Smelling Your Email

March 5, 2010

In response to this week’s news that the beleaguered U.S. Postal Service is facing $238 in losses over the coming decade, Charles Krauthammer lamented the inevitable demise of the government mail monopoly: 

As a conservative who believes in the market, it ought to die, but as a conservative that believes in tradition and stuff that really holds us together, I would subsidize until it dies a natural death in the next generation. But for old guys like me, keep it going for a while.
[As for] the hard-hearted younger generation — well, if you ever got a sweet-smelling love letter at 17, you’d feel otherwise. Of course, I never did, but somebody did.
You can’t smell your e-mail. 
Actually Charles, I did receive sweet-smelling love letters from a girl back home my first year in college. Fifteen years later my old college roommate is still making fun of me for it. But I don’t feel otherwise about the government mail monopoly. The sooner it disappears and is replaced by private operators unshackled from the unions and government mandates that are speeding the USPS’s demise, the better.  
Krauthammer’s comment that “you can’t smell your email” isn’t even true. The technology exists for scents to emit from your computer when you open an email, click on a web advertisement, or play video games.
Krauthammer believes that the government monopoly has helped maintain national cohesiveness: 
But, look, anything that is in Article 1 Section 8 of our constitution, anything that Madison had waxed enthusiastic about it in Federalist 42 — the postal roads that have kept us together — as an old-school guy, I don’t want to see it die.   
If by “kept together” he means that mail enabled people all over the country to communicate with each other, the telecommunications revolution that is undermining the postal service has dramatically enhanced long-distance correspondence. Facebook is a perfect example. Most of my Facebook “friends” are people I would have otherwise lost touch with or rarely communicated with.
Finally, Krauthammer is only somewhat correct when it comes to the issue of privatizing the USPS: 
Look, it’s very obvious that you can’t privatize this. Three studies have looked at the postal service. Because of the new technology there is no entrepreneur in his right mind who would purchase it. So it’s going to be on the government dole forever.
The question is, is it completely obsolete? Look, it has one mandate which other private services don’t have. It has to reach every tiny hamlet everywhere in the country no matter what. It’s got to be universal. So that’s a slight handicap that the private companies don’t have.
Its main handicap, of course, is the crushing labor union contracts and the new technology, especially e-mail, which makes most of what it does obsolete. So that’s why it runs a huge deficit. 
It’s true that with the combination of unionism and government mandates the USPS in its current form is nothing private investors would want to touch. But that’s the whole point of postal liberalization and privatization. It’s pretty clear that the USPS is going to be directly supported by taxpayers in the future or it’s going to succumb to market realities. Instead of waxing nostalgic about a socialist enterprise, let’s focus on how the wonderful technologies brought to us by the private sector can better get the job done.
As Fred Smith, founder of Federal Express and Cato supporter, noted in a Cato book on the postal service
[T]here are many things in American life that have had a great history, for example the cavalry. Yet, we do not do cavalry charges anymore. We must recognize that there are many institutions that long ago passed into history.



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