Sunday, September 16, 2012

Halfway Around the World

Back in the early 70s during the Cold War, I worked for a guy who had relatives in Russia. He used to send them a package occasionally, containing American cigarettes and coffee – both highly prized and unobtainable in Russia at the time. The boxes would never arrive. However, he soon discovered that if he included two cans of coffee or two cartons of cigarettes, the boxes would arrive, but with only one can of coffee or one carton of cigarettes. So the Russian postal service was corrupt, but not greedy. They only wanted a commission.

A friend of mine who lives in India wanted some information that I could provide. This information was in the form of data, that I had burned onto four DVDs. Because of the sheer volume of this data and the non-urgent delivery requirement, it seemed more practical to send those DVDs halfway around the world than to send the data electronically. So I took the DVDs to the UPS store on my lunch break.

A pleasant young woman greeted me and asked what I needed. “Well, first of all, I need a box to put these in,” I said, brandishing the DVD cases.

“Where are you sending them?” she asked. I told her that I wanted to send them to India.

“How big of a box do you want?” she asked.

I was confused. “Big enough for these,” I said, waving the DVDS in her face.

“Well,” she said, “we have small boxes, but if you’re sending them to India, you should use a big box, because small things can get lost on such a long shipment.” Of course, larger packages cost more to ship, so my bullshit meter was pinging like crazy.

I told her to find the smallest possible box, which was 6 inches square and about an inch deep. She then asked me for the value of the contents.

“It’s worth zero dollars,” I said, “It’s data – easily reproduced.”

She punched in the dimensions and the value, calculated the cost, and with a big smile, told me that it could be there in four days for $94.

I laughed out loud. “I understand that I am paying for a small army of people to hand-carry this tiny package halfway around the world,” I said. “But you must realize how absurd it is to pay so much for something of so little intrinsic value.”
She then told me, “We can deliver it in seven days for $91. Would that be OK?”

No, still not OK. So I took my package to the Post Office, which offers a bewildering, poorly designed array of options for domestic mail. I waited in a long line of people on their lunch break, and watched with a sense of helplessness as the bored, miserable civil servants dealt with an endless parade of confused humanity. I realized that the Post Office is the Wal-Mart of parcel service providers.

Eventually, I made it to the front of the line and was able to send my package 9,300 miles in 7 - 10 days for $9.72. The only way this low cost is possible is with a subsidized postal system. However, I sense the death of postal subsidies coming very soon. These days, e-mail and high-speed Internet service has virtually eliminated shipping physical objects except for commercial purposes. I’d like to see those subsidies devoted to strengthening and expanding the US Internet backbone, making us the world leader in high-speed data service. But if you send anything interesting, we get to keep half of it.

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