perhaps I could be allowed an inch or two of Scotch tape from one of the dozen or so open rolls of the stuff I could see on the shelf behind her.  She lectured me, at some length, on the policy of her “facility” not providing such “resources” free of charge, although, to be fair, she did go on to offer to sell me a 12-yard roll of the stuff for only $3.69, and also to draw my attention to the value pack of 16 rolls, with dispenser, retailing for the bargain price of $39.99.

Another time, I made the mistake of asking a different clerk at the same location if I could post a small package by express airmail to London.  Actually, that’s not exactly how this particular “great consumer experience”—to quote once again the writing on the wall—began.  It began by the bearded young man on duty remarking that, when I finally approached his counter, I looked just a little bit upset.  When I politely asked what the appropriate facial expression might be in his opinion, he didn’t seem to have any specific ideas; he just thought I didn’t look sufficiently happy.  I pointed out that I had been standing motionless for half an hour awaiting my turn for an audience with him, and so abandoning any pretense of joie de vivre and staring despairingly into space until called upon to shuffle forward seemed entirely reasonable.

These pleasantries concluded, we turned to the matter at hand.  From the start, I was not encouraged by the way in which the clerk scrutinized my package for quite as long and as hard as he did, turning it over in his hands several times, and studying it from every possible angle.  He asked me twice what the contents were (a book) and seemed generally displeased with the answer, if not able immediately to deny its further ingress into his system.  The matter of the package’s final destination also provided something of a stumbling block.  I had fondly believed that the word ENGLAND, which I had neatly written in block capitals and underlined, might be a sufficient clue on the subject, but not so.  The clerk took several seconds to absorb this word when I spoke it—the aspects, good and bad, implied by that particular country.  He had probably heard of England.  Nonetheless, after spending a worryingly long time tapping the keys of his computer, he asked in a rather aggressive voice if perhaps I had meant to write “United Kingdom” instead.  Feeling that this was no place to debate the exact terms of the Acts of Union of 1707 and 1800, somewhat against my instincts I added the line as requested.  Then the clerk asked to see the shipping form that I had meticulously filled in at home and brought with me.  To his delight, it was the wrong one.  “This, here, is for a package of a gross weight of two pounds or more.  Your package is one pound, twelve ounces.  You need to have this”—and he flourished an intimidatingly long-looking document that I was invited to stand to one side and complete.  The form in question, which was in triplicate, was sufficiently thorough to require several more minutes of intense concentration.  It asked me everything but the blood group of my childhood pet.  By the time I had finished it, the original clerk had gone off duty, or perhaps taken well-earned retirement, and I was confronted by my friend the Scotch-tape lady.  She read the completed form at some length, all the while slowly shaking her head from side to side in the international symbol for “This will end badly for you.”

“I know,” I said, anticipating her rebuke.  “I’ve filled in the wrong form.  I know, I know, I know, I know . . . ”

“If you know, then why did you do it?” she asked.

I couldn’t help smiling.  This is the way a great government monopoly works, I thought.  Then a supervisor, possibly roused from her hammock in a back room, lumbered out to investigate.  This person listened to her colleague’s excited summary of the highlights of my visit to date, after which she kindly offered to adjudicate the matter.  She stood for some time and looked intently from Form A to Form B, and from Form B to Form A, and from Form A to Form B again, but, as in Animal Farm, it was apparently now impossible to distinguish between the two species.  “I’m terribly sorry.  I may have filled in the wrong one,” I said.  “Please set me straight, and I’ll be on my way.”

But the supervisor had fastened obsessively onto a different detail.  “By ‘England,’” she asked, “do you mean ‘United Kingdom’?”  At that I drew a sharp breath and told the supervisor that, no, by England I meant England, and she in turn replied that her computer listed no such destination.  I told her that, notwithstanding, I had been born and subsequently spent some 40 years of my life in the place, and thus remained reasonably confident of its existence.  The supervisor retorted that she did not care for my tone, and that she and all her fellow members of staff were entitled to the respect of their customers.  “So, to be clear,” I said, “you, a civil servant, would prefer to believe a computer rather than a paying member of the public?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” she said.

“No wonder your organization is ten billion dollars in the hole,” I said, which was harsh, but fair given the circumstances.

I mention all of this just by way of full disclosure: I am aware (and in the case of the IRS, painfully aware) of that strange mixture of aggression and incompetence that characterizes so much of our body politic in its many and various guises as it seeks to connect with the public.  So ludicrous are many of these attempts, and so hopelessly inadequate are many of the officials whose salaries and pensions we pay, that I find pity rather than fury the stronger emotion in my breast.  As I get older, it seems to be harder and harder to take the whole hideously misshapen thing seriously: One tries to be civil and then to move on, much as one would when confronted by a gibbering lunatic in the street.

In the case of the U.S. Postal Service, however, I admit to a residual sense of respect and even affection for a once-proud institution, whatever its current sorry state of disrepair.  Not long ago, I was lucky enough to be able to take a reasonably relaxed drive through several western states.  What struck me again was the stark majesty of the countryside, as compared to the awful homogeneity of most of our towns: long-since tyrannized by garish computer-game and cellular-phone stores, while junk food continues to unite America like nothing else.  Even along the dark miles of desert highway, the apparently reassuring points of light were huge advertisements for taco joints and the hideous glow of McDonald’s and its ilk.  These neon-lit invaders seem to possess many of the less-endearing characteristics of the Huns, Ostrogoths, and Visigoths who swarmed over the later Roman Empire, but even in this Vegas-like vista the eye still regularly fixed on the quietly impressive slab of the downtown post-office building.  Typically, this is a solid granite edifice, with the Stars and Stripes fluttering above, and quite often flanked by a pair of rusted coaching lamps at the front door.  Not only the characteristic battleship-gray color, but also something at once angular and top-heavy about the place as a whole, suggests a large vessel moored in the street.  Even within, at least on the ground floor, the average metropolitan post office conveys some faint reminder of life at sea, with its flaking, dun-colored paint, uneven hallways, and small, often barred windows.  The procession of cheerful white delivery jeeps generally parked alongside appears to be servicing the whole enterprise like a fleet of tugs.  If you’re lucky, there may still be an old-fashioned candy-and-cigar stall on the premises, and possibly even a shoeshine man on duty in the lobby.  To me, the overall feeling is one of agreeable solidity, endurance, and even of permanence.  I find it all tremendously reassuring.

All nostalgia aside, the USPS as a whole still does surprisingly well in delivering a “great consumer experience” at the national (if not always the individual branch) level, particularly when its performance is compared with that of other quasi-independent agencies of the federal government (the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and its 4,000 salaried employees, prominent among them).  It’s true the USPS recorded a net loss of $1.3 billion in just the last three months of 2012.  The figure would have been even worse but for the fact that this is traditionally the service’s strongest financial quarter, mainly because of the holiday shipping season.  Set against this, however, the total mail volume of 43.5 billion pieces was only fractionally off the same period in 2011, while standard (non-first-class, or junk) mail and package volume increased by 3.6 and 4 percent, respectively.  More to the point, the USPS actually reduced its operating costs to $18.9 billion in the quarter compared with $20.9 billion the year before, a cut of 9.8 percent.  It may not always feel like it, but the Postal Service is really one of the few authentic public-sector success stories of our time.  That sounds like an extravagant claim, but it is borne out by evidence.  No other U.S. government entity that I’m aware of has made remotely comparable voluntary cuts in its day-to-day budget, most of them the result of streamlining and the addition of new services rather than of mass layoffs.  Thanks to a business model put in place under the Nixon administration in 1971, the Postal Service receives no tax dollars for its operating expenses—no, there’s no misprint—and instead relies on the sale of its goods and services to fund itself.  Like most industries associated with paper and the written word, it remains in the economic doldrums, but its performance far eclipses that of similar operations around the world.  In much of Western Europe, the national postal service has all but ground to a halt.  In Britain, the cost of a basic first-class stamp rose last year from 46 pence (69¢) to 60 pence (91¢), more than double our rate, and, in between managing its latest round of strikes, the Royal Mail serenely announced that it would start auctioning off the contents of some 80,000 undelivered packages that “somehow become lost in our system” annually.  Ask the French or the Italians how they rate the chances nowadays of a letter successfully reaching its destination.  You would need to carry a full tank of gas and a day’s supply of food with you merely to find a functioning post office in most Scandinavian countries.  The Swedish service, Posten, remarks blandly that it has “minimized [its] participation in the national market,” which is akin to one of those old Kremlin health bulletins assuring everyone that the dead leader was “resting comfortably.”  By contrast, in December 2011, Oxford Strategic Consulting ranked the U.S. Postal Service, with its 32,000 retail locations, top in overall performance among the 20 wealthiest nations in the world.  The group’s report found that the Postal Service handled over five-times more letters per full-time delivery employee than Germany’s privatized Deutsche Post, and concluded, “If you could live anywhere in the world, and were sending a present to someone this Christmas, you’d want to be in America, Japan or Australia.”

The press are rather famous in this country for their hatred of the Postal Service.  My own guess is that they dislike it as an institution even more than they dislike Wall Street.  Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that it seems to represent something out of our more cultured past, when people paid one another the courtesy of communicating by pen and paper.  Despite what you may read to the contrary, the Postal Service actually does a highly commendable job of balancing its books each year.  The financial problems it now faces come not so much from any gross inefficiency or waste on its part, as from a 2006 congressional mandate that requires it to prepay an annual $5.6 billion into a fund that covers healthcare costs for future retired employees—not only USPS employees, but those from other branches of the federal government as well.  In addition, the USPS is obliged to dole out upward of $1.4 billion every year to the Department of Labor for workers’ compensation.  Take that total seven-billion-dollar contribution out of the equation, and the service would actually have shown a two-billion-dollar profit in 2011.  (That figure would have become an eight-billion-dollar loss in 2012, when the USPS faced an additional number of health- and pension-plan demands from Washington.)  No wonder Joseph Corbett, USPS chief financial officer, continues to hammer away on the need for a legislative fix to the problem.  Speaking in March 2013 at the National Postal Forum in San Francisco, Corbett noted that “We have our hands tied behind our back,” arguing that the agency had been overfunding other federal retirement plans that have nothing to do with it “for decades,” while lacking the authority to make its own day-to-day operational decisions.  “We spent months trying to get permission from Congress to sell prepaid greeting cards in our retail outlets,” he said.  “That’s ludicrous.  That makes absolutely no sense.”  Corbett went on to tell his audience that if the USPS is given the power to adopt its own five-year financial plan in full, the agency will make a “modest profit” of two billion dollars per year, paying its debt down by 2017.  By the status quo, the USPS will continue to lose some $15 billion annually, until such time as it ceases to exist.

It is true that the USPS as we know it may not always be a byword for fiscal responsibility, frugal management, and grassroots efficiency in every respect, but it still struggles creditably to improve its service.  Over the past year, it has rolled out a number of schemes that suggest it hasn’t yet abandoned the fight for survival.  There is, for example, a new program called IMD Wireless, which essentially means that the nation’s 200,000-plus mail carriers will be fitted with cellphones with GPS wherever they go.  The USPS says the purpose of the exercise is “improving network service level consistency”—or what the uninitiated might call keeping tabs on your staff.

You may have read, too, that the Postal Service wants to resume delivering alcoholic beverages to your door, a service they last performed as long ago as 1909.  Of course, there would be regulations.  Under a bill submitted to Congress, any liquor consignments would have to comply with existing state laws both where the goods originated and where they were delivered.  The recipient would have to be at least 21 years old, and would need to provide the familiar government-issued proof of the fact.  No one thinks that the revenue the USPS might make from booze shipments—somewhere in the $50 million per year range—would single-handedly turn things around.  Nor will the plans to offer specific delivery dates—as opposed to the vague “2-3 business days”—for its parcel and package service; nor those to phase out door-to-door mail delivery (currently enjoyed by 30 million customers) in favor of a centralized, “cluster-box” system; nor even to end the Saturday service altogether.  Add it all up, and it still makes only a tiny dent in the Service’s projected losses.  It may be that the entire exercise is doing no more than the proverbial re­arranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic.  But when you look at the whole picture, it seems that the Postal Service may not be the smug, grossly incompetent closed shop, kept alive only by taxpayer dollars, much bandied about in the media.  What emerges, instead, is an organization essentially predicated on the idea that we write letters to one another, struggling to compete in the brave new online world where, pending a larger solution, senior managers want to be able to sell you a range of stationery products, fix tracking devices to their trucks, and have their employees haul an occasional case of Scotch to your front door.  Beyond the cosmetic tinkering, two principles seem to stand out.  First, there are certain businesses that are part of the social fabric, and that can only ever be judged by long-term results rather than short-term market acclaim.  Second, there has to be a level playing field.  That means, for example, that if the USPS is expected to stand on its own two feet without taxpayer assistance, Congress should do its part and pass legislation that allows the service to manage its costs better and give its managers the flexibility to operate more like a private business does.

Failing that, I still contend that the country’s 160,000-odd battered blue mailboxes remain one of the more useful and reassuring points of continuity in neighborhoods and streets otherwise unrecognizable from the past.