Why Not a Laissez Faire Postal System?

Part one

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Should the government sell the Post Office? In an editorial entitled Dead Letter?, Barron's (Jul 22, 68) said:

1 Even though it increased rates this year, the Post Office is losing over one billion dollars a year, and service is becoming worse.

2 The Post Office might have to shut down many small substations and eliminate Saturday delivery (the Congress has temporarily bailed it out on this point).

3 Morale among Service personnel is at a low; a job in the GPO is a dead end.

4 Estimates indicate that 5 billion dollars is required to modernize the system, simply to maintain today's disappointing service.

5 The system is likely to completely collapse at any moment, exactly as it did at Chicago, in 1966.

With these facts at its disposal, a recent Presidential Commission, headed by former AT&T board chairman, Frederick R. Kappel, recommended that the Post Office be turned over to a "public corporation," which, it contended, would handle the mail in a more "business-like" manner. This, however, is nothing more than an attempt to "have one's private enterprise, and eat it, too." It is an attempt to achieve the effects of private enterprise, while denying the cause. The effects are speed and efficiency; the cause, the profit motive. Thus, Mr. Kappel privately confided that the best idea would be to just turn the whole mess over to private enterprise.

The method by which the Post Office handles the mail has not changed significantly since the 19th century. It is still hand-carried and hand-sorted. Consider the irony of the most technologically advanced nation in the world reduced to the anachronism of transporting tons of hand-sorted paper, in order to communicate. This is the legacy of government ownership.

Basically, a letter is non-priority communication. Its advantages are that it can be both written and read at convenience, and that it is inexpensive. On these points, it has no competition—yet.

Several technological developments promise to change this.

The Wall Street Journal (Aug 9, 1968) reports that, starting in Sept, Tele-Trans, leasing Xerox Telecopiers, will begin transmitting and receiving letters at locations in banks, hotels, airports, and libraries, utilizing conventional telephone lines. The charge: 50¢ per minute. Transmission time for an 8½ by 11 page would be 3-5 minutes, thus, cost $1.50-$2,50 per page. The largest expense, of course, is the phone line. The inherent difficulty in any present facsimile operation is its slowness. Unless this is overcome, or line charges drop drastically, this type of service will not capture the general market.

Bell Systems is currently tooling up for a second, more efficient method of transmitting information, including letters, via phone lines. You know it as Touch-Tone. By utilizing computers at both ends of the transmission line to transmit messages as temporally compact units, Bell can reduce costs, while providing a myriad of hitherto unheard-of services.

The time is sometime between 1973 and 1980. Our man sits down to his telephone. It is a deluxe model, with a television screen, television camera, teletype outlet, electronic writing pad, copier, and, yes, a handset. He flips on the machine and speaks towards the television screen (there is a mike and speaker next to it). He identifies himself and asks for his "mail." The computer checks his voiceprint and visual identity, and then displays the return address of the first "letter" on the screen, at the same time announcing it over the audio.

"No audio, please," he demands of the computer, "and skip this letter for now. Do you have one from Betty?"

"Yes," the computer flashes, and displays a short handwritten note. He reads it and asks the computer to file it electronically under both her name and the date. The display fades and is replaced by a diagram sent by one of his engineers. He instructs the comp, to file it under name, date, and 3 cross-referencial subject headings, after making a copy for himself.

He finishes the rest of his mail, answering it as he goes along, with the comp, automatically entering a "carbon" of each letter he writes into his file. Most letters he dictates to the comp, some he types, and the note to Betty, he writes with the light pen. He addresses this simply: Betty Holden 203-767-9021.

That night, sometime after midnight, when the longlines are open (or sooner, if he sent it special delivery), the comp, will transmit the message, multiplexed with thousands of others destined for the same local exchange (203-767), where it will be separated and stored under Betty's number until she asks for it in the morning.

Such a system is a long time off (for figures, see Bell literature). Until it is in operation, and after it is in operation, there will be a demand for the standardmail delivery.

How would selling the Post Office to private interests improve service? What are the moral arguments against government ownership? These questions will be discussed next issue.

Further Reading:

Scientific American Sept 1966, Transmission of Computer Data, by John R. Pierce, and Time-sharing on Computers, by R.M. Fano and F.J. Corbato Parade, Aug 25, 1968, Can the Post Office Ever be Efficient?,by Jack Harrison Pollack