The last mile

The mission of the United States Postal Service is to deliver mail to every address in the entire United States for a minimal fee. It’s an absolutely astonishing metric to hit. On average, the Postal Service can get a letter from Alaska to Hawaii or Florida in less than a week, and they’ve been hitting ambitious goals like that since inception. The template of the USPS became the standard for the rest of the world.

The hardest problem USPS has to solve is what logistics people call “the last mile.” Sure, it’s easy enough to get truckloads of mail to Denver, Colorado. It’s slightly harder to get them up to Idaho Springs, which is a small community about an hour outside the city into the mountains. And it is much, much more challenging to get mail to Buena Vista, Colorado, which sits high up in the mountains with its three thousand residents. Yet BV has a post office. And every day, a postal carrier delivers the mail from that post office.

Though USPS collects a fee for delivering the mail, the last mile in scenarios like Buena Vista is basically never profitable. There’s no way it can be. Most people in BV don’t receive mail on a regular basis, but the trucks still have to haul up and down the Rockies anyway. It’s part of the mission. The last mile is where “good business” stops and “public service” begins. The USPS consistently receives the highest satisfaction ratings of any government agency, primarily because it establishes its mission, its success metrics, and it does them well.

Pro-private sector advocates for mail delivery tend to leave out the fact that Fedex, UPS, DHL and the lot don’t really deal with the last mile. If it somehow becomes challenging to deliver to a specific location, all those carriers simply won’t do it - or they’ll hand the package over to USPS to tackle. Because their mission isn’t serving the public, their mission is making a profit. If it isn’t profitable, it needs to be dropped. USPS has no such restrictions.

Public libraries are similarly well-regarded in the eyes of the American public. There’s something baked into the national consciousness that says a town isn’t really successful until it’s got a good public library. You walk in, you register a library card, and you have access to all of this knowledge from all over the world and all throughout history. Or you can just read for fun. It’s an amazing service.

Both of these public services were brought into the American ambition by Benjamin Franklin. He stands out among Founding Fathers, in a similar position of reverence to George Washington. Yet Franklin had no military genius, nor was he ever in any sort of leadership role (aside from Postmaster General). He just seems to be a person who regularly asked “wouldn’t it be awesome if this country could do this?”

At age 21, Franklin formed a group called the Junto, a “club of mutual improvement” comprised of a small group of individuals who came together to discuss ideas and generally make themselves better. They came from diverse walks of life - the first members were printers, surveyors, cabinetmakers, clerks, and bartenders. They regularly discussed morals, politics, and natural philosophy (or physics). And they came up with ways to improve their country.

The Junto’s mission (from Franklin’s autobiography):

We met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss'd by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.

Our debates were ... to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory.

Franklin was inspired by two predecessors. The first was the “Dry Club,” which required its members answer affirmatively to the following questions:

1. Whether he loves all Men, of what Profession or Religion soever?
2. Whether he thinks no person ought to be harmed in his Body, Name, or Goods, for mere speculative Opinions, or his external way of Worship?
3. Whether he loves and seeks Truth for Truth's sake; and will endeavour impartially to find and receive it himself, and to communicate it to others?

The second were the neighborhood benefit societies of Cotton Mather, which posed questions like the following:

1. Who are in any peculiar adversity; and what may be done to comfort them?
2. What contention or variance may there be among our neighbours; and what may be done for healing it?
3. In what open transgressions do any life? and who shall be desired to carry faithful admonitions to them?

In all scenarios - the societies are gathering together to pose questions that both benefit themselves, but they don’t ignore the last mile. The societies force themselves to grapple with the struggles of those outside the society.

I keep coming back to these ideas thinking about the American system. Hundreds of years after Franklin, American government has massive amounts of distrust baked in, unless you’re dealing with something that derived from Ben Franklin’s brain. Franklin pushed his mind to solve last mile problems for society. What would it take to do the same?