Your Government Email Address

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The march of technology has turned the 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 email address.

Why would the post office bother? Anyone can generate a hundred email addresses for himself in no time on the web. There’s not exactly a shortage of them. And with 90 million Americans now using email, there can’t be much of a demand for a government email address. Perhaps, though, we could create our own address? Perhaps sellthe@postoffice.com?

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 email 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: bc20500000300@usps.com. If this weren’t the real thing, you would swear it came off a SNL skit. I wonder how many months of meetings it took to come up with that sequence?

But while email 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 generate?

For now, using the email address would be voluntary. We’ll see about later.

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 email 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, email, 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 email 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 email 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 public agitation.

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 mails.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. He also edits a daily news site, LewRockwell.com.

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