Et tu, America?

I recently ordered something from Nordstrom and checked the box to pick it up at my local store. After arranging my schedule to make time to go get it in person, driving over, parking and waiting in line, the saleswoman couldn’t find my order. “We think it will be delivered. Here’s the number to call if you don’t get it. You’ll get a busy signal but keep dialing over and over and eventually you’ll get through.”

Well, that’s exactly what happened. Except, it didn’t happen with Nordstrom.  Had it been Nordstrom that iconic store most likely would not have messed up in the first place. Had there been an error they would not have put the onus on me to track down the missing item. There also would have been a heartfelt apology along with some compensation—perhaps a refund or a complimentary gift.

However, the above story didn’t happen with a private business such as Nordstrom. It took place at the United States Post Office.

A few months ago, my husband and I were away taping television for a week and we filled in the USPS form to hold our mail and deliver it on our return date. That day, upon our return, I met our local mail-woman on her daily rounds expecting her to have our accumulated mail. No such luck. She said, “Oh, I forgot it,(insert expletive). I’ll bring it tomorrow.”

Trying to avoid the same problem on a more recent trip, I checked the other box on the form saying that we would pick up our mail ourselves at our local branch. Trying to do exactly that triggered the above response.

One of the things that delights me about President Trump’s administration is that if he heard the above story, I don’t think his response would be either, “Well, what can you do? That’s the Post Office,” or “We need more tax money to make the Post Office function better.” I think he would be appalled and determined to cut the Post Office’s budget while improving the service.

The civil service was instituted in the late 1800s to solve the problem of federal administrations handing out government jobs as prizes to cronies, relatives and supporters. In contrast to the spoils system that preceded it, it was meant to be a merit system allowing those who could do a good job to do so regardless of their political party affiliation or connections. Over recent decades it has changed from a merit system to one of entitlement. Jobs are distributed based on distorted notions of fairness rather than merit, with less and less expected of employees and little accountability. Not surprisingly, private delivery companies constantly win greater market share while many of us avoid using the government-operated post office as much as possible.

Our just-returned-from trip was for a family wedding in Rome.  We found Italy with its 2,000+ year-old Jewish community fascinating and the people we encountered were warm and friendly.  However, we could not help but notice numerous examples of what appeared to be a labyrinth of a bureaucratic system.

What struck us, however, was that upon returning to America we encountered a baggage system at Newark airport that was so horribly incompetent that it could only have been designed by a fiendish brain harboring a diabolical malevolence towards the traveling public.   Upon finally recovering our suitcases, we gratefully headed for Customs and Luggage Control.  To say that this next government function made the Italians look like juggernauts of Germanic efficiency would be too generous.  The mindless and meaningless contortions to which this part of the airport subjected us, made us feel we were unwitting participants in a Marx Brothers movie.  Except that at 11:00 pm after a long flight, it was far from funny.  It was abundantly obvious that jobs that weren’t needed had been created and that no one really cared if the system served the public well.

The United States has neither the antiquities nor the Mediterranean warmth and charm of Italy.  However, it did used to be a land of opportunity with a dream of moving upwards each day to an ever better tomorrow.  Dissolving that old spoils system over a hundred years ago was partly what made American efficiency the envy of other countries.

I know I am not being realistic but the best way to raise government approval ratings a little closer to those of Nordstrom would be to dissolve the civil service system as it now stands.  Is it time to privatize all its functions? The many civil-service employees who want to do a good job, and are capable of it, would be hired privately and those who think that taxpayers owe them a living would not.

I don’t really expect Donald Trump to solve the challenges caused by America’s increasingly intractable public sector.  But perhaps he is taking us back a little to a line from Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address:  “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

40 thoughts on “Et tu, America?”

  1. Dear Susan,

    All endeavors, public and private are populated with people.

    The question is whether or not the organization fosters a climate of service, like the Rabbi likes to say or not.

    I worked for UPS for 38 years. I watched the service go from every package is a guest of honor” when Mr. Casey, the founder was alive, to technology is the answer to everything and all that matters is the bottom line now that it is a publically held company.

    We offered a better service in the paper and pen days than with the computerized scanners.

    Being able to track your package through the system (which is only truthful or correct @ 70% of the time in my experience) does not make up for people throwing packages, which I would have been fired for, theft, packages simply not being delivered (when I started we had another silly slogan – “Every package, every day!” and meant it. I have been sent back out at 8:00 at night to finish delivering packages another driver couldn’t finish.

    A big part of the change came about 15-20 years ago, when the government came to UPS and said, we have all these unemployables in our system, if you, UPS, will hire them to load and unload trucks we’ll pay you a kickback.

    Predictably, theft went up, absenteeism went up, the package handling went down…..

    What was the difference? Prior to that decision, workers were hired from the two colleges’ employment offices in town. They gave a priority to hiring ex-military (people who had learned some discipline in life). And the emphasis was on quality package delivery, not technology.

    Add that to GICS that are turning out entitled snowflakes that don’t know how to do anything but be offended and protest and you have an interesting workforce.

    Still better, in most cases than the Post Office because if a private concern doesn’t provide some level of service, they go OUT of business, unlike anything government run and supported.

    Nordstrom’s is not immune. A nice store, although I’m not as familiar with it as you appear to be.

    I bought my wife a $80 wallet there for Mother’s Day. We were told by the young lady at the counter at checkout that for signing up for a Nordstrom’s card we would receive a $60 coupon which we could put against the wallet. We got the coupon, but when my wife went on to pay the bill at the store and take advantage of the coupon, it couldn’t be used for the wallet purchase. My. wife was pretty sure, and told the lady so, that this was the same lady that had told us about the coupon.

    Just saying people are people, at Nordstrom’s or the Post Office or the airport.

    It’s the “Esprit de corps” and management that created the culture of an organization.

    Another slogan we had was, “The only thing we have to offer is service!” at UPS.

    And that’ one of the things I so appreciate about your teachings in general.


    1. Fascinating insights into UPS, Dave. We lived in Seattle for many years which is Nordstrom’s home base. As you say with UPS, we saw a decline over the years and stores in certain areas struggle to get the right employees, but the motto of the store was service. As you say, technology often masks human deterioration and does contribute to a less personalized approach. Yet, there are still businesses and many individuals who respond to a higher calling.

  2. Susan Gilliland

    Hope the wedding festivities went well. We share your disdain for the process of coming back to our own customs and immigration system, such a nightmare. Love you guys!!!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks so much Susan–
      After it all, it’s still good to come home again.

  3. Edward Rubinstein

    Dear Susan,

    Your musing this week doesn’t quite go to the heart of the matter. It was JFK, who I, as a youngster, thought was a wonderful president who was tragically assassinated, who was responsible for creating government workers’ unions. This was an idea that FDR, the god of the Democrats, considered to be utterly irresponsible. Once gov’t employees became unionized, it’s been obvious that their devotion to their profession (that’s what it used to be) has plummeted. One used to have a civil service job for long-term security, not short-term benefits. My how times have changed.

  4. My father worked as a rural mail delivery person from the 1960s through the 1980s. He was actually chastised for using common sense and common courtesy. Many of his customers (and he treated them as such) were elderly, and their correspondents were used to addressing their envelopes to Name – General Delivery – Route XXX. He knew his customers, so delivered the mail despite numerous “warnings” from the postmaster to stamp those envelopes as “undeliverable as addressed” and to add a note to the writer to use the proper address format.

    My father stuck it out for the very generous retirement pension and PTO he earned, but even 35 years ago believed the postal service would be better off if it were privatized. Today, the only things the USPS delivers are junk advertising and packages; more people use e-mail instead of snail mail for correspondence and electronic bill pay for remittances because they can be more confident that the recipients will actually get the mail or the money.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Jean–
      Susan and I remember cherished postal workers we used to know on an island where we lived. But during the 90s they left and were replaced with people who viewed us with disdain and as interruptions to their days. The service declined beyond merely unpleasant to downright rude and incompetent. Is this changeable or are we are on a path to irreversible decay and oblivion. I hope to answer this question on our next podcast

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      But strange, is it not, Dennis,
      that she is reading our work? So who knows what is going on in her life.

  5. I have been lucky for years to have a wonderful, efficient, friendly and good humored regular mailman. All my bad experiences with the USPS (and there have been plenty) have had to do with things out of his control. He tells me horror stories of what he has to deal with in the USPS bureaucracy, as well as with some of his less than conscientious colleagues. However, he is nearing retirement; I dread the day that happens, even as I will wish him well.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Yes, Mark,
      Susan and me too. We used to have astonishingly professional, courteous, and competent mail workers on the island where we lived. And almost overnight, we watched them being replaced with illiterate and sullen workers who resented customers. How frustrating to have been a high quality USPS person during those years and having to watch the destruction of a fine American institution.

  6. An apt Musing! Once upon a time as a young ‘military public servant’ I separated from service, married and remained overseas in a socialist nightmare. My matriculation into citizenship there was navigating a hostile bureaucratic labyrinth. Kicked back and forth from agency to agency in a vicious circle, I threw up my hands in despair. How was I possibly to get a residence permit or a work permit? Only the cool-headed intervention of a relative saved me. It’s who you KNOW, right? When the time came for me to take my new bride home, I told her: ‘You know, I actually look forward to going home. Your civil bureaucracy is there but for one reason: to keep We the People in line, buster! Now at home our American bureaucracy is much kinder, for if it does keep people in line, it also still subscribes to the philosophy that it exists to serve the public.’ That was the late 1970’s, and my new wife arriving found my analysis to be largely true.

    Indeed times have changed; oft this commitment to serve the people is not so apparent today. The USPS you indict is an excellent example. Benjamin Franklin is quoted: ‘Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,’ founding the motto of the USPS. That was true when my Granddaddy was a mailman. Yet when faced with a mail situation not unlike yours, I opened a dialogue with our kind mail lady. “You guys used to have a much easier time,’ I remarked. ‘That’s right,’ she said. ‘We did a fine, efficient job, UNTIL they started telling us whom we must hire, whom we had to promote, and then started bossing, regulating, micromanaging all the minute details of how we get the job done.’ There, you see? Anecdotes like this demonstrate how the social justice warriors with an ax to grind have been hewing away at the feet of our Republic for a long, long time. I hereby descend my soapbox. Thank you once again!

    1. James, you can see by the other responses that you are not alone in your feelings.

  7. Risk aversion, lack of initiative, fear of failing, distrust in corporate jobs, laziness, incompetence and job security are just a few of the reasons many people are attracted to government bureaucratic jobs. And usually they have a strong inclination to promote the growth of government which further strengthens their reassurances of job security. There is something inherently evil about a job that awards too much job security. Anything that destroys the spirit of personal achievement, pride in a job well done and the rewards that come with it is evil. We must go to privatization of many if not all government jobs to restore pride and dignity to the people again. I agree, the civil service system must be dissolved. The entire nation will be better for it.

    1. Michael, I agree that too much job security – or job security unrelated to job performance – is a crippling thing for people and society.

    2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Hello Michael
      …and the day after we published this edition of Susan’s Musings, President Trump announced he was looking into privatizing the U. S. Postal Service. I knew my wife was powerful and influential but clearly I have been underestimating her.

  8. was that upon returning to America we encountered a baggage system at Newark airport that was so horribly incompetent that it could only have been designed by a fiendish brain harboring a diabolical malevolence towards the traveling public. THAT MADE ME LAUGH, I kept going back to laugh more.
    Several years ago we visited Canada on American Independence Day, ironic I know but there are many, too many of us Western New Yorkers that do this. The line at the Peace Bridge, one of three local bridges back to the USA was clogged worse than Homer Simpson’s heart. It took four hours to cross, long waits are the norm, even on ordinary days. When we finally made it to the custom’s booth we (6 of us in a minivan at midnight and nearly 80 degrees outside) had run out of wait and nearly all room in our bladders. The very overworked, overheated, and underpaid customs officer asked me if I had any thing to declare? I said, “Yes, I am never going to Canada again.” He smiled, looked at our crowded van and passed us through.
    The Peace Bridge is vital to business traffic, one of the busiest entry points for international travel in the USA. State and local politicians have been promising a new bridge for over 30 years. One special interest group or another always gum up the works, often crying about the neighborhood impact in a part of the Buffalo no one wants to live anyway. The current bridge is unique in that it uses 3 different types of bridge building styles all in one bridge. You guessed it, some people don’t want to lose that history, they would much rather other people not advance. The bridge issue is a running joke around here that is not remotely funny. This area is stuck in the rut you so eloquently pointed out. The combination of “it worked in the past” and undisciplined, unaccountable politicians have ruined our area and too much of America.
    Thank you for the rant space. I love you guys and truly appreciate all you do.

    1. Surely, Louis, you recognized my husband’s touch in the paragraph that made you laugh. After I wrote the Musing, I sent it to him for editing (we do the reverse process on Thought Tools) and he added that in.

  9. I completely agree with your article. A number of years ago, our postman kept delivering our mail to the wrong house. My husband complained and escalated and nothing happened. For a while, the family who received our mail in error and would drop the mail by our home. After a while, we received some of our mail, but some mail wasn’t delivered. My husband complained and kept escalating and finally he was told your next complaint will go to the postmaster general. I finally sat in our front yard one day and when the postman drove up, I walked over and asked him how we could fix this situation. He said to me, “Please don’t get me fired”. After that the situation improved. Sad story.

    1. Very sad, Cindy. For one of our daughter’s weddings, the response cards regularly went to a block a few blocks away (78 instead of our 87). We would just go pick them up there every few days.

  10. Benjamin Netanyahu has been named a suspect in two separate criminal investigations and was questioned as a suspect in a third. His wife has been charged with fraud. I guess Trump is following Netanyahu’s racist, inhumane and vile lead as children are being ripped away from their parents. Netanyahu is taking 20 per cent of asylum seekers’ wages and returning it when they leave the country.
    I guess Trump will eventually do the same thing and in your eyes, this is making America great right?! At the end of the day, it all boils down to the almighty dollar with this guy! And you think that he will make this country great by cutting funds for education, healthcare which is now healthcare, etc?

    I guarantee you that the restrooms and landscape of the lavish hotels that you have vacationed at are kept immaculately clean by immigrants. When you shop at Nordstrom’s, the floors are probably buffed and cleaned by – you guessed it – Immigrants! Whatever happened to human rights and loving and welcoming strangers? This is nothing but discrimination and racism as this is only happening because of the skin color of these African asylum seekers. And your President has an issue with Mexicans and unfortunately in his warped mind, all Hispanics are now Mexicans.

    Since Israel has constructed a wall, now this person wants to do the same and he expects Mexico to pay for it. I see someone being a copycat! What he needs to do is to really seek God in his life and stop quoting scriptures that he wants to pick and choose while professing to be a Christian. He needs to tear down the walls of the evil that is in his heart! Satan also knows how to quote scriptures!

    Famine forced the Israelites to migrate to Egypt – is that not in the scriptures that you read? They wandered 40 years in the desert – remember that? I have friends who have sought asylum in this country and it is abhorrent what has been done to them and their children. And for so-called church leaders to turn a blind eye and to pick and choose scripture is just disturbing. With all of the divisiveness and heartbreak that is going on, I guess that people in this country really need to hear about your travel dilemmas.

    Coincidentally, I too experienced a debacle with my hold mail request. But I have bigger issues pressing my heart at the moment. Mass killings, mass shootings, mass incarceration, GOP-NRA backers who refuse to change their laws, racist bullies antagonizing people, immigrant children in interment camps, and a corrupt administration at the helm of this country’s leadership! May God have mercy on this nation!!!!!

    1. Actually, Domita, we stayed at an air B and B and the Italian owner cleaned the apartment herself.

    2. Sad, but your eyes are really blinded. Children weren’t being “ripped”, but what other person that is being arrested for a crime gets to keep their kids with them while in custody? Too many listen to the retoric of the media and the left. People illegally crossing the border are not “entitled” to the rights of a citizen.

      1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

        Yes, Kevin,
        None of that ought to be too tough to understand but liberalism has now taught several generations of Americans to make decisions with their hearts and not their heads.

  11. I recently experienced a very similar problem. We had filled out the form and had checked the “we will pick up our mail” box. During the time that we were gone, my neighbor who had also been out of town and filled out the same form, returned to find mail in her box. So, she decided to check my box and I too had mail in my box. She spent all afternoon trying to call our post office. No one ever answered. The day that we were to return home our mail, which we were going to pick up from the post office was delivered. The next day I went to the post office to complain and because of all the mix-ups, I decided to ask if there was any mail being held for me to pick up. There was. So, half of my mail was delivered and the other half had to be picked up. It is very frustrating not knowing what will happen with my mail at any given time. Myself and my whole neighborhood can tell so many stories regarding our mail person and our post office. The service is horrible!

    1. This is so different from when I was a child and the postal service worked beautifully. Of course, I wasn’t around when one could mail an invitation for that evening’s dinner in the morning and get a reply back in the afternoon. The decline seems to be steady.

    2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      To us, Sherry,
      Even more disturbing is that there are now so many videos online of postal workers who have been caught tossing their mail into a sewer, a ditch, or a forest, rather than going through the work of delivering it. If those are only the ones they caught, how much of the mail does get tossed instead of delivered each day by lazy, dishonest, indifferent workers? And is that number rising? How could it not be?

  12. As a former federal employee, may I say, oh, have you hit at most of the nail on the head. I would go even further. With the exception of the Departments of State, Defense, and Homeland Security, I would sunset as much of the federal government as possible, sending those agencies’ functions back to the individual states or privatizing them. You see, I am firmly convinced that there isn’t much the federal government can’t snarl up.

    Just think of the advantages. Federal taxes could be substantially reduced – as could the federal workforce, not to mention the deficit and eventually the debt. We could get rid of vast swathes of federal laws that duplicate or replace state laws, especially in the area of criminal law. It would also encourage citizen participation in government because decision making would be closer to home on important issues like education, welfare programs, transportation, environment. We could keep a closer eye on public servants, too, to ensure they do there jobs in a more timely and efficient manner, at least compared to current practice.

    I know it’s unlikely to ever happen. If nothing else, entropy is against it. But, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to simplify things again.

  13. Amen and amen.

    One of my favorite sit-coms came from the BBC, back in the 80’s. Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister were surprisingly hilarious, given the premise of ‘politician vs. civil servant’, and yet, the more I revisit the show today, the more prescient and insightful it appears to be.

    The Civil Service is concerned entirely with its own perpetuation, and securing the ever-growing funding to ensure that goal.

    1. Oh my, Eric. My husband is a Yes, Minister fan. That show actually is one of the best arguments I have seen against term limits because it shows what happens when unelected bureaucrats actually run the show as they get new and naive elected officials under their rule. The bottom line is that any human system is prone to corruption. That’s why the Founders said that this nation was only meant for a good people.

      1. “…the Founders said that this nation was only meant for a good people.” But finding and waking the good people does seem problematic these days. May the Holy Spirit work overtime! By the way, you and your husband are doing a wonderful job!!

    2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Oh my, Eric,
      You are singing our song. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that not only do we KNOW each episode of both Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, but we own most of them. There is so much truth in that brilliantly scripted and acted show. We were saddened when Sir Humphrey passed away a few years ago.

    1. Marie Ferrell-Mewes

      My husband is a 33 year veteran of the Post Office having retired in 2011 from a rural route of 100 miles per day with 493 boxes to deliver each day. The system was falling apart in the end. Quotas for underrepresented minorities were a must. People were hired that felt entitled to positions. These individuals were given positions and many worked for a few days after training and quit because it was too hard. Even worse are the carriers who continue to work but fail to service the customers. Without fail when we meet former customers in public they bemoan their loss of his service and have continuing complaints about the lack of assistance from their mailperson. Sad but it was time to go and we are glad that he did. It was also a very expensive proposition: the purchase of a new vehicle ever so many years, tires, gas, insurance, and maintenance. The cost of making it into a right-hand drive vehicle. All to be covered by a 50 cents per mile mileage allowance. In the last years, it was like supporting a red-headed stepchild. The actual cost was $10,000 dollars over the allowance that came right out of his salary, not from the governments pocket. He has had to return to work for medical expenses are 700% higher than quoted at retirement. He actually makes more per hour driving a school bus per hour part-time than delivering the mail because he is not responsible for the vehicle.

      1. Marie, I have no idea what the phrase “a red-headed stepchild” means, but it sounds intriguing. Are you saying that in rural areas mailmen buy their own vehicles – I had no idea.

        1. That’s exactly right. You buy and maintain your own vehicle, and have a backup for when you inevitably have problems. Right-hand drive vehicles are really wanted, but often not affordable.

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