Suspension of Disbelief

For anyone reading a novel, or watching a play, television show, or movie, a requirement applies that the individual participate in the story by setting aside any logical analysis, in favor of accepting the premise of what’s being presented. This voluntary engagement is referred to as “suspension of disbelief,” a term coined by Samuel Coleridge in 1817, based on one used by the Roman poet Cicero centuries earlier.

Of course, the story need not be purely fictional; in The Crown, for example, the characters and general plot are factual, but “suspension of disbelief” is necessary to accept that events and dialogue occurred as re-enacted. For the viewer, how the writers and actors present the story can shape perceptions of the factual background and, in turn, the conclusions the viewer reaches about the history being portrayed.

Dorothy and The Plan

Applying this to a real-life situation, the Postal Service’s “Delivering for America” 10-year Plan released March 23, the reader is expected to accept the facts of the narrative as presented in order to understand and support the subsequent conclusions and planned actions.

However, the critical flaw in that is the assumption that the reader will do as expected – accept what’s presented at face value – and won’t ask whether the body of facts is complete, wholly accurate, and without alternative scenarios. In turn, the reader is expected to accept the line of argument, using the facts presented, to agree with the document’s conclusions, without questioning whether those conclusions were the only, or best, possible outcomes, or whether the use of additional facts could have led to other possible scenarios and conclusions.

Based on the extensive comments that have erupted since The Plan was released, it doesn’t appear that readers suspended their disbelief as the USPS had expected. Rather, many observers have noted that The Plan’s writers seemed to have started with a conclusion, then assembled a body of facts to support it. No one is claiming any part of The Plan is fictionalized, but many are concluding it used a selection of data and facts to optimize the persuasiveness of its arguments and the unavoidability of its conclusions.

Doing so, and perpetuating the expectation of a cooperative audience willing to suspend its disbelief during subsequent presentations and online conversations, has tended to further doubts that The Plan is as singularly compelling in its assembly of facts as its authors would want readers to believe. To paraphrase what Dorothy was told in The Wizard of Oz, “pay no attention to the facts behind The Plan.”

Though The Plan is not fiction, it still does, like the wizard, present a selective picture of reality, and the more that top postal executives dogmatically repeat what The Plan presents, the more it seems that readers, like Dorothy, aren’t supposed to look further lest what’s presented be revealed as a construct, and that legitimate alternative scenarios – and conclusions – could be envisioned.

Required beliefs

The Plan expects the reader to accept a set of premises:

• The current situation is the result of decades of failure by past PMGs, like Jack Potter, Pat Donahoe, and Megan Brennan, who were unwilling to, or incapable of addressing the service and financial challenges facing the Postal Service. However, Louis DeJoy – apparently concluding he could do better – formulated a new set of solutions, and concocted innovative proposals that past PMGs had failed to develop. In other words, The Plan is nothing like what past PMGs would have proposed, or what they would have liked to see realized (if forces having nothing to do with their competency are discounted).

• Even though every PMG has rearranged the executive ranks, and remapped the postal field structure, the reorganization implemented over the past few months not only is what’s needed to improve managerial performance and accountability, it also will have the same salutary effect on line supervisors and the unionized craft employees who do the real work.

• The current Congress will find The Plan novel and fresh, subscribe to its arguments and conclusions, and accept its responsibility to pass the necessary legislation to end the prefunding obligation, enable Medicare integration, and order recalculation of the Postal Service’s retirement liabilities. Politicians will set aside partisanship and self-interest to do what’s best for the USPS.

• The financial assumptions and forecasts on which The Plan relies are so indisputable as to make agreement with The Plan’s proposals unavoidable. Despite the atypical financial situation of the past year, and the unknown variance of future financial circumstances from traditional patterns, the trendlines still are reliable bases on which to predicate drastic cost-saving measures and over-CPI price increases.

• Package volume will continue to grow, the USPS will maintain if not gain market share, and private sector carriers will not use pricing incentives or superior delivery performance to thwart Postal Service expectations. Investing billions to retool the NDCs and plants to handle this volume will assure good service and keep package mailers loyal.

• Nothing can be done to slow the decline of letter and flat mail volume, so serious efforts to do so would be a poor investment of resources – i.e., packages are the future, not mail.

• Even though there will be fewer and fewer pieces of mail to deliver per stop, six-day delivery for letters and flats should continue. Moreover, the growth in package volume will support six-day delivery and, though the costs for such service will have to increasingly be borne by competitive products, that won’t push package prices to non-competitive levels.

• Despite the economic turmoil and poor service of the past year, mailers will accept a mid-year over-CPI price increase, likely followed by a second in the fall. Mail volume will ebb more slowly – despite forecasts of sharp declines. Major users of transactional and advertising mail aren’t already actively developing strategies to move to electronic billing and messaging.

• Performance by management units – plants, districts, etc. – that, over time, have consistently been among the worst, will improve once service standards are eased. Neither the workers and managers at those facilities, nor the employees’ culture and performance standards would change, but they’ll nonetheless start meeting service targets – once those targets are low enough.

• Operational deficiencies cannot be fixed; noncompliance by air carriers, poor cube utilization on trucks, failures to make critical dispatches, failures to follow operational plans – all cannot be remedied by management and performance discipline, and must be compensated for by telling customers they have to accept lower performance expectations. If managers and workers in plants aren’t getting the job done, make the job easier.

• Moving more mail by surface is the key to reliable service. There will be no problem finding enough trucks or drivers, and there won’t be delays like there are with air transportation. There are too many hand-offs with air transportation, but moving mail by surface through intermediate hubs, transfer points, and similar nodes isn’t the same, and won’t add to transit time.

• As part of moving less mail by air, it’s necessary to cut the range for two-day service from 279 miles (six hours’ drive) to 139 miles (three hours’ drive), as if a lot of mail was being moved over such short ranges by air. As a result, mail moving from San Francisco to Reno, New York to Albany, Chicago to Indianapolis, or Fort Myers to Miami, will now take an additional day.

• It’s more efficient and reliable to move mail at 70mph through a variety of intermediate handoffs than to have it move the same distance at 550mph. Traveling 1,100 miles by air takes two hours, but nearly sixteen hours by truck (assuming the driver isn’t time-limited or the truck encounters no traffic). The fourteen-hour difference isn’t enough to overcome the inefficiencies of intermediate air transportation handlings which, like plant performance, is beyond the ability of management measures to correct.

• Financial impacts on mailers and ratepayers aren’t a serious concern. Billers won’t be driven to electronic billing, and payers won’t be pushed to electronic payment, because mailed bills and payments will take two days more, at least. The “cost of money” over the additional days won’t be a concern to companies anticipating payments.

• Even though the majority of postal revenue is from commercial mailers – who may be more sensitive to price and service – focusing on “reliability” will assuage their concerns. That future “reliable” service will be unacceptably slow to them isn’t a problem.

• Employee costs don’t need to be addressed, even though they represent about two-thirds of all USPS costs; avoiding impacting workers financially will assure their cooperation in improving their performance and enabling achievement of service goals.

Losing the audience

Sometimes in a story, even one where the audience is dutifully suspending disbelief, the evolution of the plot or some other element of the presentation makes it too challenging for the audience to keep disbelieving. At that point, the presenter has lost the audience and what follows will lack its cooperative disbelief.

The broad objective of The Plan is sound: tackle the litany of issues and challenges that have beset the Postal Service for decades. Few would question the need for Congress to act rather than bloviate, for service to improve, and for operational performance and efficiency to be restored.

However, in presenting the story that is The Plan, a point is reached when its audience is lost, not because there’s a glaringly incredulous statement, but because there’s an unbelievable level of certitude in its approach, to the exclusion of alternatives – this isn’t just "A" Plan, it is The plan.

In the appendix, The Plan offers some details about its assumptions and projections, and the range of their accuracy and resulting scenarios, but the overall message is that The Plan is what must be followed, and in its entirety, because it is the only path to salvation for the Postal Service.

Moreover, the presentations and comments by postal executives when discussing The Plan are conspicuously laden with scripted doctrine not only touting it as the only sensible course of action but minimizing any possibility that alternatives could exist. Such unwavering commitment to the canon of The Plan only reinforces the audience’s skepticism that, on the contrary, other reasonable scenarios not only exist but should be just as reasonably considered. 

This mulish focus on The Plan, and its implementation in its entirety, begs the question of what The Plan’s authors and advocates will do if inevitable roadblocks are encountered. Is The Plan so reliant on every element of its interconnected assumptions and proposals that it will collapse if any are removed? For example, what happens if:

• ... Congress balks? Will the assumed $58 billion that legislative action would have contributed be shifted to ratepayers?

• ... as yet undefined product changes, or other required filings with the Postal Regulatory Commission, aren’t endorsed? From where will the $44 billion expected to derive from measures re-quiring PRC approval instead be forthcoming?

• ... package volume doesn’t grow, or the decline in traditional mail volume accelerates, either organically or because of the impend-ing rate increases? Will the lack of revenue assumed to come from packages be made up by higher prices on monopoly mail?

• ... conversely, financial projections are shown to be too low? If projected losses for FY 2021 don’t materialize, will rate increases be deferred? Will service cuts be suspended?

• ... service performance doesn’t improve, or if the reliability of surface transportation isn’t as predicted?

• ... plant performance doesn’t improve, operational plans still aren’t followed, critical dispatches still leave late, and contracted truck capacity remains underutilized?

• ... employee costs for wages and benefits continue to climb? Will the USPS seek concessions from the labor unions?

In other words, some of the doubts about The Plan in the minds of stakeholders are based on the absence of doubts about The Plan in the minds of its faithful believers. Questions to postal executives – like the what-ifs listed above –are treated dismissively; any possible adjustments are a bridge that needn’t be worried about until it’s encountered.

Advice to be ignored

One of the most egregious examples of the Postal Service’s disinterest in whether stakeholders agree with The Plan is its full-throttle commitment to reducing service standards (an over-CPI price increase being the other).

The USPS is required by statute to seek an advisory opinion from the Postal Regulatory Commission before implementing a change in nationwide service standards, but the agency is showing no inclination to not implement planned changes regardless. During a recent teleconference on which postal officials entertained questions from callers, the message was clear that the changes – to enable service reliability albeit at reduced levels – are a fundamental part of The Plan on which other components depend; they can’t be deleted.

That this indifference demeans both the value of stakeholder input and the as yet unrendered opinion of the PRC is not of apparent concern to postal executives; they know well that the PRC’s advisory opinion is just that – an opinion that can be ignored, and that most customers have short memories.

Though it’s been a few months since elements of The Plan first were hinted by the PMG, and barely a month since it was issued officially, there’s been little equivocation among postal executives about the surety of its premises and proposals, or a lack of commitment to it despite the extensive apprehension (or outright opposition) among the ratepaying community.

To revisit the earlier analogy, Dorothy has told the wizard that she’s no longer believing his story, but the wizard is persisting in telling it nonetheless.

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