Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Walter Russell Mead on the lessons to be learned from the postal service:
The USPS is one of the great surviving examples of the blue social model and, not surprisingly, it is going down the tubes. Technological change has made its original mission of delivering vital information and private correspondence obsolete. Judging by what comes in through the mail slot at the stately Mead manor these days, the primary job of the postal service appears to be the delivery of the snail mail equivalent of spam.

Snail spamming is an expensive business to be in; the USPS loses billions of dollars each year so that advertisers can send out billions of pieces of spam at below market costs. In fairness, e-spammers should demand an equivalent subsidy; shouldn’t non-prescription Viagra dealers and Nigerian con artists get the same kind of help from a benevolent government that the Publisher’s Clearinghouse gets for junk mail? . . .

[T]o look at the USPS is to see why enterprises built in the blue model heyday are falling apart. The special relationship with the government used to be a strength; now it is mostly a weakness: irrational congressional mandates and regulations tie it down in red tape. The large, unionized workforce used to provide job security to workers and a stable team of well trained and reliable workers for managers. These days, the workers don’t get security, and union rules accelerate the rate at which the whole enterprise is falling apart. The large integrated service that handled everything from birthday cards to parcels cannot match smaller, nimbler competitors that target market segments. Email providers have largely killed first class mail. E-readers are killing the periodicals business. Fed Ex and UPS can do a better job with parcels. . .

Now the collapse of the postal service raises questions about the rest of the government as well. How much of the rest of the government is doing jobs that private services could do better and more cheaply? How many government departments are so hamstrung by conflicting congressional mandates accumulated over decades that they can no longer be effectively managed? How many government departments are grotesquely overstaffed, with employment levels based on pre-IT business models and procedures? How much of the rest of the government is operating under civil service rules and union agreements that lock us into unsustainable patterns that will have to be broken -- at great cost to the workers? . . .

But at the same time, the decline of the USPS leaves the overwhelming majority of Americans better served than ever before when it comes to getting written information and packages from one person to another. The difficulties we face today are basically the good kind of problem: how do we make productive and profitable use of new freedom and flexibility?
Agreed. As even the New York Times quipped, "Nothing stays these couriers. . .but maybe bankruptcy will."

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