Mother Jones | Kevin Drum | Let Us Now Praise the USPSThis brings to mind something I wanted to talk about, so bear with me while I digress for a minute.
I'd welcome private competition for first class mail, but just go ahead breathe the words "universal service" and see how many private sector companies are still eager to compete with the post office for 46 cents an ounce.
I was catching up on some EconTalk recently, and I got to the very good episode Roberts did with Diane Ravitch about the American school system.
(Digression-from-the-digression: perhaps the single point most worth repeating was that American schools have been in perpetual "crisis" for over a century, and the we've been doing the same "OMG! Our kids are mediocre compared to the rest of the world!" freak out since the Reagan Administration. That's not to say our schools don't have actual problems, just that we might need to calm down a bit and drop the Perpetual Proclamations of Doom.)
I very much liked the episode, but one part stuck out as unreasonable to me. Ravitch was discussing charter schools, and said that the original vision was that they would take the most difficult to educate children off the hands of the public schools and give them special attention. This isn't what happened. Charter school students are, depending on who you ask, either a representative sample of the school age population or disproportionatly drawn from the upper end of the skill and motivation distributions. Ravitch was pretty dismayed by this. She seemed to take it as de facto evidence that charter schools were a bad idea because they were burdening public schools with difficult children.
I'm not so sure why this is self-evidently a bad thing for the same reason that I wouldn't be that bothered by private competitors to the USPS that didn't do universal service. Why not have privately operated organizations siphon off the group of customers/students they can serve effectively and leave the problem cases to the government? We already do that with a lot of programs. We don't provide public housing for everyone, or subsidized heating oil, or medical care. Philosophically* why does a postal system or a school have to be all-or-nothing? Isn't it the state's job to provide services to the problem cases? Why trap everyone in a system just to make it easier to serve a subset of people?
(* There may be practical arguments that such a system wouldn't work efficiently, but I don't see why Drum and Ravitch can treat considering such a solution to be de facto ridiculous.)
I guess this is another example of my desire to have subsidies be explicit. I've discussed this in the mail context before. If it's expensive to get mail to people out in the sparse areas and we, as a society, think they should get mail, then we — as a society — ought to pay for it. That subsidy shouldn't be born by other people who mail things, or hidden in the price of a stamp, it should be born by everyone.
Similarly if we're going to commit large amounts of resources to teaching difficult to educate children, we shouldn't attempt to obscure the costs by mixing them in with easier to educate children. Costs and accounting aside, it isn't fair to trap some children in a public school system just to maintain appearances of generality.