"Am I in the Presence of the Ghost of Lysander?" Said Scrooge. The Spirit Answered Not, But Pointed To a Mailbox With Its Hand

nytimes.com

WASHINGTON — The cash-short United States Postal Service, which has failed to win congressional approval to stop delivering mail on Saturdays to save money, has struck a deal with the online retailer Amazon.com to deliver the company’s packages on Sundays — a first for both, with obvious advantages for each.

The deal, announced on Sunday and taking effect immediately, in time for the holiday shopping season, gives the Postal Service a chance to take some business from United Parcel Service and FedEx, which do not deliver on Sundays.

I'm … confused.

A big player with large fixed expenses and smaller variable expenses, pressed on all sides by competitors…comes up with a new idea, creates a heretofore unoffered service, and delivers value to customers?

It's almost as if …competition works.

I think I'm going to take some aspirin and lie down for a spell.

Last 5 posts by Clark

Comments

  1. SirWired says

    Despite their reputation, the USPS is about the best-run postal system in the world, with better efficiency and lower costs than anywhere else. As with any large organization, there is a non-zero amount of waste, incompetence, and inefficiency, but no more than could reasonably be expected.

    They'd be about breaking even if not for the stupid requirements to pre-fund benefits (this law was pushed for by UPS/FedEx and is more-or-less designed to intentionally cripple the USPS.) And the inability to shut down offices they don't need and delivery days they can't afford doesn't help either.

  2. says

    First, unless I'm wrong, the USPS isn't required to prefund all benefits, but is required to meet certain benchmarks for funding its pension, which is a very very good thing, and not at all different from private firms that offer pensions.

    Second, the fact that the USPS would run at a profit if not for that is unimpressive for two reasons: first, as specified above, and second: because the USPS has an official monopoly on first class mail delivery. I could run pretty much any business in the world at a profit if it was illegal to compete with me, and so could you, and you, and you.

  3. cpast says

    I'm confused. Doesn't Amazon deliver through shipping companies? I've never had a package delivered by Amazon; it's generally by Fedex.

  4. Chris Rhodes says

    @cpast

    I read it the same way the first time and was also confused, but I think it means that Amazon will be using the postal service to deliver their packages on Sunday, rather than the other way around.

  5. Craig says

    Yes, the wording of the original article is rather poor; but once you read the quote a second time (and more carefully), "the company" is clearly Amazon, not USPS. The deal is that USPS will deliver Amazon packages to customers on Sunday. I suppose this means a special, limited delivery run on Sunday of only Amazon packages.

  6. Rhonda Lea Kirk Fries says

    I was so excited…until I reached this paragraph:

    For this holiday shopping season, Sunday delivery of Amazon products will be limited to the Los Angeles and New York metropolitan areas, which in New York’s case includes parts of New Jersey and Connecticut. In 2014 it is expected to expand to other cities including Dallas, Houston, New Orleans and Phoenix.

    I'm live in New Jersey–I'm probably right at the edge (but not a part of) the covered area. I'll call it a win the first Sunday I receive a package. Until then, it's just a pipe dream.

  7. AP² says

    the USPS has an official monopoly on first class mail delivery. I could run pretty much any business in the world at a profit if it was illegal to compete with me, and so could you, and you, and you.

    That's a little disingenuous. Yes, they have a monopoly, but they also have fixed prices set by Congress and an obligation to serve everyone, including those who live in places only accessible by 40 mile boat rides or plane.

  8. Quiet Lurcker says

    Delivery of packages from Amazon on Sunday in limited areas….

    Hmmm….

    Is it too much to ask that the USPS has determined that they won't spend more money in dealing with equipment break-downs and deferred maintenance, pay (possibly including over-time), fuel, etc., etc., ad infinitum than they will earn in fees from the service in question?

    If prior experience with this kind of decision is any kind of guide…

  9. Chris Rhodes says

    @AP2

    Clark: This failure of a centrally-planned monopoly to make a profit just shows how inefficient centrally planned monopolies really are.
    AP2: Hey, that's not a fair assessment! This centrally-planned monopoly is clearly failing to make a profit due to central planning!

    I think you're really saying the same thing.

  10. Albert says

    Clark: It's almost as if …competition works."

    But then, what prevented competition from providing Sunday delivery so far?

  11. John says

    I think the point AP2 is making is that while the USPS is an inefficient centrally planned monopoly, a lot of the inefficiency is coming from the central planners putting positive externalities (like people in inaccessible locations being able to get mail) ahead of profit. Being able to make this tradeoff, rather than defaulting to a pure profit motive, is literally the entire reason people advocate central planning to begin with.

    So saying "this centrally planned monopoly is inefficient" is like saying "low-fat food tastes worse than high-fat food". It's technically true, but really everyone knows there's a trade-off involved – the question is whether the trade-off is worth it, not whether it exists.

    (That said, the legal monopoly is pointless bullshit – we have a perfectly good state-run postal service in the UK with no legal monopoly whatsoever. Or at least we did until the bastards running the country sold it to their mates in the City a couple of months ago.)

  12. Speed says

    The USPS was able to do this only because it did not need Congressional approval first.

    and

    cpast wrote, "I'm confused. Doesn't Amazon deliver through shipping companies? I've never had a package delivered by Amazon; it's generally by Fedex."

    In some areas (notably the Seattle area), Amazon operates their own delivery system for their Amazon Fresh services. While it is primarily for food, it also handles some standard Amazon stuff. It does not replace UPS or FedEx.

  13. Paul E. "Marbux" Merrell says

    Clark, by your logic shouldn't the entirety of federal government pre-fund their pension and disability comp regimes? I can't quite realitically imagine Congress appropriating the funds to prefund military retirement pensions and medical benefits and to prefund the expense of caring for disabled war veterans before launching wars.

    But if not, why should the USPS be required to do so?

    I'll also point out that corporate pension funds are the first asset grabbed by creditors when a corporatation hits bankruptcy, because the employees' retirement benefits do not vest in the employees until they do retire. Same kind of thing happens when a corporation is acquired by another company. All employees are fired, the pension fund is grabbed, then the jobs are reoffered to the employees without the retirement credits they've accumulated.

    That's why labor unions have historically been so adamant that pension funds be paid into a non-profit corporation controlled by the union, so the pension funds can't be grabbed by creditors in bankruptcy or a new company ownership.

    At least as far as I am concerned, comparing the USPS pension funding requirement to corporate pension funds is apples and oranges. Corporate pension funds offer the employees no guarantee that they will actually receive the retirement benefits the employees bargained for.

  14. gramps says

    Someone has to ask: What are people ordering from Amazon that is so critical that its arrival on Monday is a crisis?

  15. says

    @Paul E. "Marbux" Merrell

    Clark, by your logic shouldn't the entirety of federal government pre-fund their pension and disability comp regimes?

    Yes, making clear the cost of actions undertaken today and burdening today's "beneficiaries" of those actions (thus allowing accurate and informed judgements about the wisdom of them) would be a fine idea.

    "Hey, this war will only cost us $200 million!"

    "Uh, guys…your auditor says that the future Veteran's Department costs alone are $35 trillion."

    I'll also point out that corporate pension funds are the first asset grabbed by creditors when a corporatation hits bankruptcy, because the employees' retirement benefits do not vest in the employees until they do retire.

    That's not my understanding; can you provide a cite for that?

    That's why labor unions have historically been so adamant that pension funds be paid into a non-profit corporation controlled by the union, so the pension funds can't be grabbed by creditors in bankruptcy or a new company ownership.

    Yes. Union officials want pensions to be fully controlled by – wait for it – union officials – for that one reason.

    Color me unconvinced.

  16. Troutwaxer says

    What are people ordering from Amazon that is so critical that its arrival on Monday is a crisis?

    Any number of things without which one will be unable to do business on Monday morning. I work as a network repair technician. Some businesses expect and get some pretty exotic spare parts and service within a four-hour window – or else!

    This involves a fairly complex logistics operation including custom programming and specially engineered parts.

  17. TinMan says

    IANAL (so grain of salt and all that):
    My only caveat to anyone advocating the abolishment of the USPS and making it a private, 3rd party company is this: there are significant legal guidelines within which the USPS operates. They (USPS) are not permitted to open/read items sent via their service without some legal proceeding (warrant, subpoena…uncertain of the actual legal instrument they must receive or the burden of proof necessary to cause something to be opened).

    For FedEx/UPS/DHL – there is nothing but their contract of carriage that prevents them from doing what the USPS is legally disallowed from doing. Apart from a side of (potentially) business-crushing publicity, it's their 'privacy assurances' that have kept them from doing this.

    And as others have pointed out, this is truly a 'socialized service' in as much that a private company would have no compunction against telling those in BumbleFuck Texas to drive a 100 miles for your mail.

    So you either go with fully socialized (to cover "everyone") or you attempt to privatize and then attempt to require the private company to operate under a burdensome level of regulations/requirements so there's always a demand for "DEREGULATION!!! WHARGARBLE!!!"

    What you did there? I see it…

  18. Shane says

    @John

    (That said, the legal monopoly is pointless bullshit – we have a perfectly good state-run postal service in the UK with no legal monopoly whatsoever. Or at least we did until the bastards running the country sold it to their mates in the City a couple of months ago.)

    And there it is in a nutshell. This is why central planning will never work. Because eventually politics will enter into the equation, and no politician can resist the call of cronyism. Right now your system has no monopoly, soon it will. In a free market we will have to suffer a badly run company for a time, but when that badly run company is protected by the government we will have to suffer it forever.

  19. says

    Actually, Sunday delivery is not so much something that was not previously offered as something that is not currently offered at the same price. Sunday was part of the regular cycle until 1912, had continued Sunday delivery instead of Saturday in certain areas (such as the Seventh Day Adventist-laden Loma Linda) until 2011, and has offered Sunday delivery of Express Mail (now "Priority Mail Express) at a surcharge for a fair while.

  20. Rhonda Lea Kirk Fries says

    But then, what prevented competition from providing Sunday delivery so far?

    Blue laws.

    Not that the postal service was subject to blue laws, but it wasn't all that long ago that everything everywhere shut down on Sunday (and on Christian holidays).

    Okay, well, I'm 55 now, and I was a kid then, so I guess it has been a while. The USPS is just a little slower to adapt than the rest of us.

  21. Ygolonac says

    Amazon has offered Sunday delivery (via either FedEx or UPS, can't remember which) for a year or more now. Of course, that delivery is only available in certain areas, and Amazon's order system doesn't check to see whether they can honestly offer it in your delivery area, they just take the order and it's up to you to psychically divine whether or not you'll actually get it on Sunday. (That, or you look it up on the shipping site yourself.)

    (The receiving address depended on whether it was a Sunday or Monday delivery – Sunday, I'm home all day; Monday, I can have it delivered at work. I fully expected to come home Monday and find nothing (package stolen)…)

    Of course, Amazon also uses smaller courier services, at least one of whom considers "Next Day" delivery to be "Get it to Seattle because that's the only city we ship to in WA", even though I'm all the way on the east side of the state.

  22. Xenocles says

    There is a statutory requirement for the DoD to pay into a retirement fund (from its own appropriation, of course – not an employee contribution) – see 10 USC 1466. I can't tell from the statute what the actual amount or rate is.

    But as I understand it retired military don't actually receive a pension, they are paid unreasonably well for service in an inactive reserve status. Several provisions of the UCMJ still apply to them, and they are subject to recall, though in practice this is rare.

  23. says

    @Clark: yes, the USPS was legally forced to pre-fund retirement benefits (not pensions, benefits including things like health-care costs). Bloomberg summarized it here. You'll note something in that article: the statement that only a quarter of all private companies pre-fund those benefits. That means that three-quarters, the overwhelming majority, do not. They do what the USPS was doing: report the accrued value of benefits as a liability and fund actual costs for current retirees on a pay-as-you-go basis. The problem isn't really doing one or the other, as long as it's accounted for accurately. The problem is being forced to switch to pre-funding in a short time-frame after having used pay-as-you-go for a long time. You can't do that without severe financial consequences, which is why most companies decline to make that switch.

  24. CowOfDeath says

    I had to look this up to understand the reference, so I thought I'd share. "Lysander" in the title is probably a reference to Lysander Spooner, founder of the American Letter Mail Company, which competed against the U.S. Postal Service. The government basically sued his company into oblivion back in the 1851.

  25. says

    The USPS is an unholy hybrid of private and public; Congress should either nationalize the whole thing, or cut it loose as a private corporation. "Competition" has nothing to do with it.

  26. barry says

    A spectre is haunting the blogs…
    Competition might work. That it does work is one of those articles of faith of the cult of the wise invisible hand of market forces, and many libertarians.

    But I have doubts. Somewhere between the extremes of capitalism and communism there might be an economic system that reduces overall human misery. (mixed economies seem to have come through the recent global economic crisis best)

    The invisible hand is about a self regulating system/market. The cultish aspect is introduced when people start to argue that since markets regulate themselves, then it is unnecessary for them to be externally regulated, or even that it is morally wrong to attempt to regulate them.

    The contradiction here is that the aim of these competing companies is to become a monopoly. That's what winning is_ driving the competition out of business and capturing a whole market. So competition needs external regulating to keep the game going to prevent monopolies from killing competition and taking over the world.

    And the invisible hand has no morality. Starving to death half the population of the world might be a totally acceptable solution to some economic glitch for this hand of the markets. Maybe some cultists believe the invisible hand is somehow attached to their own personal god which would always choose the most moral way to self-regulate. But I don't think that's how it works.

    Experimental economics is a relatively recent attempt to give economics some of the respectability of science (or at least less of the flavor of voodoo). Many of these experiments aim to find out how individual and collective decisions are made using game theory. One interesting and well known result is that 'tit for tat' is the most successful strategy for playing prisoner's dilemma. ie cooperate till the other player defects, then you defect too.

    The idea/assumption that business always competes on price begins to look dubious.
    'Cooperate or defect' in this context becomes 'collude or compete' (I'm pretty sure it's the same game). The collusion does not have to be an overt or illegal agreement, as long as everyone in the widget market knows not to try to sell widgets for less than $1.00, and at a dollar each, everyone is making a good profit. Nobody wants a price war (except the consumer in the short term).

    Occasionally someone will think they can increase market share and still profit selling widgets at $0.80, but big-widget can afford to sustain the loss of selling $0.60 widgets for however long it takes to drive the competing upstarts out of business. Then everyone left can put their price up to $1.10 to get back what profits they lost in the price war. So tit-for-tat being the most profitable strategy means prices are probably determined more by collusion than by competition.

    The postal system is a bit different from other commercial enterprises in that the Universal Postal Union is a UN agency which regulates some international mail standards so you only have to buy stamps from your own country etc. This comment was more on the "competition works" statement than on if the mail system works best as colluding national monopolies, and I hadn't written a long post for a while. And I don't want to argue about "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" because I haven't read it.

  27. wolfefan says

    @Clark –

    Hi, Clark! Do you really think you could turn a profit delivering first class snail mail only, with the caveat that you have to deliver something one block or one thousand miles for the same price of less than fifty cents? I'm not being snarky – I'm genuinely asking if you think you could run an enterprise large enough to do that at a profit. I'd be glad to hear more about it. What should the USPS be doing differently to make this business model work in an era of declining use of first class mail?

  28. Xenocles says

    To the apologists:

    It seems quite possible to me that those services are simply not in demand. Oh, sure, the people who live out in the country would bitch and moan if their postal service were cut off. But I bet if you told them they could have it for the sort of surcharge required to cover the costs they would pass.

    The fact is that for the consumer, the services of the post office are rapidly becoming obsolete. We have competition for packages from at least three other firms. E-mail is more efficient for simple communication to people we know already. From where I sit, the demand for these services seems to be from sellers for junk mail, and from the government itself, to distribute information.

    So I guess I don't really have a lot of sympathy for the post office. The mandates they face are a result of the effective monopoly they pursued so vigorously before. Now they're stuck with it.

  29. a_random_guy says

    "the statement that only a quarter of all private companies pre-fund those benefits. That means that three-quarters, the overwhelming majority, do not."

    Just as a matter of principle, pre-funding retirement benefits, by paying them to an independent organization (n.b., not the union, but rather a qualified financial organization or trust fund), should be required by law. Simply listing them as future liabilities means that, in the case of severe financial problems, the employees and retirees are SOL. In other countries, this is required.

    The Post Office paying these pre-funded benefits to the federal government is – precisely – what should not happen. The federal government will simply loot the money and replace it with IOUs.

  30. says

    @Xenocles: thing is, the USPS didn't "pursue" a monopoly. They were organized as a monopoly to provide a universal public service, so that we wouldn't have areas of the country that were cut off from being able to pay bills, receive notices and generally be able to communicate simply because it wasn't profitable to provide mail service in their area. And yes we still have that in places. Where my grandfather lived, for instance, you can't get Internet access. You can't even get cel-phone service (AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile all yielded "no service"). Phone service? The landline there might support 2400bps on a good day, and there aren't any local dial-up Internet providers so you're going to be paying long distance charges while you're logged in. I'm not even sure the town where the post office physically is has any kind of Internet. And this house isn't even very rural, not in the "50 miles to the nearest town" sense you find out West.

    It's looking at the USPS from the "is a business" vs. "is a public service" viewpoint. From the "is a business" viewpoint, if there's not enough demand to make it profitable then you tell the customers "No soup for you!". The question is whether we want that. Whether we want entire counties where simply paying the electric bill every month involves a 50-100 mile trip because that's the closest place you can put the check in the mail. At some point we'll have universal Internet access, maybe, but that day isn't here. And I don't think it'll ever come, because the same things that make these areas unprofitable to do mail delivery in make them equally unprofitable to provider Internet service to.

    And before you start on modern communcations technology, bear in mind that at my grandfather's place I remember when they finally replaced the old Strowger switches with ones that'd support modern 2-wire phones and touch-tone dialing. They're still using crossbar switches IIRC, there's not enough money involved to cover the cost of upgrades. I also was around when in Elko NV they pulled out the crossbar switches and put in a digital switch. That was also when they upgraded the area I lived in so that there were more than 6 lines connecting the area to the Elko phone office. I'm not even sure a lot of people here would recognize the "no lines available" signal, but we routinely got it. So yes, the Stone Age wasn't that long ago.

  31. Xenocles says

    I often fantasize about living in a remote area – any of the entries on cabinporn.com (totally SFW but for the name) would serve – but there are costs to that lifestyle. Chief among them is that it's harder to tap into what the rest of the world offers. It takes longer to get there. You can't have what you want on a whim. For now at least that cost is too dear for me. If someday that equation changes somehow I'll reconsider, but I absolutely will not complain about the elements of city life I gave up. I can't really abide people who try to eat their cake without losing it. Fact is that the postal service is set up to subsidize some of that cake for the remote areas at the expense of the rest of us, and that leaves me with little affection for it.

  32. luagha says

    To add to Xenocles's statement; it's the reason why retired generals can't go against the administration. They're still under contract and subject to recall/punishment/court martial, depending.

  33. says

    @Xenocles: that's not the only situation, though. Look up the town of Goldfield, NV on Google Maps. Bear in mind that it's a fairly big town as things go in that part of Nevada. It doesn't exist just because people wanted to live out there. It exists because they found gold near there. The mine needs people to mine the gold. Those people need homes to live in, electric power, water, stores to shop in, that sort of thing. Yet, for all that, it's probably not profitable to provide mail service out there. The utility companies etc. don't have local offices, so if there's no local mail service people have to drive all the way up to Tonopah to mail off their bill payments. There's no Internet, so no way to pay on-line. Cel services is erratic at best. Phone service… adequate for voice, I wouldn't try running a modem over those lines though. Yeah, I spent time there doing survey work for the mine.

    Now, if those people can't pay their bills and mortgages, they aren't going to want to live there. No people = no gold mine. No gold mine = no money from the gold that's mined, no taxes from it, no contribution to the GDP from it. Lather rinse repeat for all the mining towns across the Carlin Trend, and consider that the Trend's the #2 gold producer in the world (and it's giving South Africa a run for the money). With gold still above $1200/oz, that's a lot of money leaving the economy if that happens. Do we want to pay the price for the people who live there deciding they can't afford to work there if they have to drive to Tonopah a couple times a month because it's not profitable to run a post office in Goldfield?

  34. AP² says

    @Todd Knarr, so why wouldn't the owners of those gold mines raise the salaries of those workers and/or provide those services themselves? Do they hate making money?

    You meant to show an example of the importance of providing the commons, but I think you've in fact shown a great example of the Baptist and the Bootlegger, where people with good intentions are helping the capitalists pass even more of their costs to the public, while keeping the profits to themselves.

  35. AP² says

    @barry:

    mixed economies seem to have come through the recent global economic crisis best

    Yes, and they also have come through it worst. Your assertion is tautologically true, because all economies are mixed – there's none that even resembles a purely ideological economy.

  36. Irk says

    @AP²: How much control would you want your employer to have over your basic services such as mail, when you have less than reliable access to phone? It's a basic means of communication with the rest of the world that you rely on to keep your life going. That's a lot of trust to place in a company. Is it fair to ask those workers to have their lives that fully controlled by the same corporation that decides what they get paid, a corporation who will obviously never have a third party rival for services offered instead of allowing their basic utilities to be provided by a third party? Yes, the USPS doesn't have much of a rival in the first class mail space, but at least it's not your mining overlord.

    The gold thing isn't just a straight value/GDP thing, either – if you're using a computer to look at this then you're benefiting from the efforts of those miners. Modern motherboards etc only have a tiny amount of gold, but it's in there. I find it interesting that people who likely have no access to the internet are, through their labor, enabling others to use the internet anytime they want. I have no problems with them sending and receiving mail from an impartial service that supports itself, and I think coveting their very ability to receive and send mail is petty in the grand scheme of things.

  37. renosablast says

    This is merely a prelude to Amazon taking over the Postal Service. What better way to get a good look at operations than to become an important percentage of their business and business planning?

  38. barry says

    @AP² Ok, fair point, all real economies are mixed. And since finding North Korea made the list of top 10 least GFC affected economies, I know I picked a particularly bad example to support my opinion that economies more toward the extremes don't work as well as those somewhere in the middle.
    But I still think (without specific examples) that's probably true.

  39. Dion starfire says

    @AP²: How much control would you want your employer to have over your basic services such as mail, when you have less than reliable access to phone?

    Yep, that's been tried before and it didn't work out so well. The song "sixteen tons" captures the biggest flaw rather well. Ended up with every mine company being a monopoly to their workers.

    Some day I'll have to study how libertarians reconcile their ideals with history (i.e. wild west, robber barons, Standard Oil, Ma Bell, etc.), but this isn't really the place for that.

  40. says

    @Clark – Tisk Tisk – Monopoly power alone means nothing if demand isn't there. I'll give you the Dialup monopoly in every big city in America, I think you'll be eating govt cheese. I know what you're saying though – just a small quibble.

  41. Roger Strong says

    And they call themselves a government agency?

    When the wool industry in England was in recession hundreds of years ago, decrees were passed that when you died, you had to be buried in a woolen shroud. A similar thing was done in France with linen. I've been waiting for the government to decree that when you die, your coffin must be sent to the cemetery via the United States Postal Service. Bearing proper postage, of course.

    I should have known, when GM and Chrysler were going under, and they didn't do the same with SUVs.

  42. Anony Mouse says

    How much control would you want your employer to have over your basic services such as mail, when you have less than reliable access to phone?

    Minimal. However, you would think it would be in those companies' best interests to invest in the infrastructure in those areas so phone service, for instance, isn't so unreliable.

  43. says

    @Anony Mouse: But then who's going to run that infrastructure? And if the company runs it, isn't that giving them a lot more than minimal control. Do you think the employees will be comfortable knowing that if they don't make the foreman happy they may find themselves in the middle of a Nevada winter with no heat, no water and no way to call anybody because their phone service has been cut off?

    Not to mention the fact that they'd also be providing the infrastructure to the majority of the town that doesn't work for the mine but provides all the services the people who do work for the mine need. Down this road lies the company town, and all the abuses that went along with them.

  44. Daniel Taylor says

    Just to be clear about the institution that people are talking about doing away with, it was considered important enough by the founders that even with the availability of private couriers at the time they thought it important enough to establish it as a primary service of the federal government.

    Section. 8.

    The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

    To establish Post Offices and post Roads;

    To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

  45. CJK Fossman says

    @Xenocles

    E-mail is more efficient for simple communication to people we know already.

    By "simple" I guess you mean
    – it doesn't need to be private
    – you're not concerned that it could be spoofed
    – you don't care if the NSA is collecting metadata about your correspondents

    Yes, I know about PGP. Good luck getting your acquaintances to install it and keep up with your public key and their private keys.

  46. CJK Fossman says

    @A Nony Mouse

    you would think it would be in those companies' best interests to invest in the infrastructure in those areas so phone service, for instance, isn't so unreliable.

    Why would one think that, when private corporations are all about minimizing costs and maximizing profits?

  47. Xenocles says

    @CJK-

    If we go by your list, for the vast majority of people sending e-mails it works just fine. Hate to say it, but it seems to be true. Even for my own part, though I object very strongly in principle to the monitoring taking place, in practice it is exceptionally unlikely to reveal anything that could really harm me.

    So, yeah. E-mail works really great for keeping in touch with my mother and setting up appointments with people, etc. Would I use it to run a confidential informant or for other privileged correspondence? No, but I expect in those cases I'd be playing other cloak-and-dagger games as a matter of course anyway.

  48. Xmas says

    The problem the Post Office has is that it has too much labor and too many assets. Postal Office jobs are civil service jobs for life, literally. The Post Office has full and part-time employees on payroll that are 80 years-old.
    They also have a Congressional mandate to have a manned Post Office in every community they serve. They've run into political difficulties when examining cutting labor costs and/or closing down branches.
    The large labor force feeds directly into the funding issues with their retirement plans. Manning and maintaining a large number of little used branches eats directly into their bottom line.
    With those issues plus the constraints on what the Post Office can charge, it's surprising the USPS is as successful as they are. They're fairly innovative when it comes to revenue raising through additional services and special edition stamps. It'll be interesting to see how much this deal with Amazon will raise in revenue.

  49. Owen says

    It seems to me that the efficacy of the USPS largely comes down to whether or not you believe that citizens should have the right to communicate or not. I would think that the Founding Fathers implied them to have that right, due to the fact that the power to establish post offices was expressly given to the government in the Constitution.

    If they do have that right, then a government subsidized post office is necessary due to the inherent inequality of geographic access. More difficult access requires greater expense by the post office, and to greater expense is borne by the government, as is necessary with many other guaranteed rights. In a private system, the greater expense will be carried by the customer or service will be cut off completely if it is cost prohibitive. This would be an abrogation of that right to communicate. (As an aside, it's not true, at this stage, that email or telephone provides an alternate form of access because there are still areas in the continental US without that access, and large areas of Alaska are similarly situated.)

    If people do not have that right, then you can make the argument that this is an unnecessary subsidy because the people have made the choice to live there. The difference between people perceiving this as a right or not probably leads to the "disagreeing while agreeing" problem that we see every time that this topic comes up. But I don't think you can make the argument that the post office wasn't created and designed to serve a purpose, which it has fulfilled rather well for the past 200+ years. The way it operates is certainly not irrational, considering the responsibilities that it has – serving a public good, and perhaps a public right, not just seeking business profit.

  50. philosopherva says

    Tim Man writes:

    IANAL (so grain of salt and all that):
    My only caveat to anyone advocating the abolishment of the USPS and making it a private, 3rd party company is this: there are significant legal guidelines within which the USPS operates. They (USPS) are not permitted to open/read items sent via their service without some legal proceeding (warrant, subpoena…uncertain of the actual legal instrument they must receive or the burden of proof necessary to cause something to be opened).

    While they may not be reading your mail, they are logging every piece of it and submitting it to investigators. See U.S. Postal Service Logging All Mail for Law Enforcement

    “It’s a treasure trove of information,” said James J. Wedick, a former F.B.I. agent who spent 34 years at the agency and who said he used mail covers in a number of investigations,… “Looking at just the outside of letters and other mail, I can see who you bank with, who you communicate with — all kinds of useful information that gives investigators leads that they can then follow up on with a subpoena. . . . it’s so easy to use and you don’t have to go through a judge to get the information. You just fill out a form.”

  51. Rhonda Lea Kirk Fries says

    Follow-up to my comment above: I ordered an item from Amazon today–Saturday. I just received notice that I will receive it tomorrow–Sunday.

    It appears that Amazon and the USPS are in full sail.