03 March 2010

More about Mail: I can only presume Ezra Klein considers the Delorean DMC-12 a success

Ezra Klein | The death of the mail?

Whenever I mail something, the prices seem competitive and the speed borders on the obscene. Frankly, I still find the existence of rapid and reliable mail delivery to be baffling and an inarguable rejoinder to those who say the government can't run complicated services efficiently.
(1) Competitive compared to what? The USPS has a state-imposed monopoly on first and third class mail. What is a first class stamp competing with?

Here's some context on the price competitiveness of postage from Mark Perry.

See also the fun comparison between the price of stamps the and the price of kiwifruit.  As an analogy it's not without it's faults, but it's still amusing.

(2) I find the existence of lots of things impressive, and maybe even "baffling" so.  I am floored every time I'm on an airplane by the thought that several hundred of tons of metal are about to be propelled many thousands of feet into the air and thence partway around the world based on barely controlled fires in the engines and some equations worked out by an 18th century Dutchman.  But just because I find it impressive doesn't mean that airline I'm on deserves to stay in business.

There's a reason why we don't make arguments based on things like "Well, I have a vague and subjective feeling of warmth and happiness and wonder about the Post Office, and I think is kind of neat." That's no better than all the train nuts and gold bugs and homeopathic fools.

(3) "Run complicated services efficiently"?  Efficiently?!  Loosing tens of billions of dollars counts as "efficiently"?  I could provide Klein with wonderous and complex services if I was allowed to do it at a loss.  I could provide him sunny pleasure domes with caves of ice if I could do it in the red.

(4) Klein continues later:
And we as a country appear to still believe that people in rural areas should be able to get their mail.
No, no. Not quite. We as a country appear to still believe that people should pay the same price for mail no matter where they chose to live.  It's not a binary decision; it's not "do rural dwellers get mail, or get no mail?"  Right now they not only get mail, but they ask everyone else in the country to pony up $100 a year so that they don't have pay any more for their mail than anyone else. I personally don't see why choosing to live in hard-to-deliver-to locations should be free of consequence when it comes to mail costs.  I propose an annual fee be assessed on hard-to-reach ZIP codes.


  1. My initial response was to send you to the first part of Ezra's post where he vaguely draws the distinction between different ideas of "efficiency." But I figured why bother since what Ezra wants to count as "efficiency" really just boils down to "fast" and is basically countered by your final parting jabs.

    Then I wanted to say that I think that there is a greater, collective good provided by my $100 than I could do with my $100 alone. And I still believe that. We still need people in the country doing country-people stuff, and since being in the country doing country people stuff sucks, I don't mind subsidizing them a bit to keep them out there and away from all my awesome city stuff.

    But really, when it comes down to it, I'm a bigger fan of increased urbanization, so, OK charge them.

    On the other hand, lots of rural addresses don't have mail service and carriers drop off bags of mail at local depots that are then sorted and handed out as part of some other service...at a co-op or convenience store...or silo. So, in a way, they are being charged more for being exceptionally hard to reach. They pay their $100 AND they have to drive "to town" to get their mail. And they don't get their mail as often or as fast.

    I prefer a more streamlined and economically efficient postal service but I don't know if a competitive option provides the right solution here.

  2. I read the first part of Klein's post, and I almost mentioned it, but it didn't seem like he had some counter-proposal for how to define "efficient." At least not one that would apply in any kind of broad or systematic way, so I just let it be.

    On your second point, I was wrong to say that living in a rural area was "free of consequences" when it comes to mail. As you point out, there are definitely some consequences. My intuition is that those costs ought to be higher, but I don't have any real evidence to back that up.

    I agree that the USPS isn't a great candidate to contract out. I'm willing to run it at a loss to taxpayers. But I want that cost to be made explicit, and I don't want to pretend the USPS is doing a fine and dandy job as is. And if we're going to subsidize certain types of mail or certain locations or what-have-you, I want that made transparent and explicit too, rather than lumping everything into one big bin.

    I think framing the debate as "should be have subsidized, public mail or not?" -- which, by the way, even people who I agree with much more than Klein make a habit of doing -- isn't a good way to go. Let's investigate who we subsidize and how and how much, and decide what's worth it.