Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How to save the post office (and stick it to the man)

Here's a question for you.  Why won't UPS or FedEx come to your door every day, pick up any mail you might have, and deliver it to any other address in the country - hold on, I'm not done - for the price of 50 cents or so per item?

The short answer is that it's simply not cost effective, at least without a huge customer base and established infrastructure.  

Even then, it's still a challenge.  The USPS knows that well.

The USPS was founded on the principle that mail service is a right of everyone in the country, and that prices should never become burdensome as to exclude anyone from that process.  Even if you live on top of a mountain, or in the Grand Canyon, the USPS will still bring you mail for just the price of postage.

The problem is that this system works best when it's running near or at capacity.  There's a lot of infrastructure in place, and as we send less mail in aggregate the costs of running the system don't really decrease proportionally.  

To pump money back in to the post office, then, all we need to do is send more mail.

Well, duh, you're saying, but that costs money.  And you have to sit down and write stuff.  It's soooo 20th century.  

Sure, it is.  While I'll stand by the fact that people should write more letters, I'll agree that this isn't the solution.  At least not the solution we're looking for *waves hand*.

You might not want to throw money at this, but there are plenty of those that do.  In fact, there's a good chance that they've mailed you some money today.  What are you likely to do with it?

Tear it up and throw it into the garbage.  

You see, I'm talking about business reply mail.  Yep, this stuff:

You see, companies pay to send you envelopes full of solicitation, including these business reply envelopes.  The trick is that they pay in bulk (and get a discount), and also only pay for return postage (also discounted) when those envelopes are returned.  

It's a pretty safe bet on the return mailers - they're happy to pay for them because when they do come back they're filled with what could basically be gold: filled out credit card applications, uh, other filled out credit card applications, uh, etc.  

Some of you are a few steps ahead of me already, I can tell.  What I'm about to suggest isn't a new idea - I'm confident that a good chunk of the country has independently derived this on their own.  It's not tricky, and you can find plenty of people already suggesting it on the interwebs (which makes our eventual job easier).  

By simply mailing these envelopes back - empty - you are in effect taking some amount of money from these corporations and surreptitiously donating it to the USPS.  

Before you say "I already saw that a bunch of places", let me again point out that a quick search reveals tons of people who have also come up with this idea to varying degrees.  What I'm looking to figure out today is actually how much this donation to the USPS would actually be if we all started doing it.  

So, I've been counting my mail.  

It's probably not shocking to anyone who a) is alive, b) lives in the US that I (we) get a lot of this type of mail.  There are some days I don't get any, and some days where I get a bunch.  On average it seems to work out to about one business reply envelope a day (days that I get mail, so discounting Sunday).  

Let's err a little lower to keep things nice and round, and say that I get 300 business reply envelopes a year.  

It's kind of hard to figure out exactly how much it costs to cover the cost of a returned business reply mail envelope, as the USPS has some information here: 

But seems to hold back on pricing information until you try to do it.  I've had trouble finding anything else on their site about what sort of discount actually takes place, so lacking that information we can simply work on the known bounds.  

That is, we know the most and least that one of these business reply mail would cost to cover.  The least is nothing, if the post office is simply in collusion with the companies and not really worried about losing money.  That seems pretty unlikely.  

The most that they could charge is something less than the price of a stamp, or it wouldn't be a discount.  The current cost of a stamp is $0.46.  That means that the upper bound of what I could be 'donating' to the post office in a year is somewhere around $138.  If companies are getting a 50% discount on mailings, we're now talking $69.  If they're getting a 75% discount it's only $34.50.

$34.50 might not seem like much, and in the grand scheme of fixing the post office it's really not.  The way around this is the law of large numbers.  You can still see from the same Google search I told you to do earlier that this is not a highly unique idea.  This is a very easy idea to develop independently and simultaneously.

In the latest US census, 76.5% of the 313,914,040 people in the country were over the age of 18.  I know for a fact that you can get this type of mail well before you're 18, but for simplicity's sake lets just go with those who are right in the target market for this kind of mail.

That leaves us 240,144,241 people who are likely to be receiving some number of business reply mail envelopes in the mail.  But how many?  

Well, I don't think the numbers that I've found for myself should be anything outlandish.  I go to lengths to make sure that companies *don't* have my address, so if anything I should be on the lower end of the scale.  
Let's simply say, though, that I'm presumably somewhere around average (if you don't believe me, start counting your mail).  What would that mean?

Well, it would mean that instead of me chipping in something like $34.50 a year, 240 million people could be.  
If you have a basic grasp on math you can see that we have a two digit number that's going to be multiplied by a number that has run out of millions digits.  That means we're now talking billions.  

$8,284,976,314, to be exact.  

Everyone online seems to have a different number for the USPS budget shortfall each year, but they mostly seem to fall between 5 and 11 billion, which means that 8 billions dollars could actually make a dent.  

That's also operating on the presumption that these companies get discounts as high as 75% on business reply mail returns.  It could be higher than this, I'll admit, but it could also be lower.  If they were only getting a 50% discount we'd be looking at $16,569,952,628.  With no discounts whatsoever we'd be looking at a cool $33,139,905,256.

It's easy to read that and say, 'yeah, but that's if everyone does it, it doesn't matter if I do'.  

Well, it does, because you're part of everyone.  Honestly, make this a habit.  Instead of just tearing up and throwing away your business reply mail return envelopes (you should be recycling them anyway, jerk!), make a pile of them and then recycle the rest of the paperwork.  

Have fun with it, save them up and send them all out on the first of the month or something.  Pick a day of the month when you pay your credit cards and take a bit more delight in the fact that you got something back out of it, too.  Well, at least the post office would.  

Some people will tell you to get all spiteful about it, and mail other junk mail, or crackers, or ez-cheese, or bricks, or other things that are just not a great idea to be sending through the mail.  Don't make this about anger, make it about release.  You're getting rid of something you don't want, and helping out an organization who needs it.

Some other people will tell you to do this so that the credit card companies will stop sending you business reply mail envelopes.  Sorry to burst your bubble, but they're never going to stop.  If every single person in the country was doing this every day they *might* start to notice.  $8 billion spread across all the companies that send you this type of mail is still the equivalent of a mosquito feasting on the ankle of a giant.  

But seriously, this isn't hard.  Do it. 

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