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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Buggy Whips and the USPS

I was struck by the concept of subsidizing certain forms of commerce: the USPS for example.

About a century ago travel by horse and buggy was still common.  In fact, few if any motorized devices existed at that time on the farm where I now live, yet some twenty or so acres of land were cleared, a barn built, and so on.

How this was done is hard to imagine.  I suppose men with handsaws or axes cut down the virgin oak forest with its trees some twenty to thirty inches in diameter.  The resulting timber was further processed to remove branches and unusable limbs.  The resulting trunks where then hand hewn (Google spell does not recognize "hewn" as a word - I suppose no one at Google knows how to hew wood into a beam - I use an adze) into timbers eight to twelve inches square.  These timber built the barn.

What was done to remove the stumps was also a mystery.  I suppose teams of horses using block and tackle along with many men with shovels pried each stump from the earth one by one.  The resulting holes must have been filled in by hand or with horse drawn plows.

Our house is situated in a valley that's filled in with approximately twenty feet of earth.  Again this must have been pushed into place with horse drawn implements.

The old siding on the barn and the roof timbers are the only ones that seem to have been cut by machine.  Probably a steam engine driven saw if they were cut on site - though they could have been imported for elsewhere.

But, for the most part, without whips, horses and ox could not have done their job.  (Not that these animals would even be allowed to handled in such a way today.  I suppose that laws could be passed to support the buggy whip industry while simultaneously not allowing anyone to actually use the buggy whip on an animal.  Thank God for government...)

Given this and the USPS I wondered what the world would be like today had the concept of subsidizing failing businesses by the government been practiced for the last hundred years or so?

For one, I would be able to travel to any local store an purchase a brand new buggy whip.

How would this be possible?

Well, a hundred years ago an far thinking president would have realized that even though automobiles where becoming popular the buggy whip manufacturers would continue to need significant support.  After all it wouldn't be their fault that the industry they served was dying.

So I suppose that laws would be passed to supply loans to the makers of buggy whips.  Laws would also be passed mandating the government purchase some number of buggy whips in order to preserve a market.

No doubt the loans would go the way (as in down the tubes) today's Solyndra loans are - but the important government mandates to purchase buggy whips would remain.

Fortunately for the buggy whip manufacturers rural America probably still occasionally used their products up through the early 1950's or so.  By then new materials, such as nylon, would be available to reduce the cost of using real wood and leather.

By the end of the 1960's plastic would be available to package the buggy whips.

By the 1990's I imagine that it would no longer be profitable to make buggy whips here in the US.  But, I am sure, as long the manufacturing headquarters remained in the US (so as not to violate and protectionist buggy whip codes) the actual manufacturing could be moved to China.

I imagine huge container full of plastic-wrapped buggy whips arriving on our shores to be unloaded by other protected industrial workers on, not horse draw wagons, but trucks powered by gasoline and diesel engines.

(Perhaps China could also use the buggy whips in their own, still agricultural heart land.)

I imagine huge, climate controlled government warehouses full of unused Chinese buggy whips.

While all of this might seem silly its certainly no sillier that having the USPS as its currently configured survive the age of computers, email and the internet.

How is paper mail, mail carriers, and giant postal facilities any different than making buggy whips?

From the 1900's to the 1920's automobiles took over transportation in the US.  A mere twenty years.

The internet today has been in existence for just about the same amount of time.

What if everything else where subsidized like buggy whips?

I could go to the buggy dealer and buy a brand new horse drawn buggy.  Just what I need for long trips.

I could buy a new biplane, a hydrogen filled dirigible, a twenty pound portable radio using 80 volt lead acid batteries and tubes, a wringer washer, the possibilities are exciting and endless.

And the best part would be I could buy these things even if nobody wanted them...

Just imagine.

Showrooms full of brightly painted 1940's metal kitchen sink units, Studebaker cars, washboards and washtubs for laundry, tape recorders, crystal radios, oil lanterns and lamps...

Our job problem would be solved because service stations would be required to employ seven or eight full time people on every shift to check your wipers, oil and tire pressure at every gas fill up (oh wait, I must be in New Jersey where self serve gas stations do not yet exist...  Last time I bought gas in New Jersey and wonderful Russian man with a PhD in mathematics filled my tank for me...)

So I think that we must keep the USPS too - even if no one sends first class mail any more.  After all, they only employ some 550,000 or so employees to replace what my cable modem and computer do for less effort, time and money.

(A quick check of Amazon yields a single buggy whip result.)  Imagine if the proper laws had been passed - there no doubt would have been hundreds of choices available...)

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