Friday, March 29, 2013

Much Ado About the Postal Service

I have relatives in the United States Postal Service (USPS), so I'm always kind of kept up-to-date on the goings on with the Post Office.

Here's my assessment of the current situation.  Let me know if I get any of this incorrect.  The USPS is looking at eliminating Saturday delivery.  This move is seen as required to keep the USPS afloat, as it will save them oodles of money in employee costs.  They have lots of expenses.  In what was kind of a pushy move by the Congress (seemingly to push toward privatization of delivery service), the USPS was required to pre-fund retirement for employees that haven't even been born yet, which has put undue stress on their books, making it look as if they're losing lots of money.

So this kinda stinks, because if that goes through, we won't get stuff on Saturdays, and people won't get their social security checks or health care bills on time.  And all for something they ostensibly shouldn't have been asked to do in the first place.

Combine that with the idea that this is one of the only Constitutionally-mentioned entities that Congress can establish.  It's established for the people and run under the executive branch, and it seems weird that anyone would be gung-ho about eliminating it.  It could be the profit motive from the competition, other delivery companies.

I'm not just going to leave it as my source that I have family in the USPS.  What really got me thinking about this recently was this awesome Stuff You Should Know podcast about how the USPS works.   They talk all about this pre-funding mandate and the original reason that the Post Office is mentioned in the US Constitution.

And that's what I'm really here to talk about.  See, I like to think about taking something that's established and pretending it doesn't exist.  Then I think about what would happen if it were created today.  So given the original Constitutional goals for the Post Office, what would the framers have wanted for the USPS if it were created today?

If you listen to that podcast (and all their other podcasts are great.  They make great commute-fodder) and check the Wikipedia article (not awesome sources, so if anyone wants to throw something I missed my way, I'd listen), they mention that the whole point of the Constitution giving Congress the power to establish and run a Post Office was that it would enable commerce.  That it would improve interstate communications.  And it would create a source of revenue for the early U.S.

So consider for a moment that at the time, there was no other way to really communicate.  The Constitution was set up to drive the economy by enabling communication and commerce.

I'm convinced that if the Postal Service today were re-conceived, it would be a telecommunications company.  That delivers packages maybe.  That's the only thing that would deliver the same economic impact and benefit that the Post Office delivered back in the 1700's would be a massive country-wide telecom company.

So then this came across the wire (and then the wireless) yesterday, and gob-smacked me.

That's right.  The current private infrastructure is so bad that we all cringe at this video.  South Korea has internet speeds much faster than ours.  South Korea?  Really?  This article offers the explanation that it's because in South Korea, competition is much more robust.

Because when I think capitalism and competition, I think South Korea, not the United States.

I'm not saying we should drop everything and reinvent the USPS as a massive telecommunications company.  I think we're too far away from that for it to become a reality.  But I really think there's something in the concept that the telecommunications infrastructure is a public good designed to facilitate commerce and communications between the states, and that the framers of the U.S. Constitution wanted it so.

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