The USPS is in trouble. This isn’t news. It’s been an issue that has been brewing for some time. And, unlike a lot of things, I do not believe it is purely a cost issue. Think about it, the fact that you can pay less than $.50 and send several pieces of paper to any other US address, usually in only a few days, is astounding.
Looking at it in a historical context, there is not a lot to sneeze at price-wise either. In the past thirty years, the price of a stamp has gone from $.20 (1984) to $.49 (2014), an increase of 145%. During the same amount of time, the cost of a loaf of bread has gone from $.71 to $2.07 (a 191% increase), and the cost of a dozen eggs has gone from $1.01 to $2.00 (an increase of 98%). Seemingly, the cost increase of stamps, in this limited context, is totally reasonable. However, just because something has increased in price at a reasonable rate doesn’t mean it is priced right for what it is. And, for what the USPS does, I think stamps are way too cheap.
But that is not the real problem. People will not riot in the streets if stamps tomorrow cost $.60, or postage was based on “zones” like parcel services are, or if there were extra charges for rural and/or other “special case” sorts of deliveries. No, all that would probably happen would be that people would mail less, which is already happening anyway.
The political issues around the funding/profitability of the USPS are myriad. True, it is not fair to hold a free-market standard to an organization that is bound by such a broad mission, with such challenging, imposed constraints. But that is not the argument I am making. The argument that I am making is that we are watching the predictable decay of a once-needed service into the oblivion of obsolescence. The truth is, there was once a time where the best way to transfer information in a reliable, efficient, and secure manner was the mail. That is no longer the case. The march from paper to digital has been proceeding for a long time now, and sooner or later, we will have to realize that one has a future and the other does not.
I’ll pose this question. If today you were charged with building a nationwide, secure, reliable system for people to receive information from one another, would you design anything that looked even remotely like the postal service? Of course not. What I am putting forth is a bit of a thought experiment. What if you re-designed the postal service around modern needs, technology, and economic constraints? What if you truly reimagined the USPS to be something equally as valuable as it is today, but you did so in a more intentional, practical manner?
Here’s how I would do it.
All Electronic, All The Time
The first thing the postal service needs to ditch is paper. Our clinging to moving pieces of paper from one physical space to another is the main driver of cost, and is simply something that is not necessary. True, many people distrust electronic forms of commutation, or would simply have to adapt to a new way of thinking about how they do things. But, I think my solution thinks about them too. Anyway, on to the details.
Digital Stamps Will Save Us From Our Technology
Email is awesome, and yet super-annoying. We have the ability to contact anyone, anywhere, for free. That is incredible just to think about. But one of the big problems with email (and this thought is not original to me), is that it’s free. The volume of spam and other non-wanted communiqués we receive is staggering. By current estimates, spam still constitutes about 71% of all email being sent. That’s right, almost three fourths of the total volume of email is complete garbage. And, because it is free, it is too easy to send things that are not necessary. From those chain letters from your Great-Aunt Sylvia (come on Sylvia, it’s 2014 already), to daily email blasts from every store or service you ever even visited online, to endless social status updates, most people’s email inboxes are overflowing to the point of being nearly useless. As such, email goes unnoticed and is practically impossible to keep decent track of (unless you do it intentionally, of course, but that is not most people). And, who can blame them? With a noise ratio that high, how on earth could you possibly keep track of what maters when so much of it doesn’t?
But imagine this. What if it cost a penny, or even a fraction of a penny, to send an email? There are all sorts of psychological limits that kick-in once something goes from being free to costing money, even a small amount of money. And for spam? Now, all of a sudden, it would not even remotely be worth it to the spammer. In a nutshell, you fix spam by changing the calculus of sending it. You make it unprofitable to participate in, and the behavior changes.
We’re not talking about email here, though. What we are talking about is the idea of a digital stamp, as well as a whole new system of communication. Digital stamps are a way to pay for use of the reliable, secure infrastructure that would be required for a true mail replacement. We can’t use email, that simply would not and does not work. Just scanning paper mail and converting it to email is only a half-measure, just partial steps towards a solution. A true solution, in my opinion, would have to involve a separate system, both for security and to not inherit the negative traits already present in email. We already know that email is partially broken, and there is no need to drag those pieces into something new.
The way this would work would be like email, in almost every way. You could receive, and send, from any device. Messages are free to receive, and cost money to send. You could send to multiple people at the same time. You could block senders from sending things to you, and opt-out rules would be mandatory. You build-in all of the little rules and qualities that having lived with email in our lives for well over a decade now has taught us. And, at the same time, you build in rules to not recreate what we already have in the paper mail system (vis a vis junk mail and an overall system that massively benefits bulk senders of mail). According to the USPS’s own data, about half of all paper mail consists of “advertising appeals”. This is about the only thing propping up the USPS’s revenue numbers these days. When a service cedes itself to advertisers, the quality of the service degrades for everyone.
So, How Do I Actually Get My Mail?
Each person is assigned a unique ID. The ideal would be that every US citizen gets an ID that is used only for this system. That last part if the most critical. Everyone gets an ID and it is not used for anything else. It stays the same if you move, get married, whatever. You never have to manage it, it is always yours, and it is not used for anything else, other than a unique, anonymous identifier.
OK, I have said that twice now. Here’s why: our use of Social Security Numbers is insane. Clearly, we are using Social Security Numbers for something they were never designed to be used for, which can have a dire cost (just ask anyone who has ever had their identity stolen).
Truthfully, I am not advocating for getting rid of social security numbers, even in use in the financial system. Our entire credit reporting infrastructure is based on SSN’s and it seems practically impossible to rip them out now. What I am advocating for is getting them off the Internet, and out of data stored by third parties.
What I imagine is being able to offer system designers a unique ID, that if stolen, cannot really hurt you. Of course, anonymity of such an ID could be broken pretty easily with just a few other bits of correlating data, but at least we would have something universal and safe.
Typically, all data records systems need is a unique identifier. The trouble is, when SSN’s are used for that purpose, that unique identifier can be used to cause all sort of harm in our life. To fix this, we switch to something new. That is why everyone needs a unique ID that is only used as a unique identifier. It does not hold any demographic or other personal data. It is not a National ID, nor is it used to track your behavior. Just digital mail, that’s it. As a bi-product, it is something that people who design and build systems can use to make sure every unique person stays unique in their system, without the use of SSN’s. And, with this sort of system, if a system has a breech and the worst thing the baddies can do is read your (digital) mail, I think we have taken a big step forward.
But What About People Who Hate Technology/Computers/The-Future?
Ah, here’s where the true beauty of this idea kicks in. For those people who don’t want to change, not much has to. You keep a bunch of post offices open (you already have them, why not use at least some of them?) for people who want to use paper. Don’t want to go digital? No problem. You can have your outgoing mail scanned into the system (for an extra fee) and sent for you. Or, for those who don’t want to use a computer, have all of your mail printed for you and delivered to a PO Box (for an extra fee).
In my mind, the success of something new and universal means you do not punish those who don’t want to change. You do, though, make them pay for the system adapting to them (since they are not adapting to the new system). So, if you chose to do it the way the system is designed, you get all of your mail for free (and pay a small amount to send). Don’t want to? No problem, things work close to how they do now, and probably wouldn’t even cost that much more than they do now (due to the efficiency of the digital system and minimal staff needed to accomplish these tasks).
I am a big believer in designing and building systems that are modern, robust, and efficient. This usually means leveraging technology to its fullest and automating everything you possibly can. However, this needs to be in balance with actually providing a service, you know, the second “S” in USPS. It is not truly a service if it alienates even a minority of the users. For it is be universal, it needs to be usable by everyone. That is, what we need to do is design something everyone can use, but not something that has to be everything to everyone.
But But But, What about APO Mailing, Rural Mail, All of the Other Unique Services the USPS Offers?
This may sound dismissive, or just overly simplistic, but I have to believe that if there is a market, it will be served. Worried about APO mail/parcel cost? Take .00001% of defense spending and subsidize it. As for other edge-case users (e.g. rural customers), of course adequate protections need to be made to protect the vulnerable, but there has to be a way to make this work. These challenges are not simple, by any means (if they were, this would all be fixed already), but that should not stop us from doing something. Just because something cannot be perfectly predicted ahead of time doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted. Take any great achievement we have ever done as a society as evidence of that.
The real cost of this sort of transition, frankly, would probably be shouldered by the average USPS worker. A digital system like this needs far less people, and many of the people it does need must be technically adept. That probably means that many people who fit with the current model of the USPS would not fit with the new model of the USPS.
That is tragic, on a personal level, but we have to be honest about our intentions. Is the USPS meant to be an efficient, needed service, or is it a jobs program? If it is the latter, then massive deficits and overall expense of the program should not surprise us. If there is a social good created by employing people to provide a service that is not in-tune with modern market dynamics, or really even modern life, then there is value in that. I would argue, though, that that is not what the USPS actually is, and in the grand scheme of things, if we are serious about saving this system, it, and the people within it, need to massively adapt.
The hole the USPS has gotten into is precisely because it does too much. It is not adapted, and very much still clings to a view of the present that is rooted in the past. There was a time when this system totally made sense. That time has passed, a fact that when denied only makes matters worse.
A little restraint here, not trying to do everything would go a long way towards dealing with issues of solvency. The USPS is an institution with a storied past, with a long history of delivering a valuable service to American Citizens. Let’s reform the USPS so that it can keep providing this valuable service for today and far into the future.