How the U.S. Postal Service Works

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The USPS is currently teetering on the edge of going under and there are a lot of plans to save it, from cutting Saturday service to creating federally-protected email addresses linked to individuals at birth. Join Chuck and Josh as they explore the history and future of the postal service.

Charles W. Bryant: Welcome to stuff you should know from How Stuff Amy Goodman: Hey and welcome to the podcast. There's Charles W (Chuck) Bryant. I'm Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now, the War and Peace Report, etc. Steve Insky: I'm Steve Insky. Amy Goodman: How you doing? Steve Insky: Good. Jerry just said, "Let's do this old school," right before she recorded and I had no idea what she meant. Does that mean it's going to be five minutes long? Amy Goodman: She meant the three of us back in like - Steve Insky: Oh okay. Amy Goodman: Yeah, you know. Steve Insky: She's back. Amy Goodman: Cheers is back. Steve Insky: I thought she meant let's make it crappy in five minutes long. Amy Goodman: Right and we need like little empty tin cans to speak into to make it sound. How you doing Jerry? That's great. Jerry gave us the thumbs up. Steve Insky: I know in our new murder room. Jerry is within our eyesight again after a long layoff where she was not within our range of viewing capabilities. Amy Goodman: I know. It's kind of weird because now I'm looking at you but I can clearly see in my peripheral vision that she's on Facebook, she's waving. Steve Insky: See, I can't. Amy Goodman: She's brushing her teeth. Steve Insky: She's rearranging the severed human heads that are in jars all around the place. Amy Goodman: That's creepy. Steve Insky: Yeah. Amy Goodman: You want to talk post office man? Steve Insky: Yeah. Amy Goodman: You want to give the disclaimer that we're only talking about the post office in the US of A? Steve Insky: I think you just did. Amy Goodman: Okay. Steve Insky: We don't know how it works in your country. Amy Goodman: No, and actually it's probably not nearly as interesting as what's going on with the U.S. Postal Service, the USPS, because I don't know if you know this or not Chuck but the USPS is in a lot of trouble. Steve Insky: Yeah. Amy Goodman: Their solvency, the amount of money that they have to keep the lights on and keep everything going is expected to run out in October of 2013, if they don't do something. Steve Insky: Yeah, that's this year. Amy Goodman: Yeah. Steve Insky: I think they lost $16 billion last year. Amy Goodman: Yes. Steve Insky: And $5 billion the year before so that's three times as much money in a year. That's bad news. Amy Goodman: Here's the caveat to that $16 billion loss though. $11 billion of that was in payments to the future benefits of postal workers that have not yet retired but will. Steve Insky: Yeah. Amy Goodman: And the Postal Service is the only federal agency of any sort that is required to prepay its employee's benefits for the future. In 2006 a lame duck session of Congress said you know what, you guys need to make sure that your workers are taken care of so you guys have to start prepaying over the next ten years. And they have been and they've been bleeding money, I mean like a $16 billion loss. But $11 billion of it was to these future payments. Steve Insky: Oh I guess that would make sense then. If you check out that 11 they would just be at about the same loss as before, just is a mere 5 billion a year. Amy Goodman: Right. And that's a lot of money to lose, it is but they are figuring out ways to make up for that extra loss and one of the big ones that's on the table now is cutting out Saturday delivery. Steve Insky: Yeah, August 1st I think this year. Amy Goodman: Yeah. They figure they can recoup $2 billion a year by doing that so then they're down to three. The thing is the post office, it's part of the executive branch. Man it's all over the place. It's a part of the executive branch. It's a part of the federal government but it gets zero dollars in tax revenue. Steve Insky: And it's also a thrill kill cult. Amy Goodman: Right, exactly. It's the horrible secret of the US postal service. Steve Insky: Yeah, they're all over. Amy Goodman: Right. So they get no money besides what they can make off of their own revenue selling stamps. Steve Insky: Yeah, they're essentially a corporation. Amy Goodman: Right. But they get, but they're also under the purview of the federal government. Steve Insky: Yeah, it's a weird thing. Amy Goodman: And they can't act without asking Congress and Congress hasn't exactly been forthcoming lately. Steve Insky: Yeah, they haven't approved the Saturday thing yet have they, Congress? Amy Goodman: Here's the thing. Steve Insky: Isn't that still up? Amy Goodman: They've been trying to get Congress to approve that forever. The Senate passed a bill that said after two years we'll let you cut out Saturday service. We'll give you $11 billion in overpayments that you guys made towards the retirement stuff, all the stuff back. It went to the House and the house didn't do anything to with it right? Steve Insky: Yeah. Amy Goodman: So you know the fiscal cliff? Steve Insky: Oh yeah. Amy Goodman: Well the U.S. Congress passed a stopgap measure, basically a federal budget that says within this period we're still able to operate right? And the USPS says ha ha, you didn't include our mandate from 1981 that we have to carry out Saturday service in that stopgap. So technically under current federal law we don't have to carry out Saturday service and they're arguing it legally. Steve Insky: Ah okay. So they just saying that's the loophole they're going to use the shutdown Saturday service? Amy Goodman: Yes and Congress is saying no- Steve Insky: Except for packages, medicines - Amy Goodman: Just packages. They're going to deliver packages on Saturday and here is a really good reason why. Steve Insky: And express mail. Amy Goodman: Their revenues from packages have increased 16 percent over the last 10 years whereas first-class mail, you know letters have gone down 32 percent I believe. So they are making all, almost all of their money, because it's only $0.45 to mail a letter from Florida to Hawaii. Steve Insky: 46. Amy Goodman: Is it 46 now? Steve Insky: Yeah. Amy Goodman: But they make however much shipping, in the shipping game which is where they make all their money, which is ironically the one place they don't have a monopoly as far as the mail goes. Steve Insky: I'm glad to see medicine, mail order medicine on that list too. Express mail packages and medicine because at first I was like who cares? I don't need - Amy Goodman: You don't yet. Steve Insky: I don't mean my mail on a Saturday. Amy Goodman: Right. But you need your medicine on a Saturday or else you go blind. Steve Insky: That's why they included that as a, you know, something they would still deliver. And post offices that are already open on Saturdays will still be open on Saturdays. Amy Goodman: Yeah. So if you want to go to your PO Box maybe they'll be some mail, maybe there won't be who knows. Steve Insky: I bet you've had a PO Box. I've been thinking about this. Haven't you? Amy Goodman: No. Steve Insky: Really? Amy Goodman: Yeah. Have you? Steve Insky: No, you just truck me as the kind of person that would have had a PO Box at one point you know? Amy Goodman: A PO Box. That's where I get all my guns in the mail. So I'm pretty worked up about this as you can see. It's kind of interesting. Steve Insky: Yeah. Amy Goodman: Who would have thought that the Postal Service whatever be interesting? Steve Insky: I think parts of this a very interesting. And we just want to go ahead and say hello to all of our postal carriers out there that listen to our show. Amy Goodman: Who won us over during the Bush era. Steve Insky: Cause we've gotten emails from you guys and gals. Amy Goodman: Yeah, including one of my favorite people out there, is a postal worker. Steve Insky: Who? Amy Goodman: Van Nostram. Steve Insky: Oh yeah. Is he? Amy Goodman: This one should really be a tribute to Van Nostram. Steve Insky: I didn't, he's a carrier? Amy Goodman: He's always been kind of cryptic about what he does but I'm under the distinct impression that he's employed by the Postal Service. Steve Insky: All right so Bangalore's Van Nostram this is for you. Amy Goodman: Yeah. But okay so let's talk about this. Let's talk about the Postal Service. Man I'm all jazzed about the USPS dude. Steve Insky: I'm glad you are. Amy Goodman: So for a little while, even after the advent of electronic mail the postal services, the amount of mail they were delivering was still increasing. As of 2007 it was on an upward trajectory, sorry 2006 right? Steve Insky: Yeah. Amy Goodman: 237,137,000,000 pieces of mail that year. Steve Insky: Yeah, it's down to 167 now. And then, when was this written do you know? Amy Goodman: I think 2007 - 2008. Steve Insky: Okay. So then they had 700,000 employees. Now they have about 580,000 so they've been in trim the budget mode I think for the past few years. Amy Goodman: Well, and the reason why, in 2006 they also made $72.80 billion. I mean those stamps add up you know? In 2011 they made 66 billion. Steve Insky: Wow, not bad. Amy Goodman: Yeah, but they're still losing a lot of money. I mean that's what, $7 billion in difference in just five years. That's not good. Steve Insky: Yeah, that's not good. Amy Goodman: So where'd all this come from Chuck? Steve Insky: It came from back yonder day, you know people have always needed to communicate obviously from long distances. And in 1639 colonists here in the new, I guess they weren't the United States yet but in the New World needed to get word back to England occasionally and say things like, "Hey quit bugging us." or "Hey, send us more tea and crumpets." Amy Goodman: Right. Steve Insky: So the first official Postal Service was established in 1639. Richard Fairbanks' Tavern in Boston was the official mail drop for overseas there in Massachusetts and that was the place to go if you want to mail something. Amy Goodman: Yeah, and I couldn't find what happened or where it when on the other side of the Atlantic, how you got it. Steve Insky: Probably to another pub. Amy Goodman: I would imagine. Then you just went to that pub and said, "Hey is there any mail?" and they said "No." and you turned around and travel the 500 miles back to your village. Steve Insky: So that was step one. Step two was about 40 some odd years later, 1683 William Penn established, a very famous person obviously, the first official post office in Pennsylvania. Amy Goodman: Yeah it was named after him. Steve Insky: That's right. And I love the side note here, in the south private messages were just sent between plantations. So they would probably just give it to a slave and say, "Carry this over to that guy." And then flash forward little bit more tea 1691, the British Crown gave to a man named Thomas Neil a 21 year grant for the Postal Service in the United States. Amy Goodman: And he paid like seven shillings a year. So that's nothing right? He still died in debt. Steve Insky: Did he really? Amy Goodman: With a monopoly. So the Postal Service has always been kind of tricky to cull money from. Steve Insky: Interesting. So that continued until 1774 and a lot of big stuff was happening around that time like hey we don't like you anymore in England, controlling us over here, and taxing us so we're going to start and establish our own constitutional post office for any kind of mail going from anywhere basically. Amy Goodman: Inter-colonial mail. Steve Insky: Yeah. Amy Goodman: Yeah. It was very cutting-edge at the time. Steve Insky: Sure. Amy Goodman: I mean actually when the British were carrying out the Postal Service on behalf of the colonies, in the colonies there was a guy named Benjamin Franklin who was appointed the postmaster of Philadelphia and he actually killed it as postmaster. Steve Insky: Of course he did. Amy Goodman: He like totally improve the roads. He said we're going to start working 24 hours a day. We're going to have lots of shifts. We're going to put up milestones. Like the Postal Service helped improve the connectedness of the colonies thanks to him. Steve Insky: Yeah. Amy Goodman: So when the Continental Congress said, "Hey we want our own Postal Service," Ben Franklin became the first Postmaster General. Steve Insky: Sure. And of course he ran it like a tight ship. And he's one of those dudes, I get a feeling if we could like resurrect him and bring him out today, he could fix what's going on in this country. Amy Goodman: Yeah and he'd say something pithy and asked for a glass of sherry. Steve Insky: Exactly. So this is to me when it gets super interesting, was in the 19th century when westward expansion happened, California gold rush. All of a sudden we needed to get stuff from the East Coast to San Francisco let's say as quick as possible. Amy Goodman: What's crazy is as quick as possible was to go down New York, around Florida through the Caribbean. Steve Insky: On a ship. Amy Goodman: Yes on like a steamship. Steve Insky: Yeah. Amy Goodman: Through the Caribbean and then across Panama and then up on the Pacific side to California. That was the fastest way to get mail for a while. Steve Insky: Yeah and how long, three to four weeks to send a letter from the East Coast to the West Coast and that's the best case scenario. Amy Goodman: Right, and that's how the US, the East Coast communicated with the West Coast for a while. Until some stagecoach routes were established. There was a Southern Route and there was a Central Route. Steve Insky: Yeah. Amy Goodman: And the Southern Route you could supposedly use year-round. Steve Insky: Sure because it's lovely down here. Amy Goodman: But in the Central Route it was faster but they said you can't use that year-round, there's storms. Steve Insky: Yeah. And it also killed me man, the way they used to name companies back then was so, like it made perfect sense. You basically just said what you did. Like one, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company said we're going to carry your mail to the Pacific by steamship and then the Overland Mail Company like well we're going to do it over land so that's what we're going to call our company. So they got the contract, the Overland Mail Company along the southern route took about 25 days and then my favorite, one of my favorite parts of American history was born, the Pony Express. Amy Goodman: Yeah and it's just so amazing. Like the idea that they had to do this. It was a different company that was competing that wanted to get that contract away from the Overland Company right? Steve Insky: The COC & PP. Amy Goodman: And they said you know what? We know the central route is shorter. We're going to prove that we can use it year-round and we're going to set up something that it's just going to blow this 25 day thing out of the water. And they set up the Pony Express. And they had stations what every 10 - 20 miles? And a rider would ride from St. Joseph Missouri to Sacramento or be part of a line of riders. Steve Insky: Well yeah that's the key. Amy Goodman: They'd go about 100 miles and then they'd change horses every like ten or 15 miles. Steve Insky: Yeah. So the same rider would change horses because they road, they averaged ten miles an hour which doesn't sound fast but you got to factor in like the Sierra Nevada's where they're just crawling up these mountains. So these dudes were riding hard on flat ground. Amy Goodman: And if they are averaging ten miles an hour right, and they're going 24 hours a day they're going 2,000 miles, ten miles an hour that's what, 20 hours? Steve Insky: Yeah. Amy Goodman: That's, no that's 200 hours. So what is that? That's less than 10 days. So that cuts that Overland Company's rate by 150 percent. Steve Insky: Yeah. There was always one set of riders going east, one set going west. Amy Goodman: Yeah. I think when you were relieved by another rider you'd hang out at that station. Steve Insky: And just take up another route. Amy Goodman: And wait for the other, for somebody to come the other way and then relieve them. Steve Insky: Yeah. They were paid really well at the time, 25 bucks a week, which at the time unskilled laborers made about a dollar a week. And did you read the first ad they ever put in? Amy Goodman: No. Steve Insky: Wanted - young skinny wiry fellows, not over 18. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily, orphans preferred. And that may be legend but supposedly that's what it says but apparently they were young, little, light, lithe, skinny kids because you know you didn't want some big dude like me up on a horse. The horse would be like oh I don't want to ride anymore. So they were like these young boys. I think the youngest was like 14. Amy Goodman: Oh wow. Steve Insky: And supposedly Buffalo Bill Cody was a rider although people have disputed that now. Amy Goodman: Oh yeah? Steve Insky: Yeah. Amy Goodman: Well he's the stuff of legend. Steve Insky: Well he's by far and away the most famous Pony Express rider if in fact he did. Amy Goodman: Got you. Steve Insky: But anyway - Amy Goodman: So think about the amount of infrastructure built up along this Central Route, to have the station every ten or 20 miles. You've got all these employees going and they proved it, they proved that the Central Route could be used year-round. Steve Insky: So they got the contract then right? Amy Goodman: No. The Overland Company got a contract to use it. Steve Insky: To use that same route that was already established. Amy Goodman: And the Pony Express was like you have to be kidding me? And so the US government said no, no, you guys do half and then let the Overland Company do the other half. Steve Insky: Yeah, and they were mad for about a year and a half and really angry and then the telegraph line was completed and everyone was like, "Oh well, I guess we're all out of business now." Amy Goodman: Yep, that was it. Pony Express was sold to Wells Fargo. And basically shut down. Steve Insky: Yeah. I think American Express ended up branching out of Wells Fargo too. Amy Goodman: Yeah. Steve Insky: Like these are old, old companies like these modern banks and credit card companies. It's interesting how far they go back. Amy Goodman: But think about that man. Even as far back as the mid-19th century new technology was putting mail delivery out to pasture. Steve Insky: Yeah. Amy Goodman: And then mail delivery would evolve and figure out how to come back. Steve Insky: Yeah, it's pretty cool. Amy Goodman: It's foreshadowing. Steve Insky: It is. So this is a big jump forward to the mid-1960s. Amy Goodman: Yeah. Steve Insky: A lot happened in between then. Amy Goodman: It did and actually we started to go, move further and further out into the suburbs. There was a huge population boom in the postwar era and businesses started to realize the value of direct mailing and all these factors put together meant that the Postal Service was totally overwhelmed, completely. Steve Insky: Yeah. Because it became such a big deal, everyone was writing letters. Amy Goodman: And they were using the same old hand, I guess hand delivery methods, sorting methods. Steve Insky: Yeah. Amy Goodman: That's what it was. They weren't automated at all and they needed to be. Steve Insky: Right. Amy Goodman: And so there was a postal reform that was undertaken. Steve Insky: Yeah and this was, in 1971 the post office department, and I didn't even know this. This was shortly after I was born. We weren't the United States Postal Service until 1971. Amy Goodman: Yeah. Steve Insky: That was when we officially became the USPS. It became an independent establishment, was no longer a part of the cabinet of the federal government but was part of the Executive Branch and got the monopoly basically to deliver mail even though it was supposedly just a company. Amy Goodman: And they re-upped the mandate from, I think 1792 that said the Postal Service is one of the most essential services of the federal government. No person is cut off in this country. Steve Insky: Yeah, none shall not get delivered. Amy Goodman: Exactly. Everyone's going have a mailbox and everyone's going to get mail to that mailbox every day because we need to help keep intellectual freedom going and ideas and business and commerce going all the time. And the Postal Service is this federal agency that carries that out. Steve Insky: And I'm sure that put a financial burden on them when people started building in these, like especially rich people when they started building in these remote areas cause then all of a sudden you had to add that to your route even if it's 60 miles up a mountain and it's the only house. Amy Goodman: And there's a guy who services the Grand Canyon. There's a group of Indians that live at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. He has a donkey train that goes down there every day with the mail. Steve Insky: Really? Amy Goodman: Yeah. I mean its part of, it's a federal mandate. You have to be able to get mail. Everyone has a mailbox. Steve Insky: He's like, "Don't you guys you smoke signals?" Come on, they do. In fact I actually wrote an article on smoke signals. Amy Goodman: Oh yeah? Steve Insky: Yeah. I was going to say we should podcast on it but it's like super basic. Amy Goodman: Is it really? Steve Insky: It would be like a five-minute podcast. Amy Goodman: Well we'll have to figure out some other way to use it. Steve Insky: Agreed. Amy Goodman: Cause that's interesting. Steve Insky: So do we cover going postal now? It was sort of just thrown in the middle of this article. Amy Goodman: Yeah it really was. Steve Insky: It was talking about how packages are delivered and all of a sudden it says, "And then people started killing each other in 1986." Amy Goodman: Yeah which is actually, the post office has the dubious distinction of kicking off the workplace shooting trend in the United States. Steve Insky: Was that the first one? Amy Goodman: As far as I could tell. Steve Insky: Wow. All right so 1986 Edmond Oklahoma. Patrick Henry Sherrill killed 14 coworkers. 1991 another one happened including a supervisor getting killed with a samurai sword. Amy Goodman: Yeah. Steve Insky: November 1991 Thomas McLane shot and killed four coworkers, wounded five others then shot himself. And then 1993 and then in 2003 two more incidences of postal workers killing fellow postal workers. Amy Goodman: Yeah, it was like just between '86 and '97 40 people died at post offices from postal rampage. Steve Insky: Yeah and gave birth to the term going postal which is used as a vernacular for like just losing it basically. Amy Goodman: Yeah and if you you're interested in that at all, there's a really good documentary, I think it's on Netflix streaming right now, called Murder by Proxy and it's all about the postal shootings, like where they came from. There's a lot of scrutiny of the management techniques of people at post offices. Steve Insky: There's got to be something to it. Amy Goodman: Oh yeah. If you watch it was clearly the supervisors' culture. Steve Insky: Like how many other industries had that many office shootings, you know? Amy Goodman: Retail actually. The homicide rate is three times higher in retail than it is at the post office. Steve Insky: But you don't say going retail. Amy Goodman: Right. Steve Insky: That just means you're going shopping. Amy Goodman: Well it's like drinking the Kool-Aid. They really drank flavor aid. Kool-Aid is the one with that distinction. Steve Insky: Ah yeah. All right. Amy Goodman: So that was going -- Steve Insky: Yeah. I mean we had to mention it but I don't want to dwell on it. Amy Goodman: But it was weird in this article the way it went. Steve Insky: It's like right in the middle of section. Amy Goodman: It came up out of nowhere. Steve Insky: Zip codes, this is kind of cool. ZIP Codes were introduced in 1963 and then officially put in place and mandatory in 1967 because just so much mail going on you had to categorize it more specifically. Amy Goodman: Right. That was part of the post office being swamped. This was the first step toward automation, was like a standardized coding system. Steve Insky: I'm surprised it took that long. Amy Goodman: Well they did have other ones but it was like one was New York City or something like that you know. Steve Insky: Yeah. So zip, this is just a nice little cocktail party factoid, stands for zone improvement plan. I never knew that until I read this. Did you know that? Amy Goodman: I had before but I'd forgotten. Steve Insky: Okay. So it's a zone improvement plan and its, here in the United States at least it's a five digit number, represents a location obviously where you're trying to send something. And now they have the ZIP Code +4 in some areas of like I guess major urban areas have a little more specificity. Amy Goodman: Right. They deliver it to, like they put it on your stomach if you put the zip +4 on it. Steve Insky: I think certain buildings will even have their own +4 if it's a big enough building. Amy Goodman: Right, or if you get a lot of mail as a person. Steve Insky: Is that what you're after, is a +4 for your house? Amy Goodman: Well it says that some high-volume mail receivers get it. I'm like, you know if it was cool mail I'd love to get the mail. Steve Insky: So the first digit there represents the state. Here in Georgia that's a three. It increases as you move west and there are some states that share each digit. Amy Goodman: Yeah like two is taken up by a lot of states. There's the District of Columbia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, Virginia. Steve Insky: West Virginia. Amy Goodman: Man, all twos, I'd be mad if I lived in one of those states. Steve Insky: So then you got the second and third digits. Those are regions within the state. The first three of those create what's called the SCF code - the sectional center facility. And then the fourth and fifth digits are even more specific. Basically it just hones down as you go left or right until you've got Josh Clark's house. Amy Goodman: Right. Like this state, this section facility, this post office. Steve Insky: Yeah, this neighborhood. Amy Goodman: Yeah and then maybe this building, this high-volume mail receiver named Josh Clark. Steve Insky: That's right. Amy Goodman: So you've got the ZIP Code. That allowed automation and a little known fact is the U.S. Postal Service doesn't just handle a ton of the US's mail. It handles 40 percent of all of the mail in the world. Steve Insky: Oh really? Amy Goodman: Yeah. Steve Insky: Wow. Amy Goodman: So before the ZIP Code, this was really difficult. It also went from if you were mailing something from New York to San Francisco, it went through every distribution facility in the country in between New York and San Francisco before it got there. Steve Insky: Really? Amy Goodman: Yes. Now with ZIP Codes, well let's talk about what a letter does. Steve Insky: Okay. Amy Goodman: And this is all thanks to ZIP Codes. Steve Insky: So I write a little love letter. I'm going to mail it to Emily, which is weird because we lived together. Amy Goodman: Right. It would just be romantic. Steve Insky: That's actually a great example thought, because you can mail something from your mailbox to be delivered back to you I reckon. I've never done it. Amy Goodman: That's the poor man's trademark, copyright. Steve Insky: Oh yeah. I've heard about that. Amy Goodman: Is to mail something to yourself and deliver it sealed. Steve Insky: Do those hold up? Amy Goodman: I think it depends on the judge probably. Steve Insky: Yeah, okay. So you put it in your mailbox. The postal carriers going to pick it up. They're going to take it to the post office. They're going to put it on a truck and then take that from the post office to a processing plant where we have our long-awaited machines doing some sorting by shape and size. Amy Goodman: Yeah. Well first they sort everything out and make sure everything's facing the right way right? Steve Insky: Yeah. Amy Goodman: And then the packages, well packages are put on one belt and then letters are put on another and the letters, let's just stick with the letter that you wrote. Steve Insky: Okay. Amy Goodman: It goes into a slot so it's facing upwards and upright, front wards and upright. And then they put a little barcode on the back of the letter in I think ultraviolet ink. Steve Insky: Yeah. Well first thing it does is it gets a postmark and cancellation lines saying basically you can't use this stamp again. Don't even try it. Amy Goodman: Yeah, don't be cheap. Steve Insky: We've seen the white out tricks, we've seen doctoring up a stamp. Amy Goodman: Which is probably a federal offense. Steve Insky: It probably is. Amy Goodman: And then so after that, a barcode is printed on the back of a piece of mail and then there's an optical scanner that reads the address, which is pretty cool, and if, they are really, really, really accurate too. But if your handwriting is terrible they have a new system now where this conveyor belt takes a picture of it, emails a picture to a human being at a computer who reads it - Steve Insky: Who wakes up. Amy Goodman: Which is what I think it is. Steve Insky: Reads it. Amy Goodman: Types it in and then, so it stays on the line. It doesn't have to come out any longer. That's pretty new technology. And then, so based on this address including the ZIP Code, it prints a barcode at the bottom. If you look at a letter, any letter you get has a little barcode on it and so that's what's read. Steve Insky: That's right. The thing on the back is invisible I think right? Amy Goodman: Yeah. Steve Insky: It's florescent. Amy Goodman: It's just showing off. Steve Insky: We have invisible ink. Other processing machines then read those barcodes and then sort them in their little bins according to ZIP Code and it's just basically placing everything in what will eventually be a tray that will be delivered back to a post office, or a sorting facility, or does it go straight to a post office? Amy Goodman: It goes to - Steve Insky: No, another processing plant. Amy Goodman: Right. So imagine each processing plant - Steve Insky: They're like regional I guess. Amy Goodman: Has a bunch of mail coming in on trucks that it sorts and then sends out. And then based on its ZIP Code that it serves, it gets a bunch of flats from other distribution facilities that are already according to the ZIP Code. So let's say it's getting a flat of mail by ZIP Code, it then also sorts through those. And it actually sorts them into an individual carrier's route in order. Steve Insky: And that's what's delivered to the post office? So it arrives at the post office ready to go on the truck. Okay. Amy Goodman: Yes. That doesn't mean that the postal worker doesn't have much to do. They still have like circulars, magazines, bulk mail they have to go through and put it for every address and then sort all that. Steve Insky: All that crap that ends up in my recycling bin basically, yeah. Although the coupons - Amy Goodman: Well remember our junk mail episode from years and years back? Steve Insky: Oh wow, holy cow. Amy Goodman: We got so much grief from people who are like, "No, no, no, you can't get rid of junk mail." Steve Insky: Right. That's the only thing keeping us in business. So if you're going to address a letter there are a few guidelines. You know you've got to put your address legibly in the front. You've got to put your little return address in the upper left corner. Amy Goodman: Yeah, on the front. Don't put it on the back. Steve Insky: No, upper left corner there. Amy Goodman: And don't use periods and commas, like if you write PO Box, it's not P period O period Box - Steve Insky: Although that doesn't matter. Amy Goodman: Apparently it allows for greater efficiency in reading your letter. Steve Insky: Maybe, because I always put like Atlanta, GA period. Amy Goodman: I do too and they still get there but don't you wonder if they get there like earlier? Steve Insky: I don't know, maybe so. It is, supposedly you need to be able to read the address at arm's length so don't write tiny. And don't write so big they can't do other things to the envelope like scan and stamp and things like that. And then you know you got to put your return address because if something happens you want to come back to you, although I don't do that much anymore. A lot of times I'll just put like Atlanta Georgia. Amy Goodman: Really you don't put your return address on there? Steve Insky: No but I rarely mail things and a lot of times when I do it's for work so I'll just put Atlanta Georgia, How Stuff Works or something. Amy Goodman: Oh got you. Steve Insky: And it's not the kind of thing that if it doesn't come back to me I would care. Amy Goodman: I got you. Steve Insky: If I had some precious thing I would put a return address. Amy Goodman: I have a feeling that you're going to get some email from postal carriers that are like, "I hate people like you," because whether you care if it comes back to you are not, I'm sure they have to get it back to you. Steve Insky: There are a lot of types of delivery surfaces, surfaces? Services we won't go over here but I did want to say that Media Mail is a great little trick, not a trick but a great tool if you're mailing things like books or DVDs because it's super cheap but it takes a while. Amy Goodman: Yeah, but that's part of that mandate from 1792 that they want to keep the intellectual juice of America flowing through the Postal Service so things like that, like creative stuff or books or correspondence like that has - Steve Insky: Sure. And I think that's how, if you've ever ordered a book on Amazon for like two cents, you're like, "Oh how can they sell a book for two cents?" It's because they charge you like $4.95 for shipping and they probably pay like eight cents to mail it with Media Mail. Amy Goodman: That's the greatest scam of the 21th century. Steve Insky: Well not really. I mean they're making their money via shipping instead of the book itself but publishers don't like it of course because they want to sell their books new and not for two cents on Amazon. Amy Goodman: Yep. So I think we said that the Postal Service has a monopoly on delivering mail but not on delivering packages right? Steve Insky: Sure. Amy Goodman: So because they're kind of in competitive business against like UPS and FedEx and DHL and all those guys, those guys have gone ahead and invested in infrastructure of say like air delivery, air transportation of mail and the Postal Service has tried that before, like they tried a guided missile in 1953 which they shot full of mail from a submarine to a naval station in Florida. But it was just too expensive so the Postal Service said, "Hey UPS, hey FedEx, you guys have a bunch of planes. Can we start putting our mail on it?" And they said, "Sure for a few billion dollars a year." And the Postal Service said "Great." But at the same time they kind of, they stepped forward into the 21st century by doing so and the Postal Service, having access to everyone's mailbox is often tapped by UPS and FedEx to deliver what's called in the business the last mile. So a lot of times, especially if you're a rural person, if you get something from Amazon it was shipped by UPS but eventually it made its way into your postal carriers route and was being delivered by the Postal Service. Steve Insky: Yeah. There is way more mixing of package mailing then you would think. Amy Goodman: It's like a swinger party or something. Steve Insky: Pretty much. And part of that deal in 2001 with FedEx was hey FedEx said, "Can we put our boxes at your post offices?" And they said, "Sure for $126 million." And they said, "Can we hitch a ride on your plane?" And they said, "Sure for 6.3 billion over seven years." But it seems like a good agreement and they did the same with UPS and we scratch our back you scratch yours, we scratch your back we'll scratch yours. Amy Goodman: Yeah. Steve Insky: Is that how it works? Amy Goodman: Yeah. Steve Insky: Why doesn't everybody just scratch thrown back? Amy Goodman: I don't know. Because it's hard to reach. Steve Insky: Yeah, I guess so. Amy Goodman: So if you realize that the Postal Service needs a few billion extra dollars you say, "Why don't you just up the postal rates?" Well the federal government keeps its thumb on that. They want to make sure that anybody who needs to mail a letter can do so without great expense. Steve Insky: Yeah. It's a big deal to change the postal rate, like it is much more than you would think because a layman like me would just be like, "Yeah just add a few cents. Who cares?" Amy Goodman: Yeah what's the problem? Just print it. Those forever stamps, genius idea, you don't have to go back and reprint a bunch with the amount, great idea. Steve Insky: Yeah, or the one cent. Remember in Fargo when Wade got the one cent? Amy Goodman: Yeah, with the ducks. Steve Insky: Yeah, and she was like, "Everyone needs the one cent one when they raise the rates." Amy Goodman: He's like, "Oh gee, I didn't think about that." So, but yes there is a very long protracted difficult process of raising the postal rates. It's not a very easy thing and it involves a ton of bureaucracy. Steve Insky: Should we get into that or just leave it at that? Amy Goodman: It's up to you man. Steve Insky: Ah, I think we should just leave it at that. Amy Goodman: Okay. Steve Insky: So if you are going to mail something from your house you need your little mailbox and I just installed mine in what seemed like a sensible manner. I didn't realize that there were actual rules. In fact you are supposed to contact the post office before installing your mailbox, which I had no idea, to make sure it's like the correct placement and height and so like the mail carrier doesn't have to get out of the truck. Amy Goodman: Oh they'll burn it down if it's not to specification. So you want to contact the post office. Steve Insky: I didn't but I guess I just looked out because they say generally 41 to 45 inches from the road surface to the inside floor of the mailbox or point of entry and then set back six to eight inches from the front face of the curb or road edge to the mailbox door. I guess I just got lucky then because I get my mail. Amy Goodman: Without any burning down of your - Steve Insky: No, r without a post office Box which we talked about. They've been around for a couple hundred years and that's if you want to have a little key to your little own box in a post office and get your mail there. You can certainly do that. It's handy if you're starting out a business and you want to make people think that you're not working out of your house. You can get a post office and say, "Look I have a PO Box." which means I'm working out of my bedroom. It's like code I think. Amy Goodman: Or you're getting guns in the mail. Steve Insky: Is that what people do? Amy Goodman: I'm sure there are a lot of people who try to get guns in the mail in their PO boxes. Steve Insky: Yeah, sure okay. Or if you tend to move around a lot in the same town and you don't want to worry about changing your mail and forwarding your mail you can always just get a PO Box. So those are some reasons. Amy Goodman: You don't want to talk the future of the post office, if it's around after October 2013? Steve Insky: Sure. What is the future of the post office? Amy Goodman: Well there's a lot of stuff coming down the pike. There's the cancellation of Saturday mail. Steve Insky: Yep, this August. Amy Goodman: They're really going hard after package delivery services now. Steve Insky: What? Trying to, with like the flat rates and stuff like that? Amy Goodman: Yeah, just really like courting businesses to say, "Hey consider us instead of UPS or FedEx." And especially with prescription medicines because we have an aging population that's going to do nothing but increase in size so you going to need more prescriptions through the mail so hey, let's get into that. Steve Insky: Yeah and you can get into stuff like that, certified and insured and signature delivery approved and stuff like that. It's helpful. Amy Goodman: Yeah. Part of the post office's pledge is that your letter carrier won't take your medication before delivering it. He might hit you up for some. But there's also a line of clothing coming out, postal service line of clothing coming out. Steve Insky: Shut up. Amy Goodman: I'm not kidding. It's called rain, heat or snow. And that's, oh we almost didn't mention this. So the Postal Service's Creed right neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor hold on. Steve Insky: Rain nor sleet nor snow nor - Amy Goodman: Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. And that's actually not the post office's official motto. They don't have one. But it's been linked to them and it's actually an adaptation of something from Herodotus, the Greek historian who was making a comment about how the Persians, even daring their war, in like 500 BC, they were one of the first ones to establish a real Postal Service and even during war the Postal Service didn't stop. There were still documents being delivered and Herodotus was commenting on that and that's where that came from. Steve Insky: It should include like or loss of limb. Amy Goodman: It did originally, like that's an adaptation. It wasn't loss of limb but it was something like - Steve Insky: Yeah, some sort of sickness has befallen you. Amy Goodman: Right. They were putting the mail before themselves. Steve Insky: The show must go on. Amy Goodman: Right. So there's a line of clothing called rain, or heat or snow and then they're also talking about creating federal email addresses that you get at birth, Just like you have a physical address, you would also have an email address, but your email address is attached to you rather than the physical location you live that. And if you say you need to correspond with the IRS or the Social Security Administration or something like that, you would send like this very secure email through the postal service's portal. Everything else you could just use like Gmail or Yahoo or whatever for everyday stuff but this was like the big stuff, the really important stuff. And then the Postal Service would also offer like a digital lock box for the, like a will or your medical records or something like that. Steve Insky: Yeah. And listen as every conspiracy person in the country now says, "Ain't no way I want a federal email attached to my name that I have to send things through." Amy Goodman: Yeah, well that's the number of the beast obviously. Steve Insky: Yeah. I don't know that I would want that either. I'm not a big conspiracy guy. Amy Goodman: It's not that you have to send it to that, it's that if you send it through that, if somebody hijacks that and reads it they're going to be in a lot more trouble federally speaking then they would be if like they read your Gmail. Steve Insky: Yeah, cause isn't it illegal to open, like a federal offense to get someone's mail? Amy Goodman: Exactly. And that's what, there's this guy who runs a think tank for the Postal Service whose like, "It's not just about mailing documents. It's about protecting the connectedness of the United States and Americans. So how do we do that in a digital world?" And he's thinking about this. So if you're even the least bit interested by this episode that we just recorded there is an Esquire article called - Steve Insky: You almost said piece. Amy Goodman: I didn't though. Steve Insky: There's an Esquire piece. Amy Goodman: It's called Do we really Want to Live Without the Post Office? And it's by Jesse Lichtenstein and it is really good man. It's a really good overview. Steve Insky: What does Jesse think? We need it. Amy Goodman: He or she, I think kind of leans towards we needed. And the more you start to read about it the more this weird kind of civic affection for the post office developed in me, where I'm like yeah really don't want to get rid of the post office. You want the post office. Who doesn't want the post office? It kind of develops. Steve Insky: Yeah. I used to, like maybe it was a simpler day or maybe the people stuck with their routes longer but I remember my postman growing up. It was the same guy for years and we lived on, we didn't live in a neighborhood we lived on a street in the woods with like six houses and so you know I would run out and check the mail and wave at him. We would give him like gifts at Christmas. Amy Goodman: That's awesome. Steve Insky: And now I have no idea who my postal carrier is, which is my fault. I need to just go out there. Amy Goodman: I think you do. And also the Postal Service is responsible for the largest food drive in the United States every year. Steve Insky: Oh really? Amy Goodman: Yeah. You know that food drive where like you just put can food in your mailbox and your postal employee picks it up. Steve Insky: Really you can do that? I've never heard of that. Amy Goodman: It hasn't been very well-publicized but, at least around here I guess, but it's a huge food drive. Steve Insky: Or at the very least, postal carriers are taking and eating cans of ravioli for dinner. Amy Goodman: Like, "This is delicious. I love this food drive." Steve Insky: Yeah, so don't just put cans of food in your mailbox. Check into when that is supposed to happen. Amy Goodman: Right. That's got to be the worst day of the year for letter carriers. Steve Insky: Oh my gosh. Can you imagine? Amy Goodman: That's a lot of weight. Steve Insky: Yeah. Amy Goodman: You got anything else? Steve Insky: No. Respect your postal carrier. Amy Goodman: You want everybody to go out and meet their postal carrier? Steve Insky: Yeah why not. Give them a hug. Actually don't do that, they might mace you or something but give them a wave. Amy Goodman: Yeah. If you want to learn more about the post office you can type those words into the search bar at and be sure to check out the Esquire article too, it's very cool. And I guess before we get into that, Chuck you want a message from our sponsor? Let's do that. Steve Insky: Yeah. Josh you know buddy if you work in a big business like we do you got to go to a lot of meetings. But we're not always in the same place and that can present problems. Amy Goodman: It can. It used to present problems until now when we have Go to Meeting with HD faces. Our faces in HD. It's the fast and simple way to meet and collaborate online. Steve Insky: Yeah. And it's pretty easy actually. You go to GoToMeeting and it's real easy to stay connected. You just click on a link, turn on your Webcam and all of a sudden you and me and even Jerry and up to, I think, six screens at a time can be on the screen and just chatting away in real time. Like I can give you control of my desktop and you can work on documents, even though I don't like to do that, relinquish control. Amy Goodman: Well we can collaborate on documents. Steve Insky: Exactly. Amy Goodman: And all the while we are seeing each other in HD and Chuck, let's say I don't have a computer, I'm just a tablet guy. I can still do the GoToMeeting thing. Same with on my phone if I'm on the go. You know how on the go I am. Steve Insky: You're very much on the go. And we took a little trip through GoToMeeting with the GoToMeeting people and I got to say, it was pretty awesome. Amy Goodman: We were sold. Steve Insky: Yeah. And it's like you're right there in the room with them. So we have an offer for you guys. Visit Click on the try it free button and then use the promo code stuff - S-T-U-F-F and you can get 30 days of free GoToMeeting action. Amy Goodman: Very nice. Steve Insky: Code stuff, Do it now. Amy Goodman: Okay and now its listener mail time. Steve Insky: Josh, I'm going to call this fan who thought we were wrong and did a little research and we may not be wrong after all. Amy Goodman: I like, that's a nice title. Steve Insky: We had a bunch of filmmakers write in when we talked about the subliminal messages being inserted into movies in the 1950s by James Vickery because we said it's 1/3,000 of a second or something and a bunch of filmmakers went, "There's only 24 frames per second. So if you switched out one frame it would only be 1/24. There is no way, there's no way." And where did you get this number? Where'd you get this number? I went back and looked and I was like, I mean I see this number in various places but, so we got this email from Brian Henry that disputed this. And then he wrote back with this. ` Hey guys. Looks like I may have spoken too soon. I was assuming that Vickery was just changing the film itself which would result in the messages showing much slower and at the maximum 1/24 of a second but I did some research and apparently he used something called, I've never heard this before, a [inaudible 43:46]. Amy Goodman: I think you got it. Steve Insky: To project the messages on the screen not the movie projector. He said so this way he would've had a lot more control over the speed of the messages. So to all the filmmakers out there who wrote in and challenged us, I wrote back to a few. That was like geez I don't know man. I'm like I'm looking for and you know some of them were even kind of snotty about like if you research something - so apparently put that in your [inaudible 44:20] and smoke it is what I say. And that is from Brian Henry. Amy Goodman: Yeah, thanks Brian. Steve Insky: For the research. Amy Goodman: Yeah and being a good guy and saying, "Hey I was wrong." because you were. Steve Insky: He was one of the nicer ones about it. Amy Goodman: Well thank you. If you want to let us know that you were wrong even though you told us that we were wrong at first, love those. You can tweet that to us at SYSKpodcast. You can join us on You can send us an email to and you can write all over our website which is called Charles W. Bryant: For more on this and thousands of others topics visit [End of Audio]

Duration: 46 minutes

Topics in this Podcast: usps