Much of the talk about what happens after the coronavirus pandemic involves what could be new on our horizon. New approaches to working, schooling, vaccinating — it’s a quite extensive list.
All of it has something in common: The discussion is largely about what we’ll add to our armament, our lives, to better prepare us for never having to face the strictures of coronavirus, or whatever comes next, again. In this we can see the roots of the term, “fighting the last war.”
It’s what we humans do, left to our ordinary instincts. We fight the last war in part because we do not have a very good radar system for predicting the future. That is sometimes due to the reality that most of us can’t capture and filter all of the available information to come up with nuggets that point out a future direction.
Very recently in human history, we invented computers and analytics and algorithms that help get us closer to that nirvana, but so far even they fail us if we can’t put numbers on the raw data that cranks through our analytic engines.
The Most Important Word
A case in point, one that’s relevant to CRM, is encapsulated in a Washington Post article published over the weekend, which reported White House rejection of a bailout for the U.S. Postal Service.
The service, rarely in robust financial health, recently has been battered by a decline in the number of packages it delivers, partly caused by the coronavirus situation. The CRM angle obviously is e-commerce related. The USPS is the last-mile delivery option for many vendors sending packages to rural America.
“The Postal Service projects it will lose $2 billion each month through the coronavirus recession while postal workers maintain the nationwide service of delivering essential mail and parcels, such as prescriptions, food and household necessities,” reads the Post article.
It goes on to say the service will be, “illiquid,” a splendid euphemism, by Sept. 30 under the present conditions.
To be sure, there are those who say the USPS should be run more like a business, and that a private sector CEO might be able to turn things around, put the service on a modern business foundation, and thus “cure” the problem. Hogwash. That only redefines the problem to make it easier to solve.
The USPS is chartered to do the hard and often unprofitable work no one else wants to do. The hard reality is that the most important word in the USPS’ name is the last: “service.”
The postal service is defined in the Constitution. It was not invented to make a profit or to be run along modern business principles. It is a service — like K-12 education, the patent office, the court system, the highway system, and myriad other government services that are designed in one way or another to promote democracy but not specifically, if at all, to turn a profit.
Essential for Democracy
The late Scottish economist, Angus Maddison, identified four essential characteristics of a successful democratic society: property rights, scientific rationalism, capital markets, and improvements in transport and communication.
Scientific rationalism enables us to understand the world and to invent solutions to its challenges. Property rights enable inventors to secure the rights in their inventions and hard work. Capital markets make it possible to connect capital and invention efficiently, thus funding research and additional investment. Transportation and communication enable us to share inventions with the world and to make profits that can be reinvested in still more invention.
The USPS falls into the last category, along with today’s Internet. Without transportation and communication — or more precisely, with degraded transportation and communication — a democratic society runs the risk, in small but quantifiable ways, of not only hobbling business, but also fostering citizen categories of haves and have-nots, a barrier to full democracy for sure.
That’s why we all should care about the USPS. Its advertising tells us that it delivers more packages (6.2 billion last year) to homes than any other service — not to mention the 75.7 billion marketing mail pieces and 54.9 billion first class mail items.
Imagine 6.2 billion packages without the USPS. If higher rates applied, might some of us reconsider some of our e-commerce orders? In these times, e-commerce keeps us out of brick-and-mortar stores where virus transmission is far more likely than shopping online.
The Trump administration makes no bones about its favored solution: to raise prices on companies like Amazon, founded and led by Jeff Bezos, who coincidentally owns The Washington Post, where the article first appeared, and which has been critical of the Trump administration (along with almost every other news outlet not named after a furry creature).
“Increasing rates too much would lead private-sector competitors to develop their own cheaper methods to deliver packages,” said Lori Rectanus, director of physical infrastructure at the Government Accountability Office, according to the Post.
In fact, companies like Amazon already are delivering packages through divisions they’ve spun up for that purpose. Still, the last mile and the destinations even Amazon Prime doesn’t reach, have to be reached somehow, and that means the USPS, because that’s the service that democratizes package delivery following the Constitution and Maddison’s pronouncements.
To be sure, we have seen this kind of debate over the Postal Service before, and every time the conventional wisdom comes around to the proposition that, love it or hate it, we need the postal service to do the job that no one else wants to do or can figure out how to do profitably.
In these coronavirus-addled days, the onus for protecting the transport and communications part of Maddison’s democracy prescription falls in part to us, to CRM, because over the last couple of decades CRM has gone from an interesting curiosity to an essential part of business and the world. We’ve come of age, and I am glad we had this talk.