Thursday, December 07, 2006

An Idiot and a Blowhard

No, the title doesn't apply to me in this instance, you bloody comedians. I write instead of Charles Laurence, columnist for the otherwise fab online digest The First Post, who apparently has no problem presenting himself as a shrill and demanding member of the society for seeing no further than the end of their own noses when moaning about the supposed shortcomings the modern mail system.

In his column Laurence decries the fact that a book he was having sent from Santa Barbara, CA to Woodstock, NY by media mail had yet to arrive by December 4, even though it had been mailed on November, 14. He won't get any argument from me that such slow service in this instance is a bummer, but it is the busiest season for the mail and around the holidays one imagines a lot of product is sent via media mail (especially with the burgeoning effect of online shopping). Personally, I find that when I order something that comes by media mail, it takes between one to two weeks to arrive; a great improvement incidentally over the month to six weeks mail order deliveries often took before the rise of the internet. But as I say, in this age of instant gratification and heightened expectations thanks to decades of exemplary on-time service by the USPS, he probably is right to feel a little aggrieved at the delay.

But then Laurence has to clack away at his keyboard further, angrily displaying his inability to consider context and a marked tendency to compare apples with oranges.

"Bring back the Pony Express!" He harumphs, "Oh how much better things were then!"

He is certainly right to point to the Pony Express as a breathtakingly exciting event in American mythology. What's not to love about the image of horsemen galloping across the plains with mail bouncing in their saddle bags, connecting the coasts through sheer guts and endurance? As a mail service however, it blew chunks compared to the humble modern United States Postal Service.

Although it's fastest delivery east to west, that of Lincoln's inaugural address, took an astonishingly quick 7 days, 17 hours, the standard delivery times for the short duration of the Pony Express service were 10 days in the summer and between 12 and 16 days in the winter. Still not too shabby. One did however have to pay handsomely for the privilege. How much? Well as Laurence so snottily suggests in the closing words of the column, let's "do the math":

First, what would it cost to send a 1lb book "3,000-odd" miles from Santa Barbara to Woodstock by media mail today? According to the USPS website, $1.59.

What then would it have cost to send 1lb of anything via the Pony Express 1,966 miles along the sole route it operated between St Joseph, MO and San Francisco, CA (delivery to points onward being out of their hands) at its rock-bottom cheapest in 1861? Well, the rate of the day was $1 per 1/2 ounce, so our 1lb package would have cost $32.

Already we see that the Pony Express cost about 20 times more that than the USPS to move a 1lb package, but that doesn't allow for the relative value of the dollar in 1861 versus 2006. So I think we should take a look at that.

Thankfully, there is a nifty website which spares us the need to do a bunch of back-of-the-envelope figuring. Measuring Worth indicates that 1861's $32 would be worth $731.80 today*. I dare say that if Mr. Laurence was willing to pay $731.80 to have his package delivered the vendor would probably overnight it.

And what of the 1861 cost of our nominal 1lb package, which set us back $1.59 today? In 1861 dollars, $1.59 would be 0.07c. Or let's put it another way: $32 in 1861 was about 31% of the average annual wage for an unskilled worker. $1.59 is about 0.01% of the average annual wage for an unskilled worker today. And by the weakness of his intellect Mr. Laurence certainly appears unskilled. Never mind paying $731.80 to have a book delivered, he's just bloody lucky he hasn't been found out and can still earn enough cash to be able to afford reading material in the first place.

Still, I hope he gets his book before too long. And I hope it has lots of pretty pictures.

UPDATE: Something else was gnawing away at me about Laurence's piece, so I checked it out. According to Mr. Grumpypants, the USPS's "official slogan" is "Fly the eagle". Bullshit. The history of the USPS states "Contrary to popular belief, the United States Postal Service has no official motto". Not only is he pissy, it also appears Laurence is incapable of doing 3 minutes worth of research.

(* only runs up until 2005 but you get the point. For the truly pedantic, if you want to figure the exact worth of $32 today I think the underlying rate of inflation for 2005-2006 was about 2.5%)


SkookumJoe said...

what the hell do they make of you in Maine, I wonder.

Actually back in Canada I have heard of secretaries being dispatched across the border to post a letter accross Canada, as it gets there two days quicker if mailed from the states.

weasel said...

"what the hell do they make of you in Maine, I wonder"

Bugger me, that's a loaded question.

Half probably think I'm a pedantic twat, and the other half don't understand my accent.

Mondale said...

Skoomumjoe got there first.
Weasel, take a mag into the loo or something.

mactechwitch said...

No doubt this guy is a blowhard and an idiot, as you say. If he really cared about the book he would have asked that it be sent priority mail where for a mere $4.05 it would have been delivered in 2-3 days.
But I share his dismay with the state of the USPS for other reasons:
My particular zipcode has notoriously bad service. My first class mail often winds up at the homes of others and I receive all manner of other people's mail. I usually have to flip, page by page through the stacks of junk mail catalogs delivered each day (and for those deliveries I am sorry for my mail carrier and if anybody can tell me how to quit getting these catalogs for once and for all I promise I will tackle this task as a New Year's resolution) to find the bits and pieces of FC mail that are stuck in the pages of the catalogs (to protect them, maybe?) My New Yorker gets delivered for several weeks then goes on hiatus for a few weeks, eventually arriving in a a less than pristine pile. Complaining to the postmaster is fruitless (Just ask Listmaker who went to battle on his missing TONY mags last year.)
There is a Seinfeld episode where Kramer (dare I even make reference to this man?) goes to the post office to quit mail delivery.
"A vacation stop?" he is asked.
"No, for good. I don't want any more mail, ever."
You wouldn't have to twist my arm.

weasel said...

Mondale, you are a git.

Mac; no disagreement from me that he should of used Priorty Mail or that the USPS has its problems (although my mail service up here is pretty damn good). It was more a case of his lazy argument: there's no point complaining about slow service by comparing it to an unprofitable, hugely expensive (to the consumer) courier service. Better to compare it to another country's mail service, like Canada's. But I guess that wouldn't draw half as much smug predjudicial nodding from his readers (The Brits going "Tsch, those yanks can't do anything properly" and the Americans "Don't get me started about how my piece of mail became snagged in a system that moves almost all of the millions of pieces of mail daily without error").