The march of technology has turned the U.S. Postal Service into a
national embarrassment. It is a Stalinesque antique that should
immediately be put on the chopping block. Better hurry, because its
assets — huge, mechanized letter sorters, for example — are declining
in value by the day.
Instead, bureaucrats are once again attempting to breathe new life
into the corpse. Having failed at the last half dozen technologies it’s
tried to fob off on the American public (who can forget the absurd and
scary “Postal Buddy”?), the post office now wants to give you an e-mail
Why would the post office bother? Anyone can generate a hundred
e-mail addresses for himself in no time on the Web. There’s not exactly
a shortage of them. And with 90 million Americans now using e-mail,
there can’t be much of a demand for a government e-mail address.
Perhaps, though, we could create our own address? Perhaps
No such luck. The postal politburo isn’t going to allow you to engage
in such frippery. Not when a serious issue like your government e-mail
address is at stake. No, this will be done in an orderly and disciplined
manner! Your address will be assigned to you. It will, says the
central committee, consist of your initials, plus your postal code, plus
your street number, and an officially approved ending.
Media reports give the example of Bill Clinton:
firstname.lastname@example.org. If this weren’t the real thing, you would swear
it came off a “Saturday Night Live” skit. I wonder how many months of
meetings it took to come up with that sequence?
But while e-mail and Instant Messaging users struggle to come up with
names and passwords that protect their accounts from being invaded, the
government has come up with a sequence that is obvious to anyone with a
phone book. Can you imagine the amount of spam this database will
For now, using the e-mail address would be voluntary. We’ll see about
What’s next? Maybe the government will assign you an Instant
Messaging name too, so that the bureaucrats can contact you in a flash
anytime they feel like it. It could be your name plus your social
security number. And don’t you dare try to block incoming messaging.
Does the Postal Service really believe that it can pull this off?
Maybe, or maybe not. But they are driven by two main concerns. First, at
the current pace of advancement, the post office will be completely
obsolete in a few years. Delivering bills and payments by check is the
main job of the post office’s first-class letter department. And online
bill paying is gaining market share.
As Postmaster General William J. Henderson said in March, “We are
barely keeping our heads above water. We are facing declining margins.”
They are even cutting back on staff for the first time in ages. So this
new foray of the postal clerks into the online world is an attempt to
shore up a declining market.
Second, their government sponsors can’t stand it that the preferred
means of communicating today operates largely outside government
purview. With their new technology plans, they are not trying to make
our lives easier. They are trying to retain their power in a time when
the government’s capacity for monitoring us seems to be slipping. This
is also what’s behind the FBI’s attempt to eavesdrop on our e-mail
through its “Carnivore” software.
Why is there a post office anyway? It makes no economic sense. It
used to be said that the private sector wasn’t up to the job of
delivering letters. But no one really believes that anymore. The private
sector is capable of miracles that government bureaucrats can only dream
about. The proof is that the government won’t allow the private sector
to compete with its remaining monopolies. It holds on for dear life to
its letter statutes, which still make it illegal to profit from
delivering a non-urgent letter. Services like FedEx, UPS, IM, e-mail,
efax, and a hundred other means of delivering and communicating, have
thrived only via the loopholes in the law.
Postal Service spokeswoman Sue Brennan says postal e-mail will allow
“a way for customers to choose how they want to get their
correspondence.” Can someone contact this lady — perhaps by letter —
to let her know that we’ve had choice for some time, and people are
choosing not to use the government? If more choice is what we need, then
the feds should stop impeding it via the offline letter statutes.
Come 2001, the Postal Service is going to try to raise rates again.
In the private sector, declining market share means you cut prices, not
raise them. Not so in the upside down and backwards world of government.
According to Peter Brimelow writing in Forbes, it costs more today to
deliver a letter than it did in 1886 — despite the most amazing
advances in technology since the 19th century.
But will business finally revolt this time? How will citizens who are
used to free e-mail respond to an attempt by the creaky, cobwebbed
postal people to increase the price of stamps? This notification of
price increases could be the letter that finally breaks the postal back.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Bush administration actively worked
to get rid of the postal monstrosity? With a Republican Congress not in
the pay of the postal union, it might be possible. But not without
Heck, even a corrupt privatization plan would be better than the
status quo. Sell the post office for $1 to Halliburton, for example.
Give the buildings to Brown & Root. Pass out postal trucks to Bush
campaign contributors. But get the government out of the business of the