Wrong Legislative Thought Of The Day: An Email Tax To Save The Post Office

from the er,-no dept

There have been questions for quite some time now as to whether or not the traditional US postal system can survive the digital era. Frankly, the outlook isn’t good, what with email replacing the sending of letters in large part and the postal service losing billions of dollars each year. The postal service itself tried to fight what I guess they thought was just a hip email trend by reminding everyone how terrible email is and how great letters are, or something. Sadly, it appears that campaign made little headway and the US mail system continues to look for a savior.

That’s where Gordon Wozniak, Berkeley City Councilman and bad-idea generator, hopes to enter into the equation with his monumentally dumb idea of micro-taxing email, a service everyone uses, to fund the postal system, which nobody cares about.

Wozniak told the council: “There should be something like a bit tax. I mean a bit tax could be a cent per gigabit and they would still make, probably, billions of dollars a year… And there should be, also, a very tiny tax on email,” perhaps one-hundredth of a cent. He said this would discourage spam and not have much impact on the typical Internet user. Wozniak went on to suggest a sales tax on internet transactions that could help, in part, fund “vital functions that the post office serves.”

Let’s set aside for a moment that the proliferation of spam blocking software and appliances has mostly erased spam emails for anyone interested. If Wozniak wants to propose tax law, he should at least familiarize himself with the relevant laws on the books, including the Internet Tax Nondiscrimination Act, which bans internet taxes entirely. Seems like kind of a big roadblock, no? Fortunately, Wozniak’s idea is not only dumb, but it’s also completely unworkable, as noted by Harvard Law School’s Jonathan Zittrain:

“To the extent that the cheap flow of flat rate first class mail has positive effects for society at large, the insistence that the Post Office be revenue-neutral may not make sense,” Zittrain said. “Taxing email as an alternative, however, is a terrible idea: bad in theory and truly unworkable in practice. There have been proposals to see fees imposed on email by service providers — or recipients themselves — as a way of minimizing spam, but to impose an external tax on it when there are ready substitutes (Facebook messaging, anyone?), and when collection would be a nightmare, seems a non-starter. There is no reason to tax electronic mail users in particular to save the Post Office, any more than it would make sense to tax coffee drinkers to do it.”

In response, Wozniak said that despite not being an expert on internet taxes (wut?), he still thinks the idea deserves to be considered because “many billions of emails are sent every day [and] an email tax could raise substantial sums.” By the way, he delivered that statement…wait for it…via email.

Well, I’m not a bad-idea tax expert, but since there are so many bad ideas generated every day, we could solve every financial crisis everywhere by taxing the hell out of bad ideas. Let’s start with yours, Mr. Wozniak. After all, the postal service needs you.

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Comments on “Wrong Legislative Thought Of The Day: An Email Tax To Save The Post Office”

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Ninja (profile) says:

I can’t see a reason why the postal service should not exist. However it is clear that it’s not profitable anymore. One way out would be to couple it with package delivery (ie: Fedex) so letters and packages would use the same infra-structure. Regardless delivering letters or papers (there are things that need to be mailed physically) would still be unprofitable so ultimately one solution would be to make the postal service a Govt granted service such as schools for instance. When you take profits out of the equation and just aim to break-even things get easier. And honestly, even if the Govt has to put money to maintain the service it’s just its obligation.

Mike C. (profile) says:

Re: Re:

If only the postal service with it’s fleet of trucks that visit nearly every physical address in the entire country multiple times per week could be used in other ways. I mean, it’s really too bad we don’t have GPS units they could attach to them so that mapping companies could get really accurate GPS locations for addresses. Or if only someone could invent a camera system that you mount to the roof of a vehicle to take pictures of the road to get a street level view for mapping directions. And what local municipality could possibly want a service to report road and highway issues like serious potholes in the northeast or roads washed out in the southwest. And, of course, there’s no way a power company would want to license a fleet like that to help get a complete survey of their power lines looking for dead/weak trees and obstructions. I doubt even a communications company like AT&T or Comcast would want that either.

Such a tragedy…

Arthur Moore (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Good idea, but congress won’t let them. Apparently they’ve tried similar ideas in the past. This article is a little preachy, but it has some good quotes:


“Whenever USPS tries to enter a new arena, private competitors bleat to Congress. Examples abound: plans to develop an online payment system in 2000 (Internet industry cried foul); public copy machines (office supply stores); in-store sales of phone cards and money transfers; selling postal meter cartridges (Pitney Bowes objected). And, of course, rivals such as UPS complained, ultimately leading Congress in 2006 to restrict USPS to mail delivery.”

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Wow, awesome link. I knew the USPS was a lot better than the reputation some people are trying to smear them with, but this is a real eye-opener.

And you don’t even have to be out in a rural area to benefit from them. I live in the suburbs, in a nice apartment complex, and USPS is the only package delivery system I trust. UPS, Fedex and all the rest consistently screw things up in ridiculous ways.

– Not finding my address.
– Not leaving things with the apartment manager when I’m not home.
– Presenting ridiculous lies about why my package didn’t get delivered, such as “the driver needed a code to get in.” (No he didn’t, and he wouldn’t have at any of the apartment complexes nearby either.)
– And worst of all, never delivering when I’m at home! The problem with only working “standard business hours” is that all of the standard businesses work the same hours. I do not understand how these guys can remain in business when their schedule is completely incompatible with that of so many of their customers! That’s Service Industry 101!

By contrast, USPS has never once mis-delivered a package for me.

Chuck Norris' Enemy (deceased) (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I doubt even a communications company like AT&T or Comcast would want that either.

As somebody who works for an electric utility, comm companies don’t give a flip about their lines until somebody gives ’em a call (and you could argue that, too). I’ve seen installations where they lay wire on the ground, up a tree, over a sidewalk, down a tree and to the house. They don’t mind using trees as poles either. Not until the state utility board writes up a violation to the electric utility and we go barking up their tree (and threaten with fines) will they fix their cables.

Mike C. (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

In Connecticut after 2011 the power companies started to care a little bit. With two major power outages just a couple months apart, the legislature stuck their nose into things and passed a law about penalties if more than 10% of their customers are out for more than 72 hours. For the last 2 years, they’ve actually been trimming and clearing lines. That’s pretty much what prompted me to think of the idea.

Granted, a similar idea would be for follow up after a major storm. Since they’re travelling the streets, have them report downed trees, wires, etc. Tie it in with a GPS location and perhaps a picture upload (via cell) and utility response time could increase dramatically.

akp (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Anyone who thinks the USPS is no longer needed or relevant should try living anywhere rural. A significant portion of this country lives without broadband internet, and in places where FedEx and UPS charge 50 times what the USPS does for delivery.

We need the postal service… Which by the way is an actual enumerated power of the Constitution.

Where are all the right-wingers who live and die by holding only to the Constitution when we talk about the postal service?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Who cares about the farmers in rural America anyway? We can just start buying all our food form China like we do everything else right? We don’t need people living in small towns surrounded by farmland. They can just move to the cities like everyone else right? Besides, when we get rid of the farms, we won’t have anymore immigration issues with illegal aliens migrating to work on those farms picking crops. It’s a win for everybody!

anonymouse says:

Re: Re:

I wrote a ranting comment then deleted it. The governement really needs to make sure everyone has a stable and reliable mail service. If that means taking over the massive amount of package deliveries throught the country to cover the cost of mail deliver so be it, close down dhl and fed ex or let the governement buy them out.
There are few things in life i want the government involved in but water supply, electricity generation and supply, roads and bridges,phone lines/broadband and the postal service are all examples of the businesses that should in no way be done for profit. They are services that everyone wants and deserves and if it means being taxed a small amount to maintain /upgrade them so be it. For profit organizations have proven they cannot provide the service everyone wants so lets nationalize everything.
And the post office should be booming with the amount of parcels that are being posted compared to just a few years ago, what with all the new services on the internet that post things worldwide i am surprised they are struggling at all.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Well actually in the analogy the government would be the computer and the tax law would be the code that would start the recursive process causing the system (government) to crash and requiring a hard reboot in order to recover. The government has been “out of memory” and in desperate need of a hard reboot and reload for quite some time even without this.

Atkray (profile) says:

” the insistence that the Post Office be revenue-neutral may not make sense,” Zittrain said.”

This insistence is the only reason anyone cares about it.

If not for this insistence the Post Office would just be another government black hole to throw money in.

At least with this insistence there is an illusion of trying to run it like an actual business.

The insistence that the Post Office be revenue-neutral makes perfect sense.

Note: The above assumes that we aren’t even considering letting the Post Office run as a for profit enterprise.

out_of_the_blue says:

Wrong premises: it's NOT "The Post Office".


Emphasis added:

‘The USPS is often mistaken for a government-owned corporation (e.g., Amtrak) because it operates much like a business, but as noted above, it is legally defined as an “independent establishment of the executive branch of the Government of the United States”, (39 U.S.C. ? 201) as it is controlled by Presidential appointees and the Postmaster General. As a quasi-governmental agency, it has many special privileges, including sovereign immunity, eminent domain powers, powers to negotiate postal treaties with foreign nations, and an exclusive legal right to deliver first-class and third-class mail. Indeed, in 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision that the USPS was not a government-owned corporation, and therefore could not be sued under the Sherman Antitrust Act.[70]’

So, if think you’re supporting “The Post Office”, know that it’s been taken over by organized crime, I mean “private interests”, in conspiracy with gov’t. Supporting it with taxes is direct fascism.

anonymous dutch coward says:

sounds familiar

I use the USPS often to import packages from the US and love them for it. Fast, cheap and dependable, but I can’t see a future for them delivering paper mail. The amount of that is getting less and less. Here in The Netherlands the mail delivery man now officially isn’t a fulltime job, but just a side job for students and housewives with terrible pay and other conditions. It says enough over the future prospects of paper mail.

Robert Doyle (profile) says:

Re: sounds familiar

I too use the USPS as my preferred international shipper (to Canada). When I get hit with duty on a package shipped USPS it is just the duty and maybe a small admin fee – when I get something from UPS I get bent over and #$%$#@, dry. I ordered a couple of shirts and they only shipped UPS… the “brokerage fee” was almost the price of my order.

I think the USPS keeps some of these other shippers at least partially honest.

mr. sim (profile) says:

the reason the post office is unable to “turn a profit” is simply because the us post office is required to prepay health benefits for the great grandchildren of the great grandchildren of OUR great grand children’s grandchildren. it’s being used in a scheme to “lessen” the budget deficit and it’s not something that should be done.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

They are only required to pay retirement benefits for current employees and current retirees. Even if they only had to pay for current retirees they would not be profitable.

This whole argument was cooked up by conservative pundits in an effort to pretend that government “interference” with the USPS is “destroying” it. The reality is that the USPS shot itself in the foot by failing to set aside ANY money to pay retiree benefits. The USPS hasn’t been profitable for decades but they pretended they were by failing to account for the retirement benefits they had promised their employees.

Read this for a simple explanation: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-08-02/understanding-the-post-office-s-benefits-mess.html

Anonymous Coward says:

Why should the post office be profitable?

The post office is a government service, just like the interstate highway system, the USDA, Military, etc.

When is the last time someone asked if the interstate highway system should be profitable?

This radical right wing view of “government as a business” has done so much damage to our civic institutions.

The post office is either a valuable service desired by voters or it isn’t. If it is, is should be funded

Atkray (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Why should the post office be profitable?

You need to get out more, I have adult children that are married to idiots that do not think and you can not explain to them that if the government provides it they paid for it. They think if it comes from the government it is free and no amount of reasoning can make them understand otherwise. Seriously it is worse that trying to explain something to AJ or bob.

Oh and all their friends think the same way.

Anonymous Coward says:

1st point. have asked before, where the fuck do these fucking ass hats come from? they are supposed to be more sensible than ordinary people, hence the ‘promotion’; to such high profile, high paid positions. my dick has more sense!

2nd point. like every other business, certainly those that are run by sensible people rather than self-preserving dick-brains, the post office needs to change it’s business model to be more in line with the needs of today’s society. if there are less letters, deliver more parcels. if other companies do that cheaper, adapt. it’s also possible to deliver other stuff as well so why restrict the deliveries to parcels (and signed-for letters) only?

gorehound (profile) says:

Wozniak is a stupid ignorant person who does not belong in this Government.I have no idea what his Party is nor do I care.He, as a man is a failure and he never should of been Voted into a Government Seat.
F$ck You Woz ! No way will we allow this too be a Law.You think people in this Nation want to be paying a Tax on Emails ? You think people want to pay Tax on Emails that are Spam/JUNK MAIL ?

Here’s Hoping whoever you are……….the people will take Notice and your Political Career will be ended.You need to be Voted out next election and replaced with someone who has a modicum of intelligence.

Anonymous Coward says:

1) There was already an Internet scare about a fake email tax proposal, it cost the government million of dollars from all the extra man hours in overtime congress people’s offices needed to assure angry voters there is no Internet Tax proposal and that they’d vote against it if there were one.

2) The postal office is actually in MUCH better shape financially then they look. There’s just one HUGE financial dead weight that’s making them so unprofitable. A law congress passed around 2006ish that requires the Postal Service to pay in advance the full pension and health care benefits for all postal employees when they retire. Pay those bills in advance, for the next 75 YEARS.

That means the Postal service has to put up money TODAY for future employees that haven’t even been born yet, to pay their retirement benefits! ZERO other government agencies or businesses fund retirement benefits 75 years in advance, they pay the bill when it comes, as the employees earn the money to pay for it.

The reason that law is in place is because it’s Congress’ way of stealing BILLIONS of dollars from the Postal Service to make the Federal Deficit look a bit smaller each year.

techinabox (profile) says:

Re: Yep

I live in a small town and ship a lot of stuff either through Ebay or for my business so I spend a lot of time at the Post Office. Talking to the postmaster, nice guy who has been there for as long as I can remember, and he told me that the Post Office breaks even or makes money on packages. Individual letters and bulk mail are what kill them since they need to deliver a lot of them per carrier to make it worth the carrier’s pay check.

He thinks they are afraid to raise rates on letter delivery because that is what the average person uses to gauge how well the Post Office is doing.

He also hates that pension prefunding.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Everything you said after the number 2 is wrong. To save time I’ll just repost my comment from above.

They are only required to pay retirement benefits for current employees and current retirees. Even if they only had to pay for current retirees they would not be profitable.

This whole argument was cooked up by conservative pundits in an effort to pretend that government “interference” with the USPS is “destroying” it. The reality is that the USPS shot itself in the foot by failing to set aside ANY money to pay retiree benefits (for the last hundred years). The USPS hasn’t been profitable for decades but they pretended they were by failing to account for the retirement benefits they had promised their employees.

Read this for a simple explanation: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-08-02/understanding-the-post-office-s-benefits-mess.html

Keeees says:

“many billions of emails are sent every day [and] an email tax could raise substantial sums.”

There we have it, the complete reasoning: “it exists, let’s tax it!”

I propose a tax on picking your nose. A tenner each time. That ought to be just about as enforceable and could raise more money on a yearly basis than his daft idea.

(Back of the envelope, his numbers: Hundredth of a cent per mail, say a billion emails per day, that’s about 40 million dollar a year. Okay, I mean I wouldn’t spit on it, but in the grand scheme of things, not really that much is it…)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The full quote is Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.” It was part of a speech where he was criticizing democrats in congress. These are NOT his views, rather those of his opponents.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Won't that just move the servers offshore?

That wouldn’t matter because that is not how it would be implemented anyway. They would require the ISP’s to meter SMTP traffic and tax on the amount of traffic passing through the ISP’s switch, just like hosting providers do for metering bandwidth. Of course you could use a VPN or proxy to get around it but then what would happen is you would have the IRS coming down on VPN users for tax evasion. Lovely.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Won't that just move the servers offshore?

And when they charged the ISP, the ISP would just add your share of the taxes they were charged on to your bill. In much the same way that the other federal regulatory taxes show up on your phone bill. The claim that it would be unenforceable, is only false when you look at it as being a per email tax implemented at the server which would be nearly impossible to implement, which is exactly why they wouldn’t do it that way.

Haywood (profile) says:

Re: Re: Won't that just move the servers offshore?

Like every other move that attempts to screw down the internet, it would be mapped around directly. Introducing word messages now with out pop or smtp. I’m just saying it is unenforceable in the way that the information exchange is a moving target. The reason Email and IRC have survived relatively unchanged, is due to lack of natural enemies.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Won't that just move the servers offshore?

The thing about it is, it would be implemented at every level so the tax would get applied at least twice and that is only if they measure it from the servers that do the communication. SMTP is not just used to communicate between the client and the SMTP server. It is also used to communicate between the relaying server and the destination server so it would likely apply there as well. If you route your mail through a proxy filtering service, add another implementation of the tax on it. Furthermore, if they did it at the switch for every provider for all traffic on port 25, then it gets charged at every relay hop that bounces through located in the US.

Bengie says:

New Law

There should be a law/bill/whatev that says no law can target protocols above layer 2. All Internet traffic shall only be viewed as data amounts and not types of data.

Data is data. It does not matter if it is a web page, an email, a Linux ISO, a back-up of your computer. Laws should not be able to target different usages of legal uses.

DannyB (profile) says:

Tax Hollywood

Since both Hollywood and the Post Office seem to be against the Internet, maybe Hollywood could help out its buddy by paying a tax to save the post office?

Oh, but then there’s Hollywood Accounting.

Maybe all of those “fees” charged that make movies unprofitable should go to something worthwhile? NASA? LHC? Curing stupidity? Eliminating patents and copyrights?

Jessie (profile) says:


My guess is they will want to charge the ISP based on the total number of outgoing emails from the provider. Then the ISP will charge based on some kind of average claiming they don’t have the technology to keep count of the number of emails per person. So guess what, you’ll finally get to pay for the people who’s computer has been hijacked and is sending spam by the millions.

I can see the new business model already, “Buy our new ED herbal pill, when 10,000 buy we’ll stop sending spam.”

Or if they do keep track of who sends what, the new ransom ware: “Send us a money pack number with $50 or we will send 1 million emails a day from your computer until you do.”

Anonymous Coward says:

The solution is SIMPLE!

STOP giving bulk mailers a price break! Make them pay full price for postage, just like we do! Companies that mail THOUSANDS of letters at a time, junk mailers that mail thousands at a time…you get the idea.

Bulk mailers get a price break for mailing such a large amount. They do NOT pay full price of postage.

Of all the junk mail we all get each day, wouldn’t that be a HUGE incentive for the USPS to consider? It’s a LOT more money they’ll see each day to ease the situation they’ve put themselves in.

John Doe says:

I knew it, emailers are freeloading PIRATES!

I have always said, when they start putting a pirate tax on broadband connections, hard drives, or anything else I but, that would be the day I start pirating. Now they want to put a pirate/you must be a criminal tax on my email? That does it, I am going to start pirating mail today!

special-interesting (profile) says:

Not gonna happen. Usually a tax(ing) opportunity comes at a point of purchase and because most e-mail accounts are free this does not exist. This of course will not stop idiotic legislators and clueless corporation execs. from suggesting such.

No way to enforce and no way many would even want the several government agencies that would have access to your personal contact web info. Think of it: Fed IRS, State IRS, FCC, Interstate Commerce division(s) Congressional watchdog communities, (no way to deny the various) intelligence agencies from data harvesting, etc. And. This is in addition to all of the commercial data mining that would want to dig in.

The taxing of e-mails would require giving your SS# and other personal info to such government agencies thus linking it to any such accounts. It would facilitate the serving of court papers most likely (to be lost, in a whole new wave, of commercial span). All your on-line accounts would be FaceBook like.

If the government wants to whine about it too bad! It gives (to many more) reasons, for a protectionist minded legislators, to drive perfectly good domestic customers overseas (again! Its a trend.). More lost business for desperate US electronic information based firms.

The USPS, or its rivals, is not going away anytime soon so let them raise their rates and let free market forces flow. At this time paper mail is not in danger to the extent that I don’t even remember giving out an e-mail address to anyone except a forum or two and thats most likely an alias anyway.

Taxing one thing to pay for another does not seem like proper representation of tax levies. (Classic Boston Tea Party of 250y ago not the tepid present day variety) If they wanted to support USPS all they would have to do it tax each stamp purchase, siphon off what portion they felt bureaucracy felt they could get away with, and give the rest back to USPS. (classic)

Off topic: One beef about the USPS was a while back the courts determined that your very own mail box was basically treated like their property and even the paperboy was (legally) prohibited from using it. The instant proliferation of all those extra colorful newspaper boxes hung right next to the original box was a fascinating cultural effect. Its amazing how the courts are abused to enforce monopolistic culture.

There is no cornering the market on stupid ideas (just listen to me for example) and this will not be the last. Stamping out Taxation issues is always a hot topic and hope voters make that a priority right next to finding legislators who care about constitutional matters.

Gracey (profile) says:

[And there should be, also, a very tiny tax on email,” perhaps one-hundredth of a cent. He said this would discourage spam and not have much impact on the typical Internet user. Wozniak went on to suggest a sales tax on internet transactions that could help, in part, fund “vital functions that the post office serves.”]

Remind me not to send emails to anyone in the US. Geeze.

The snail mail postal services actually do serve a purpose. Not everyone even has email or internet access, and thousands still send greetings cards by mail, and wedding invitations and even (gasp) bills. And how would one send a package containing a gift by email (okay, one could use courier, but the post is usually cheaper)?

…besides, old people like their “mail”.

Internet Zen Master (profile) says:

Why hello there, I'm from the Internet Sanity Bureau

Mr. Gordon Wozniak, it has come to our attention that you have proposed a tax on email in order to save the Post Office.

Well, we’ve done some thinking, and have come to a consensus:

You are complete ignoramus concerning all things Internet. Even more than the late Senator Ted Stevens (and we didn’t even think that was possible).

In response to your blatantly stupid idea, we’re going to have to ask you to permanently disconnect from all things connected to the Internet, and spend some quality time with your physical mail and post office, since you seem to love it so much.

The Old Man in The Sea says:

Re: Australia Post

When you walk into an Australia Post Store (Post Office), one will find that most of what is being sold is not mail related. They now provide money transfer, bill paying, passport services, books, toys, as well as mail services.

The organisation has added these services to generate more income. It bemuses me that the US has such a problem when government services branch out to provide additional services – somebody always gets upset and wants laws made to stop these additional services.

In Australia, we have many private businesses that provide similar services to Australia Post and still manage to compete in the market place.

The US seems to have an inordinate fear of government organisations providing services in a free market, but really can’t seem to get overly upset over government secret control (NSA, FBI, CIA, Homeland Security, etc).

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