Imagine that, instead of the dinosaur of a postal service we have today—the product, among other things, of congressional insistence that no government outfit can compete with private business in lucrative new markets—we had an entrepreneurial, innovative public dynamo. In this other universe, the USPS was always on the lookout for new opportunities to build on its postal infrastructure, providing better services to the public while broadening its revenue stream.
USPSʹ, this better but hypothetical twin, greeted the arrival of the internet a generation ago with anticipation. Yes, it was obvious that email would be a threat to its core business of moving mail, but there would also be new possibilities for people to shop and do other business remotely. If a postal customer goes online to find a new product to clean his bamboo floor and decides to buy it, somehow that product has to find its way to its new owner. This is a job for the post office!
Driven by the urge to leverage its vast delivery infrastructure, USPSʹ years ago set up a website for remote shopping. They encouraged producers to list their goods by making it free; the postal service stood to profit from providing the logistics for any transaction, so there was no need to cream any revenue from the site itself, meaning no need to sell advertising. Of course, they hired top programming talent to make the site as searchable as possible and improve the online shopping experience for simplicity and transparency. The idea of allowing users to review and rate products was imported from other sites and found to be reasonably effective.
Over time, our hypothetical USPSʹ became something like Amazon, but Amazon wedded to the delivery infrastructure of the traditional postal service. No Jeff Bezos got to be a gazillionaire out of it, there was no crass commercialism and as a public institution it was amenable to democratic input. The health information and products site, co-managed with the National Institutes of Health, was a big hit.
Of course, it never happened this way. Instead we have a private octopus of an online shopping site called Amazon and a hobbled, money-losing public postal service that’s prohibited from even thinking about entering a new market—but provides crucial, subsidized logistics for its Amazonian overlord. That’s the world of today. But tomorrow? Why not think about acquiring Amazon as a public utility, or even setting up a public competitor to it? Where’s the road that takes from where we are now to the alternative universe we’d rather be in?