2012 - %3, August

Do We Still Need Universal Postal Service?

| Thu Aug. 2, 2012 6:19 PM PDT

David Dayen thinks that the postal service remains an important public function. Matt Yglesias isn't so sure:

What's so important about it? Obviously it's very important that people be able to get stuff delivered to their house. But there's no reason to think that absent a public entity this would suddenly become impossible....The Postal Service, in my opinion, does a really fantastic job of doing its job—namely providing guaranteed six days a week flat rate mail delivery. But when he says "right now the country still needs universal flat rate postal service" I'm left to wonder: Why? Why would it be so terrible to put up with differential pricing, or with a situation where some parts of the country had less frequent delivery?

This was all prompted by the fact that mail volumes are down and the postal service is losing money. Privatizing the post office is one solution, but David suggests instead that the post office should get into either the banking business or the broadband business in order to fix its financial problems. Unfortunately, I'm not much of a fan of that idea. It's true that this might bring in revenue if USPS were given some kind of monopoly position or public subsidy, but I don't really see how it would be profitable otherwise. USPS has no expertise in either area, and I simply don't see how they'd compete with existing banks or existing broadband providers. Having a bunch of buildings doesn't give you much of a leg up in the banking biz, since all the existing big banks have lots of buildings too, and knowing how to deliver mail effectively doesn't give you a leg up in either the internet backbone market or the last-mile market. A privatized USPS simply doesn't have much to offer in either area.1

Back on the ordinary mail front, my question has always been more about universal service than flat-rate service. I'm sure Matt is right that differential pricing wouldn't be a national disaster. But it really does seem as if universal service is an important function, and I've never believed that a private post office would provide it. A private USPS would provide differential pricing up to a point, with small towns having higher postal rates than big cities, but there would be plenty of places left that are just flatly unprofitable. At any reasonable postal rate they'd be money losers, and at very high rates they'd get so little use that they'd still be money losers. There would literally be no rate at which they'd be profitable to service.

Now, maybe that's OK. Maybe you could privatize the postal service with a requirement that they either deliver to an address or provide a free PO box for delivery and pickup. Unfortunately, this would work only if the privatized post office retained its monopoly status on first class mail, which means you'd lose all the benefits of competition.2 What's more, you'd almost certainly still be left with a pretty fair number of people who effectively have no mail delivery, since a private operator would probably shut down thousands of small post offices, leaving some customers with a 30-mile drive or more to pick up their mail.

Again: maybe you think that's OK. I'm not sure I do, but I might be exaggerating the problem. Nevertheless, that's the problem that needs to be addressed, and expanding into banking or broadband wouldn't help even if those ventures were successful.

1Honest, this is true. Postal banking is successful in other countries because it's been around forever and people still use it through sheer inertia. And foreign postal services sometimes provide broadband because they have government telephone monopolies already, so beefing that up with lots of fiber optic cable really does make sense. Neither of these things is true in the United States.

More generally, it's common to mock companies that get put out of business by new technology. "Train companies failed," goes the saying, "because they thought they were in the train business when they were actually in the transportation business." Well, no. That sounds like a sophisticated thing to say, but in fact they knew perfectly well what business they were in. The reason they didn't get into the airline business is because virtually none of their expertise gave them a genuine leg up against emerging airline operators. You can make up just-so stories about how they should have leveraged their logistics expertise to get into the airline business, but logistics is only a small part of these businesses, and in any case train logistics are quite a bit different from airline logistics. (There were also legal and regulatory issues that played a role here, though I don't know a lot about them.) The truth is that being in a business that provides a particular kind of service doesn't necessarily help you enter an entirely different business just because it provides a similar kind of service. In fact, often it's just the opposite. All you do is bring a train mentality to a business that needs something entirely new.

2If competitors were allowed, but the universal requirement applied to them, it's almost certain that there would be no competitors. The USPS would thus retain its monopoly. If the universal requirement weren't applied to everyone, then competitors would cherry pick service in the biggest cities, which would probably put USPS out of business.

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Corn on MSNBC: Romney's Rafalca Problem

Thu Aug. 2, 2012 4:55 PM PDT

Mother Jones' David Corn and The Daily Beast's Michelle Cottle join Reverend Al Sharpton on MSNBC's "PoliticsNation" to discuss Mitt Romney and the Olympics. While Ann's horse competed today, Mitt assured reporters he would not be watching the event. But what do his ties to the so-called "horse ballet" say about his disconnect with the middle class?

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Political Ad Data Comes Online—But It’s Not Searchable

| Thu Aug. 2, 2012 3:49 PM PDT

This story first appeared on the ProPublica website.

After a bruising months-long fight between media corporations and the Federal Communications Commission, a government website came online today that will feature political ad data from television stations around the country.

This means that detailed files about political advertising—which show who is buying political ads, how much they are paying, and when the ads are running, among other information—will finally be available online. In the past, those interested in the files, which are by law public, had to travel to stations to get physical copies.

Though the new system is far from perfect, it will likely give the public and journalists a new window into how anexpected few billion dollars are spent on political ads on local television this election cycle.

Quote of the Day: Mitt Romney Doesn't Like Being Questioned About His Taxes

| Thu Aug. 2, 2012 11:11 AM PDT

From Andrew Sprung, recalling Mitt Romney's teary reaction to suggestions in 2002 that he had been less than truthful about the tax implications of claiming Utah as his primary residence during his stewardship of the Olympics:

Change your story and status retroactively; stonewall and cry persecution when called out for it. Sound familiar?

Why yes, it does! All the details are at the link.

WATCH: The Hidden Costs of Hamburgers

Thu Aug. 2, 2012 10:25 AM PDT

This story was produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Americans love hamburgers—we each eat an average of three a week. But what are the hidden costs? It turns out that industrial beef creates about as much greenhouse gas pollution as cars, planes and other forms of transport. It also takes a heavy environmental toll on land and water worldwide. How can we reduce our impact? Learn more in this animated short from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Credits:

Carrie Ching: Director/Producer/Reporter
Sarah Terry-Cobo: Reporter/Narrator
Arthur Jones: Illustrator/Animator

Chart of the Day: US Cars Getting More Fuel Efficient

| Thu Aug. 2, 2012 8:54 AM PDT

Here's some modestly good news to start your day. (Or, if you're on the East Coast, to start your lunch hour.) Carbon emissions from US vehicles are down considerably over the past few years. This is due to a combination of less driving and more efficient vehicles. The chart below, from the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, tells the story. And things will get even better over the next decade, as the Obama administration's program to increase average fuel economy to 54.5 mpg kicks in.

It's not enough, but it's something.

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Obama Super-PAC Plans $30 Million Battleground Ad Blitz

| Thu Aug. 2, 2012 8:39 AM PDT

Priorities USA Action, the super-PAC backstopping President Obama's presidential campaign, isn't about to let the GOP money machine steamroll the president this fall. To bolster Obama, Priorities is ramping its anti-Romney campaign by buying up $30 million in broadcast and cable TV time in six crucial battleground states—Colorado, Iowa, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, the Washington Post reports.

This ad buy is arguably Priorities' most crucial of the 2012 cycle. Obama's road to victory in November runs through these six battleground states. And the GOP's biggest outside groups, including the pro-Romney super-PAC Restore Our Future and dark-money groups Americans for Prosperity and Crossroads GPS, are pumping tens of millions in anti-Obama ads in these states. Obama will need all the reinforcements he can get—that's where Priorities comes into play.

Here's more on the buy from the Post:

[Ad buy] sources would not indicate whether this was the totality of the ad spending Priorities USA Action would make on the election or whether this was the first flight of a broader buy. The group, in coordination with the Service Employees International Union, is currently funding Spanish-language ads in Colorado, Florida and Nevada—an effort they say will continue.

Priorities USA Action, which is run by former White House aides Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, has raised $16 million this year—as of the end of June—and $21 million since the start of 2011. It recently received a $1 million donation from actor Morgan Freeman. The group says it has another $20 million in commitments.

Those fundraising figures are dwarfed by the activity of Republican super-PACs and other conservative-aligned outside groups led by American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, which has pledged to spend $300 million on the 2012 election.

Priorities' fight against GOP groups is an uphill battle. In the super-PAC cash race, GOP-aligned super-PACs have raised nearly $219 million compared to $77 million for Democratic-aligned super-PACs, according to the Sunlight Foundation. For some perspective, the largest GOP super-PAC, the pro-Romney group Restore Our Future, has raised more money than every Democratic super-PAC combined.

Mitt Romney is Desperate to Show That He's a True Believer

| Thu Aug. 2, 2012 8:30 AM PDT

A couple of days ago Mitt Romney suggested that Palestinians were poor because of their culture. Then he walked it back. Then he doubled down. Then the pointy-headed elites weighed in. Romney was misrepresenting the books he based his argument on, they said. One of the authors, Jared Diamond of Guns, Germs, and Steel fame, even took to the New York Times to say so himself. Romney's riff on his book was so far off, Diamond said, "that I have to doubt whether Mr. Romney read it." But Dan Drezner, who almost (almost!) betrays a bit of vicarious sympathy for the beatdown Romney is getting, says it doesn't matter:

Will this make a whit of difference in the campaign? That depends entirely on whether you believe that voters still respond to cues from elites... so for me the answer is "probably not."

Ah, but this was never a play for elite opinion, except maybe in the sense of assuring voters that Romney isn't part of the fuzzy-headed, PhD-wielding, social science wimpocracy. Romney was basically suggesting that Palestinians are lazy and violent, and that's why the milk and honey doesn't run through their land. It was a crass shoutout to the Christian right, the Jewish right, and the neocon rump, all of whom already basically believe this. Romney is just sending a not-so-subtle signal that he's one of them.

The Real Reason the Olympics Suck

| Thu Aug. 2, 2012 8:03 AM PDT

Mariel Zagunis, the U.S. flag bearer in the Olympic opening ceremonies, lost her semifinal sabre match yesterday. She was a two-time medal winner facing enormous pressure. She was way ahead of her opponent during most of the match and then collapsed utterly in the last couple of minutes. Afterwards she was in a daze. All she could talk about was how badly she had done, how disappointed she was. In the midst of all that, she failed to fulsomely congratulate the play of her opponent.

This is what most of us call "being human." A devastating disappointment affects people like that, at least for a few minutes. But Washington Post columnist Mike Wise doesn't care:

Say buh-bye, America. Mariel Zagunis’s Q-rating just left the building.

....I met Mariel Zagunis in Athens in 2004. Zagunis then was this likable teen with a blond ponytail who did spot-on impersonations of a three-toed sloth because she watched so much Animal Planet....Contrast that with Wednesday’s unsmiling, hyper-focused, I’m-not-talking-to-anyone-but-my-coach-between-matches ball of stress, who remained in an autopilot daze even after she lost.

Etc.

Yep, that's what's important. Zagunis, in the aftermath of a crushing letdown, wasn't quite the bubbly teen that Wise remembers from eight years ago. She's not as media savvy as, say, Kobe Bryant, and after her bout she continued to say that she could have won if she hadn't lost her concentration, instead of vacuously thanking God for the mere opportunity of attending the games, the way you're supposed to. And for that she deserves to be publicly slagged by some idiot columnist searching out something new to write about.

I think this is what I dislike most about the Olympics. Not that it's tape delayed. Not that the commentators are annoying. Not the commercialism or the nationalistic hype. It's people like Mike Wise. Go back into your cave, will you? Leave the rest of us alone.

Mitt Romney's Reading Comprehension Problem

| Thu Aug. 2, 2012 7:53 AM PDT

Next time, Mitt Romney should cite books by dead authors so they can't publicly rebuke him for misinterpreting their books. 

At a fundraiser in Israel, Romney reportedly told a group of donors that economic differences between Palestinians and Israelis are entirely the result of "culture," ignoring external factors like the economic impact of the 45-year Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Romney initially claimed he didn't say that at all, despite making a similar argument in his 2010 book, before rehashing the same simplistic argument over at National Review. Romney cited two books in support of his argument, Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, and The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes*.

In the New York Times, Guns, Germs and Steel author Jared Diamond expresses confusion, writing that Romney's take on his book was "so different from what my book actually says that I have to doubt whether Mr. Romney read it."

It is not true that my book Guns, Germs and Steel, as Mr. Romney described it in a speech in Jerusalem, 'basically says the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there. There is iron ore on the land and so forth.' That is so different from what my book actually says that I have to doubt whether Mr. Romney read it. My focus was mostly on biological features, like plant and animal species, and among physical characteristics, the ones I mentioned were continents’ sizes and shapes and relative isolation. I said nothing about iron ore, which is so widespread that its distribution has had little effect on the different successes of different peoples."

Diamond also argues Romney has Landes wrong, writing that Landes "would find Mr. Romney’s statement that "culture makes all the difference" dangerously out of date," because Landes "analyzed multiple factors (including climate) in explaining why the industrial revolution first occurred in Europe and not elsewhere."

This also isn't the first time Romney has found himself in the awkward position of being told by the author of a book he cited that he has it all wrong. In June, Romney kept citing Noam Scheiber's book The Escape Artists to argue that "Obamacare would slow down the economic recovery in this country and they knew that before they passed it." Writing at the New Republic, Schreiber explained that his book doesn't actually say that.

New York's Jonathan Chait thinks Romney is simply a very bad book reviewer. Perhaps, but Romney also seems to have formed an entire ideological worldview based on misinterpretation of books he's read. Romney can probably avoid embarrassment by citing dead authors who won't be able to contest his mangling of their ideas, but the larger problem is the erroneous conclusions he draws based on what he thinks he's read, conclusions that will influence his policy choices should he ever become president.  

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly state Romney cited Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. In fact it was The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes.