Thursday, October 9, 2003

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Criticizing and defending Krugman

In Tech Central Station, Arnold Kling has an interesting critique of Paul Krugman's critiques of the Bush administration (link via Lynne Kiesling). The key grafs:

: Type C arguments are about the consequences of policies. Type M arguments are about the alleged motives of individuals who advocate policies.

In this example [on the minimum wage], the type C argument says that the consequences of eliminating the minimum wage would not be those that I expect and desire. We can have a constructive discussion of the Type C argument -- I can cite theory and evidence that contradicts Krueger and Card -- and eventually one of us could change his mind, based on the facts.

Type M arguments deny the legitimacy of one's opponents to even state their case. Type M arguments do not give rise to constructive discussion. They are almost impossible to test empirically....

Paul, your columns consist primarily of type M arguments. Either you do not see the difference between type C arguments and type M arguments, or you do not care....

Another consequence is to lower the prestige and impact of economists. We are trained to make type C arguments. Instead, you are teaching by example that making speculative assessments of one's opponent's motives is more important than thinking through the consequences of policy options. If everyone were to use such speculative assessments as the basis for forming their opinions, then there would be no room for economics in public policy discussions.

You could express your point of view using type C arguments and still take strong stands for what you believe is right. In fact, you might find that doing so would make you more effective. Even if that is not the case, even if there is a sort of media version of Gresham's Law in which specious reasoning drives out careful analysis, then that is a challenge for all of us who are trained as economists. I believe that we have a professional duty to try to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Now, although this blog is not in the habit of defending Paul Krugman, I'd say that Kling is overstating the case a bit. Krugman uses both types of arguments. If you take a look at his NYT Magazine article on taxes, for example, Krugman does marshall consequential arguments to support his argument -- but he uses motivational ones as well.

Krugman, although not yet a Nobel winner, ain't a dumb bunny when it comes to economics or methodology. I'd posit that he slides from Type C to type M arguments under two sets of circumstances -- which happen to mirror the two flaws I identified last December in his op-ed columns. First, he'll switch to type M when he's run out of ways to reiterate the type C argument about an issue. Second, and more disturbingly, he'll use type M arguments more in areas where his economics expertise is of less use -- namely, politics and foreign policy.

This, by the way, is Peter Beinert's conclusion at the end of his NYT book review of Krugman's The Great Unraveling:

Krugman tries to harness his columns into one overarching argument about the Bush presidency. In the introduction, he calls the administration a ''revolutionary power'' -- a term he takes from Henry Kissinger's analysis of France under Robespierre and Napoleon -- that wants to replace the post-New Deal order with an undiluted plutocracy. But to make his case, Krugman has to do more than merely dissect the administration's policies; he has to explain its motives and culture. And here Krugman's unconventional background becomes a liability. He criticizes Washington reporters for being prisoners of their sources, and the dinner-party-going ''commentariat'' for succumbing to groupthink. But guest lists that cross ideological lines can help liberals understand the conservatives they write about. And many Washington conservatives genuinely don't see the Bush administration as radical: they see it as having ratified a big-spending, culturally liberal status quo. Krugman assumes a revolutionary consciousness that may not actually exist on the ground.

Krugman's assumptions about the administration's motives are most problematic on foreign policy. He understands the Iraq war by analogy to the Bush tax cuts, as if rewarding corporate friends with military contracts via the Carlyle Group was a driving force behind the decision to depose Saddam Hussein. He wonders whether the Bush administration will ''start threatening already democratic countries with military force.'' And he dismisses suggestions that President Bush's aggressive foreign policy was a genuine reaction to Sept. 11, writing that ''we knew there were people out there who wanted to hurt us; it wasn't that much of a surprise when they finally scored a hit.''

Note that this is a type T argument -- theoretical supposition -- with only a small dose of type C support.

UPDATE: Chris Lawrence makes such a good comment that I'm linking to it here. Chris is completely correct that type M arguments are a valid form of social science. Perhaps the refinement would be to suggest that Krugman's type C arguments are at their weakest when used in support of type M hypotheses.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Brad DeLong weighs in with some cogent points.

posted by Dan on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM


Note that the criticism you most often hear about Krugman - that he's "shrill" - is itself a type M argument.

posted by: uh_clem on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

Paul Krugman desires to be loved by the liberal establishment. This may surprise some folks---but his economic views are perceived as very right of center by the far left! Krugman thus goes out of his way to prove his liberalism by attacking Republicans in a childish and exaggerated manner.

Some people don’t mind if you call them a %$#)&^ son of a female dog. But they will immediately sue for slander if you describe them as conservative. I encourage everyone to read Krugman’s earlier columns. They are utterly unlike his current immature offerings in the New York Times.

posted by: David Thomson on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

Having just finished Krugman's book, I'd say that a typical column starts with a Type C argument. For example, he'll explain how shamelessly inaccurate Bush's representations of the tax cuts are. Having done that, he'll slide into a Type M argument to explain why Bush is shamelessly misrepresenting his tax cuts.

Type C and Type M arguments are not mutually exclusive. They're used for two seperate kinds of arguments; Type M arguments cannot be used in discussions about policy consequences, and vice versa. The idea that it's either/or is simply a convenient way to dodge arguing the substance of what Krugman writes, which of course, Kling manages quite nicely.

Except for this one instance:

My opinion is that [Krugman's theory of Bush's war motive] requires an implausible degree of complicity among highly dedicated civil servants. Would Colin Powell not have resigned if the purpose of the war were to win an election?
Talk about a Type M argument.

posted by: strannix on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

Actually, calling Krugman "shrill" isn't an argument at all; it's just name-calling.

And Kling forgot the most important type of argument-the "Type P" argument, which resembles the paranoid rantings of a Lyndon LaRouche or Pat Buchanan supporter who accidentally tripped on acid. Lowly Type M arguments actually have some plausible basis in reality; Type P, by contrast, considers the root cause of everything to be a product of the Halliburton-Enron-Carlyle-Saud-WorldCom-ImClone-VA Software conspiracy (if you're criticizing the right) or the IndyMedia-MichaelMoore-ACLU-NARAL-NOW-NAACP-MECHA axis of evil (if you're criticizing the left).

In other words, in a Type P argument the logic tracks but the premises are so absurd that you have to wonder if the author actually believes what he's writing.

posted by: Chris Lawrence on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

Funny Chris, I was just going to propose 'type P' as more of a problem, but I was thinking Partisan, not Paranoid.

I'll defer to your pre-emption and go with 'type A' for Type Allegiance. These arguments are essentially Austin-esque Speech Acts, wherein the primary intent of making the argument is advertising the strength of one's allegiance to a particular faction, and more importantly, advertising the strength of one's exclusion of another faction, regardless of the actual content of the argument.

I think you'll find most arguments to be of this type.

posted by: sidereal on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

I became a moderate instead of a liberal when I went from M arguments to C arguments. After reading Parliament of Whores by P.J. O'Rourke, I realized that government programs that work are
not the problem. Government programs that have good intentions but DON'T work are the problem. When I argue with liberal friends about welfare or affirmative action, it isn't because I am against the poor or African-Americans but because the programs have been shown to have negative effects or unintended consequences. I think that an understanding of C vs. M is what makes the difference between old school liberals and conservatives vs. "neoliberals" and "neoconservatives" (at least, neoconservatives on domestic policy).

posted by: Football Outsider on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

Type M arguments deny the legitimacy of one's opponents to even state their case. Type M arguments do not give rise to constructive discussion. They are almost impossible to test empirically....

To echo Chris above, you don't have to have "empirical" evidence to make a convincing Type M argument. For instance, one can go the Americans for Tax Reform website, or the Texas GOP platform, and find ample evidence of intent. Indeed, Krugman's whole point is that these people are completely brazen about their intentions: they want to destroy government by starving it of revenue. And they are not ashamed.

posted by: praktike on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]


If you point out that somebody says one thing and then does another, are you

  • employing a type M argument to call them a lying hypocrite, or
  • merely utilizing a type C argument to demonstrate the facts at hand?

posted by: uh_clem on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]


Has Krugman over-reached? Yes. Has Krugman sometimes set my teeth on edge and made me want to tell him to stop being silly? Yes. Has Krugman slipped over the line into partisan-ship? Yes.

However there is the simple fact that Krugman has been calling things correctly. Contrast this to the mental contortions of Friedman who can't even get his own story straight and has moved from determined optimism to almost blind pollyanism.

Krugman uses too many type M arguments, but not nearly as much as the Right which he opposes. Also people have stopped for the most part responding to type C arguments. Consequences be damned, they try to ram the square peg world into the round hole of their ideological expectations. We have a whole generation of Americans who have lost the capacity to critically assess the policies of their own leadership, and a leadership who either has cynically forgotten that governance is more than PR management or has slipped into delusional lemming land where they have bought their own spin.

In such an atmosphere, only type M arguments have traction despite the fact that the real world rests with type C. Forgive Krugman for slipping into temptation, but pluck first the planck from his opponents' eyes before going for the splinter in his.

posted by: Oldman on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

"Texas GOP platform"

What do you find displeasing concerning my state's Republican platform? :

I do concede that I reject the ludicrous call for a return to the gold standard. Other than that, what is supposedly so outrageous?

posted by: David Thomson on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

Paul Krugman may not always be right--and given the legion that pounce on his every word, he has little chance to be wrong, but it is easy to attack his rhetoric because he IS so damn right most of the time.

Look at the latest bit in Talking Points Memo for the latest in Bush up is downism. You can believe all you want in certain policies and positions, but there is no doubt in my mind, that these policies and positions have been consistently been misrepersented, fudged and mischaracterized by Bush and his administration to help make their points.

Krugman is so damn scary because he has the biggest media platform to say this. (Peter Beinart made similiar points in the New Republic about Bush lies and gets half the notoriety.) To quell Krugman the response has been:

- Enron/Conflict/Shill/

- Secret un-named economists who say he aint what he used to be

- Hypercritical parsing and fact checking

- Mindless attacks on his rhetoric.

I like Dan (and say Steve Chapman) so much because they seem to look beyond issues of "side". One can hold right-wing/conservative beliefs without having to condone all of the things right-winger have done to get and maintain power. Krugman has a message about Bush and his team and, regardless of his political beliefs, it should resonate with all of us.

posted by: Vital Information on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

“An example would be Norquist's starve-the-beast ideas about government funding.”

Wow, I must be a terrible person for I substantially agree with the starving the beast metaphor. It is beneficial for all Americans to severely cut back the role of government in our lives. The private sector, in most instances, can do a far better job. Civil service protected bureaucrats are often wasteful and idiotic. Accountability is an alien term to their ears.

And now I must wallow in my hatefulness and reactionarism. The agents of the government are chasing me---but I shall escape once again.

posted by: David Thomson on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

Dear Thomson,

Right and energy deregulation has worked SO well.

posted by: Oldman on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

Dan, I think you've confused me and "chris." (You summarized his comment, but linked to mine.)

That being said, I agree with this other Chris that type M isn't necessarily bad. But unless you're able to show that those motivations are actually working in a particular case, you're weakening your case. (For example, you could argue that something I do is motivated by something Adam Smith wrote. But if I haven't read Smith, maybe I'm doing it for some other reason. This is the one thing that always irked me about literary criticism... how do you _know_ Hawthorne was deliberately echoing Pope?)

posted by: Chris Lawrence on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

"Right and energy deregulation has worked SO well."

Indeed it has. You should visit Lynne Kiesling's blog a bit more often:

posted by: David Thomson on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

Oldman --

Energy deregulation has worked quite well where it has been sensibly implemented. I am a resident of a state that has an energy deregulation program that has actually deregulated energy. In fact, the program has reduced energy costs and been held up as a model for other states.

I presume you are referring to California, which implemented energy deregulation in name only. To call that program deregulation borders on the farsical. Here's a hint: When you put a cap on the price for which someone (utilities) can sell something (power), don't put a cap on what they have to pay for it, and then require them to purchase it, it doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that trouble is just around the corner.

California's power problem has a simple solution -- the problem is that the state is unwilling to implement it. When population and energy use are growing, you either need to purchase more or use less. California refused to make that choice, so it got the disaster it deserved.

posted by: Ben on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

Energy deregulation has worked a whole lot better than highly regulated energy markets. I think one of the problems in deregulation is that governments have to work even harder to ensure the fairness of the markets.

posted by: tallan on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

I agree that the sentence I put in about Colin Powell was a misfit. I was arguing against the plausibility of Krugman's type M argument, and you can't do that without making a type M argument yourself. My bad.

I won't speak for other social sciences, but I think in economics the distinction between type C and type M is important. If you support a high minimum wage because you are an angel who wants to help the poor, as an economist I want to tell you objectively that the end result may be the opposite of what you intend, because unemployment will increase among low-skilled workers.

If you oppose the high minimum wage because you are a restaurant owner with an interest in hiring low-wage labor, then as an economist I am still going to say that a high minimum wage could cause unemployment to increase among low-skilled workers.

I think that my job is to focus on consequences. It is difficult for me to picture a circumstance in which focusing on motives helps me do better economics.

posted by: Arnold Kling on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

"And many Washington conservatives genuinely don't see the Bush administration as radical: they see it as having ratified a big-spending, culturally liberal status quo. Krugman assumes a revolutionary consciousness that may not actually exist on the ground."

Don't forget that Krugman sees the big-spending tactic by conservatives as part of the starve-the-beast strategy. I think the hard right in the Republican Party are out to starve-the-beast, but there is a considerable number of genuine moderates in the party too. At some point the tensions between these two groups much reach breaking point - and that can only be bad for the Republicans and good for the Democrats, surely?

posted by: Stewart Kelly on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

What we are really talking about is a horse that left the barn some years ago, when journalists started appearing on TV gabfests like The McLaughlin Group. They always got paid more for these than for their print work, gained more fame or at least notoriety and -- because TV work led many of them to do paid appearances before corporate meetings and similar audiences -- much applause. But the quality of their television work was notably lower than what their writing had been.

Krugman's path from economist to columnist is not dissimilar. The NYT gig is a nice one to have financially, and I'm sure from that platform generates lots of applause (if the NYT Letters page is any indication, Pravda circa 1975 had a more diverse readership). I don't see how anyone could expect a twice weekly column to pack the same intellectual punch as the longer articles Krugman might write about economics, the subject he knows. And they don't, but this goes with the territory. Increase your exposure, expand your scope, reduce the force of whatever arguments you are making. Krugman is following a well-traveled path.

posted by: Zathras on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

May I add something about this whole "starve-the-beast" theory?

It doesn't work. It didn't work during the long 1980s battle over deficits and it won't work now. The vast majority of federal spending is outside the domestic discretionary areas that anti-tax activists say they want to "starve," so killing funding for domestic discretionary programs won't impact the deficit enough for it to be worth the political hassle. You can freeze budgets for these programs -- but this doesn't lead to agencies doing less, it just means they won't do anything different, which is why you have the immigration agencies limping along with procedures and equipment a quarter century and more behind the times.

As for the rest of the budget, starving the beast doesn't apply to Pentagon spending, Social Security, Medicare; it is irrelevant to interest paid on the national debt. Some of the most dedicated anti-tax Congressmen were in the front ranks of those who passed the egregiously expensive farm bill last year.

As a slogan to get contributors fired up to give money to people like Grover Norquist I'm sure "starve the beast" works admirably. That is its purpose. The anti-tax activists talk a good game about spending, but all they really care about -- because it's all their financial supporters really care about -- is cutting taxes.

posted by: Zathras on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

Doesn't it seem like Krugman's big problem, as shown in his interview with Kevin Drum and in the preface to his new book, is that he seemingly closed himself off from political debates in the country through all those years while he was doing excellent, excellent work on global economics?

When Krugman emerged as a political writer in the late 1990s, he demonstrated -- and continues to demonstrate -- that he has minimal depth of understanding of American political history and political ideas (in particular those ideas which animate the right-wing half of the country). When he attacks Grover Norquist as a dangerous revolutionary figure in ways that Stalin used to condemn Trotsky, I have to wonder: did he pay any attention at all to the rise of Reagan? Gingrich? To echo Beinart, does Krugman KNOW and converse with any ideological Republicans in real life?

In place of knowledge of recent history, Krugman has this vague sense that "I, Paul Krugman am a lefty, so I should be saying what other lefties say." This regurgitation works for children, but it's not a way for adults to understand the world or argue about issues. When Krugman gets his political talking points from Atrios and the like without knowing anything else about the topics at hand and then spews out a 600 word polemic full of Bush-is-Hitler intimations, he's irrevocably damaging his reputation among those who stand to learn from his writing on economics.

Paul Krugman could've been another brilliant public intellectual like Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Instead, he's just Paul Krugman, great economist and political hack.

posted by: Matthew on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

"At some point the tensions between these two groups much reach breaking point - and that can only be bad for the Republicans and good for the Democrats, surely?"

You regrettably have half a valid point. Democrats essentially promise something for nothing. And yes, a lot of American voters desire to be deceived. Republicans are often punished for candidly admitting that there is no such thing as a free lunch. This political risk is unavoidable.

posted by: David Thomson on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

No one wants to truly address what Krugman has been saying. Krugrman is hardly writing these days on international trade and macro-economics. He might, but he is so frustrated by other things that (I believe) he sees no other option. In addition, the ever constant ad hominen attacks, started by Sully and continuted to this day by, what everyone on the right, have only encouraged him even more to stick to THE topic.

C'mon guys, Bush did present misleading figures on his tax cuts and social security reform. Krugman showed that (as did Peter Beinart, David Corn, Danna Millbank, etc.). Regardless of what you think about California's deregulation system, Enron and others DID attempt to manipulate it--the documents exist. And back in July when Krugman wrote about the leaking of Valerie Plame, well...

I doubt any of you guys listened to the Bill O'Reilly interview on NPR and Terri Gross's little follow-up. It summarizes so well a favorite tactic of some. O'Reilly goes on for five minutes about how we should only debate on the facts, how he has the right to challenge those who defame him. But of course, Terri is prepared to show him where he calls a critic a pinhead. Too many think they engage Krugman on issues, but they do not, because they are not engaging him on the issues he currently writes. Instead, they call him names.

posted by: Vital Information on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

I think some are missing the point here: King's
type "M" stands for "alleged motive" and not "motive."
Thus if I talk about the motives of subject X and
I ground that discussion in non-disingenuous quotes
of subject X that demonstrate these are indeed subject X's
motives, then that is not a "Type M" argument.

On the other hand if I mindread and attribute motives
to subject X that subject X would disagree with or
I present no quotes from subject X to document of
subject X's motives then that is a Type M argument.

I used to be a fan of Paul Krugman's. Not that I agreed
with everything he said, but I used to regularly check
his website for new essays and most of them I found
thought provoking. All that changed when he became a
columnist for New York Times. I don't understand what

posted by: Mark Amerman on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

"The vast majority of federal spending is outside the domestic discretionary areas that anti-tax activists say they want to "starve," so killing funding for domestic discretionary programs won't impact the deficit enough for it to be worth the political hassle."

I would argue that the Grover Norquists of the world want to kill Social Security and Medicare more than anything else, and that their current privatization position is pragmatic. For these people, coercing someone into putting money into a government savings program is morally equivalent to the Holocaust. They're just biding their time and covering Dubya's ass.

posted by: praktike on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

“I would argue that the Grover Norquists of the world want to kill Social Security and Medicare more than anything else, and that their current privatization position is pragmatic. “

Gosh, you really do comprehend the evil lurking in my heart. Did you know that I also eat puppies and smash the heads of helpless kittens? I do indeed wish to phase out Social Security and Medicare. And why shouldn’t this be a laudable goal? What is so sacred about the government handling these functions? Did God proclaim that this is the best way of doing things? Why not privatize as much as possible? Is a paternalistic government truly necessary to insure a viable society? I think not. You seem to imply that individuals are not to be trusted making their own decisions.

posted by: David Thomson on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

Dear Deregulation commentators,

It is somewhat misleading to discuss the concept of energy deregulation in terms of individual examples either good or bad. The market is neither good or bad, merely the market. An overall look at deregulation indicates that it has worked on some areas but clearly has not worked in others.

One fundamental capital market concept is return on investment. Deregulation does not work well in promoting investment in projects where the expected return on investment is relatively low. The market solution is to allow people to charge more and let competition keep prices reasonable. This only works if there is sufficient competition and there isn't price manipulation such as in Enron / California.

To paraphrase an old statement, government's job is not to do something better than somebody else but to do what otherwise would not be done at all. Allot of companies are avoiding making investments on the theory that somebody else will do it and they don't want to do it and incur the price if others don't.

Another fundamental concept in capital markets is that of the fair playing ground. In a interstate electrical market where power is transmitted over areas of varying laws, localized competition and deregulation simply doesn't work. Only a centralized regulatory body can create the uniform market rules that companies need in order to plan and make profits. Also only a centralized regulatory body can enforce critical steps such as forcing people to sell land or allow building in order to build interstate transmission corridors.

The energy market is one of the particularly good examples where it is seen that only strong and uniform centralized regulation can create a fair and profitable marketplace. Otherwise markets will create some good experiences but otherwise leave critical infrastructure and community stability needs unmet because there is no short term profit motive in doing so and there is a competitive disadvantage if one does so and other companies don't.

posted by: Oldman on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

“To paraphrase an old statement, government's job is not to do something better than somebody else but to do what otherwise would not be done at all.”

I prefer to slightly modify the above sentence:

“To paraphrase an old statement, the government's job is not to do something better than somebody else, but to do what otherwise would not be done at all---until the private sector can sufficiently take over a particular function.”

I believe the private sector could not have likely handled our earlier postal requirements. The government was far more able to respond to this desperate need. However, today’s U.S. Postal System needs to be phased out as rapidly as possible. The private sector is more than able to deliver our letters and packages (and sigh, even our junk mail). Why shouldn’t the energy sector be any different?

posted by: David Thomson on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

Dear Thomson,

A thoughtful point. But to use your analogy what happens if there's some town, let's call it Podunkville, where the private companies figure it is not profitable to deliver mail there because of operations cost? Podunkville no longer has mail service.

Well then we could let the government take over that town right? Except that we'd get into a situation where the government was taking over only money losing routes and the profitable ones were being run by companies. Well the Postal Service is insolvent enough as it is, to take this course of events would essentially create an indirect subsidy where private companies profited and the public paid through taxes more to keep the system together.

Now if there was a division of routes so that companies who wanted to bid to run mail routes had to service some less profitable routes in order to get premimum routes, then that might work out pretty darn well.

I agree with ya on the point that FedEx is far better in every way than USpostal. However I also note that FedEx hasn't been exactly clamoring to take over snailmail routes either.

posted by: Oldman on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

"A thoughtful point. But to use your analogy what happens if there's some town, let's call it Podunkville, where the private companies figure it is not profitable to deliver mail there because of operations cost? Podunkville no longer has mail service."

I suspect that you believe that this is a legitimate objection. Sadly, you have been listening to too much pro-postal service propaganda. On the contrary, this difficulty can easily be addressed. This is indeed a relatively minor problem. The government would still have a role to play in monitoring the private postal carriers. It would simply demand that these companies handle the good---and the bad. They would not be allowed to cherry pick. By the way, these private entities could still earn a nifty profit.

The union rules covering the U.S. Postal Service protects incompetence and sometimes even total disregard of the postal customer. I have literally encountered U.S. Postal workers who I doubted could read even at an eight grade level! Only yesterday, I received two pieces of mail sent to another family and address.

posted by: David Thomson on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

To push the snail-mail analogy further, snail-mail is pretty much obsolete. What is it used for?

1. Junk Mail, including franked mail - let the senders make their own arrangements in a free market. Maybe it could end up being mostly un-economic, and we end up seeing a lot less of it. Is that bad?

2. Checks. This is rapidly being replaced by electronic payment methods - finish the trend.

3. Official business. Government mailings and lawyer letters of various types. Registered mail, etc. This is the hardest to replace, since it's delivery method often serves a legal purpose. Still, a US Postal System that specialized in this purpose only could be a *lot* smaller and cheaper. And alternatives could be explored, even so.

4. Private personal mail. A vanishingly small percentage of the total, not enough to carry things by itself.

So yeah, abolishing (or seriously cutting down the size of) the Post Office would require some changes, but still it makes sense.

Oh yeah, Podunkville. Well, if just the top two categories are dropped from the mail stream, the volume goes *way* down. Enough probably to restructure how the mail gets delivered. Especially if the timeliness of delivery is relaxed. One town PO could cover several towns, etc.

Besides, special pleadings of service for the few at a high cost to many is not that good an argument economically. And it is normal that service in small towns for many things is lower quality or even unavailable in comparision to the service in bigger towns or cities. That is why cities exist in the first place. And I get the feeling that pleadings for the "Small Town Post Office" is basically soft-focus romanticism of small town life. It reminds me of the farm subsidy argument - another big waste of money based on the romantic idea of the "family farm", when most of the money actually goes to big-time agribusiness.

posted by: Eric E. Coe on 10.09.03 at 12:54 PM [permalink]

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