Yellow TV


A political history of the US Postal Service

It’s been a turbulent week for the US Postal Service. With revenues plummeting as mail volume drops, the Postal Worker’s Union leader recently estimated that the service is likely to literally “run out of money” by October. The crisis has once again sparked a debate on the organization of America’s most popular public institution. Many have called for structural reforms, while others have advocated increased investment and a return to postal banking to raise revenues.

A 1998 book by RICHARD R. JOHN argues that between its founding in 1775 and the commercialization of the electric telegraph in 1844, the post office represented a communications revolution as influential for American public life as the telegraph, the telephone, and the computer.

From the introduction:

“By 1828, the American postal system had almost twice as many offices as the postal system in Great Britain and over five times as many offices as the postal system in France. In 1831, the postal system, with more than 8,700 postmasters, employed just over three quarters of the entire federal civilian work force. (The federal army, in contrast, consisted of a mere 6,332 men.) The postal system transmitted 13.8 million letters and 16 million newspapers at a cost of $1.9 million through a network that extended over 116,000 square miles.

Thanks to a variety of generous government subsidies, a large percentage of the total volume of the mail consisted of newspapers and public documents that described the proceedings of Congress. This steady flow of information helped to introduce a widely scattered population to two key ideas: that the boundaries of the community in which they lived extended well beyond the confines of their individual locality; and that the central government might come to shape the pattern of everyday life.”

Link to the publisher’s page.

  • A couple links from our 2018 newsletter on postal banking: A 2014 article by Mehrsa Baradaran argues that subsidies for postal banking are “appropriate and justifiable.” Link. A USPS white paper details how the policy could expand financial services to the 68 million underbanked Americans. Link.
  • An extensive legislative history of “the concepts, policies, practices, and controversies associated with universal postal service from 1790 to 1970.” Link.
  • Léonard Laborie on parcel post and globalization: “In 1880, several Universal Postal Union member states signed a convention for the exchange of parcel post, opening a new channel in the world of commerce. By the end of the 19th century, millions of packets poured into post offices and railway stations, crossed countries, and created unprecedented transnational connections.” Link.
  • “Couriers, ships, caravans, and rest houses—throughout pre-modern history, such features have been central to the infrastructural matrix without which complex and enduring states, empires, and polities are not conceivable.” Gagan Sood reviews Adam Silverstein’s Postal Systems in the Pre-Modern Islamic World. Link. And Ying-wan Cheng on Postal Communication in China and Its Modernization, 1860–1896. Link.


Rethinking inter-war protectionism

TED FERTIK is a PhD student in History at Yale University. In a paper based on his dissertation, he argues against narratives of the interwar period which stress the rise of nationalism and protectionism, instead proposing that the period simply involved the assertion of autonomy in industrializing agrarian economies.

From the paper:

“The term ‘autarky’ has been trotted out to serve as a catchall for the impulse motivating the making of economic policy across the world between the wars. This is a distorting caricature. Much closer to the truth is the sentiment captured in a speech of the Brazilian president Getulio Vargas, who, at the groundbreaking of the state-owned steel mill that bears his name, articulated a desire for his country to cease to be a ‘semicolonial agrarian country, importer of manufactures and exporter of raw materials,’ and become one ‘able to meet the exigencies of an autonomous industrial life.’ The ‘industrialization of agrarian countries’ was not a revolt against the international economy, but an effort to negotiate a different relationship to it—one that would guarantee their sovereignty and, in keeping with the promise of the Fourteen Points would entitle them to an equal membership in the society of nations.”

Link to the paper.

Each week we highlight great work from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Have you read any excellent research recently that you’d like to see shared here? Send it our way:

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  • On the blog, editors Maya Adereth and Jack Gross interview sociologist Frances Fox Piven (of Cloward-Piven Strategy fame) about social movements and the American safety net. Link. (As always, if you have an idea for something to run on the Phenomenal World, email us:
  • “Job loss has been significantly larger than implied by new unemployment claims: we estimate 20 million lost jobs by April 6th. Many of those losing jobs are not actively looking to find new ones. As a result, we estimate the rise in the unemployment rate over the corresponding period to be surprisingly small, only about 2 percentage points. Participation in the labor force has declined by 7 percentage points, an unparalleled fall that dwarfs the three percentage point cumulative decline that occurred from 2008 to 2016.” New NBER paper by Olivier Coibion, Yuriy Gorodnichenko, Michael Weber on unemployment during Covid-19. Link. Relatedly, from the IRLE at Berkley, an in-depth analysis of hours reductions resulting from the crisis. Link. And a useful resource from Michael Ettlinger and Jordan Hensley at the University of New Hampshire tracking economic impacts by state. Link.
  • In the Washington Post, Anke Hassel and Kathleen Thelen discuss the difficulties that the Paycheck Protection Program lending program faced in its first round, and compare the US’s response to spiking unemployment against that of Europe. Link. And link to a thread from Henry Farrell discussing the arguments.
  • A brand new, open access volume on Latin America in the Cold War—the “first truly global history of contemporary Latin America.” Link. h/t Paul
  • A paper on cash transfer programs in Uganda looks at long-run effects, finding “important gains in child health, schooling, and income growth. The rates of return improve over the medium term but remain negative after 10 years. This underlines the need to regard cash transfers as longer-term social investment instead of short-term costs.” Link.
  • Hereward Longley with a fascinating examination of the Alberta tar sands—for which the provincial government acted as both regulator and developer—from the immediate post-war period through the 1973 oil crisis and beyond. Link.
  • On oil this week and the petrostates of the global south, see Nicholas Mulder and Adam Tooze in Foreign Policy. Link. (On similar themes: Kate Aronoff in the New Republic. Link.) See also: Giuliano Garavini’s The Rise and Fall of OPEC in the Twentieth Century. Link.
  • Tom Arnold-Forster reviews three books on the history of the American newspaper industry. Link. And also in Cambridge History, Edwin D. Rose considers “how the French Revolution influenced approaches to constructing and distributing works of natural history in Britain,” focusing on the production of copper plate images of botanical illustrations. Link.
  • Edward W. Felten provides an exceptionally clear overview of some of contact tracing proposals from a computer science and policy perspective. Link. h/t Milo
  • “I use data covering 267 prefectures over four centuries to investigate two questions about historical China. To what extent did weather shocks cause civil conflict? And to what extent did the historical introduction of (drought-resistant) sweet potatoes mitigate these effects? I find that before the introduction of sweet potatoes, exceptional droughts increased the probability of peasant revolts by around 0.7 percentage points, which translates into a revolt probability in drought years that is more than twice the average revolt probability. After the introduction of sweet potatoes, exceptional droughts only increased the probability of peasant revolts by around 0.2 percentage points.” By Ruixue Jia. Link.

Each week we highlight research from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Send us recommendations:

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