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The Postal Service has always had a tech problem

August 15, 2020, 1:17 AM UTC

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One of the biggest stories in the news right now has to do with our mail (regular mail, not email).

President Trump is blocking federal funding to the Postal Service to discourage the use of mail-in ballots in this fall’s election. The USPS has already been bleeding cash, with potential bankruptcy predicted within a year. Meanwhile, its broken business model is resulting long mail delivery delays for you and me.

Staff and policy changes are a large part of the issue, but at the crux of it, the Postal Service also has bad tech.

And it’s always had it. Look no further than a classic Fortune story from 1973, “What the Postal Service can’t deliver,” on the USPS’s woes, then merely two years old and already struggling.

“These days, it seems, just about everybody has some personal horror story to tell about the U.S. Postal Service,” the unnamed author writes. “On Valentine’s Day a resident of Elizabeth, New Jersey, received a Christmas card postmarked December 10.”

It’s a cautionary tale on the consequences of cutting funds. The Postmaster General at the time, E.T. Klassen, admitted that “we were so hell-bent on [cutting] costs that we did not pay enough attention perhaps to service.”

“To understand what went wrong,” reads the piece, “one must enter the arcane world of mail processing. There are essentially six steps in the movement of letters and packages: collection, culling, canceling, sorting, transportation, and delivery.”

Sorting is crucial. To minimize handling costs, the goal is to sort mail as few times as possible. At the time, about 40% of mail was sorted mechanically—everything else was by hand.

Management thought that, even with a leaner business model, they could rely on sophisticated machinery to get the job done. “But much of the new equipment was late in arriving, and the new systems proved to be horribly accident prone,” according to the piece. Staff cuts made things worse, and the deluge of Christmas mail became especially a disaster.

How did Klassen get the USPS out of its mess? He made service the priority over budget. “More workers were hired, more mechanization came on line, and snarls were gradually unraveled in the complex logistical systems used to channel mail around the country.”

And one simple innovation came to the rescue: the use of colored tags on mail pouches. The tag, affixed in the dispatching office, told the receiving office what day the mail was meant to be delivered.

The story reveals the “inescapable dilemma” of the Postal Service that we’re seeing now: For delivery, including tech, to keep up to standard, costs must rise. But that’s usually antipode to how a business—which is how Congress characterizes the USPS—is run.

Amazon didn’t exist at the time, of course. Today’s competition adds even more of an existential urgency to the USPS. But the story’s thoughts were presciently pessimistic: “There is no panacea that will keep the bill from rising.”

Karen Yuan
@karenyuan_
karen.yuan@fortune.com

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Jonathan Vanian. Check out Eye on A.I., the A.I. newsletter he writes weekly.

NEWSWORTHY

Mutiny in the app stores. Epic Games has sued both Apple and Google after the two tech giants removed the company’s popular Fortnite video game from their respective app stores due to alleged violations, CNET reported. Prior to being kicked off of the app stores, Epic told its users that it would offer them a way to buy digital goods related to Fortnite that would bypass “the up to 30% charge Apple and Google levy on each transaction” via their stores, the report said. From the report: Apple's and Google's decisions to ban Fortnite from their respective app stores marks a dramatic escalation in the debate between the tech giants, the developers that make programs for their devices, and regulators interested in examining it all.

People like bundles, right? Apple plans to debut subscription bundles for its various services like Apple Music and Apple News+ that are intended to entice people by offering “groups of services at lower prices than would be charged if consumers subscribed to each offering individually,” Bloomberg News reported, citing unnamed sources. The story describes the planned service bundles as akin to Amazon’s Prime service, which combines multiple services like video streaming and delivery features into one subscription package.

Bad for business. Major U.S. companies like Apple, Ford, Walmart, and Walt Disney participated in a call with White House officials questioning the Trump administration’s proposed plans to “restrict business transactions” involving Tencent’s popular WeChat app, The Wall Street Journal reported. The companies are concerned that a possible WeChat ban “could undermine their competitiveness in the world’s second-biggest economy,” the report said.

The all-knowing oracle. A federal litigator involved with employment discrimination cases against database giant Oracle is alleging that she "faces removal from her job" after she objected to Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia’s decision to intervene in the case, The New York Times reported. A spokesperson for the Labor Department said that Scalia did “nothing irregular or improper in the Oracle case.” From the article: Oracle has a lot at stake in the case, which originated in the Obama administration: potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in back pay for female, African-American and Asian-American employees who the department said were paid less than white and male counterparts.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

There’s a weird echo of recent history here. In the 2008 election cycle and during his two terms as president, Barack Obama faced repeated false claims—most prominently advanced by Donald Trump—that he was not a real American, that his origin story was a fraud, that he was somehow a foreigner infiltrating the American body politic. In her first few hours as Biden’s running mate, Harris faced something analogous, both in conservative media and on online platforms: claims that she’s not really an African American.

The Atlantic probes the “editing battle” taking place on Wikipedia in light of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s pick of Kamala Harris as his running mate.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Federal agents tricked Hamas into sending Bitcoin to Uncle Sam—Jeff John Roberts

Inside Netflix’s ‘Project Power,’ a ‘refreshing’ take on the popular superhero movie genre—Radhika Marya

How Livongo reached its historic $18.5 billion Teladoc merger—Sy Mukherjee

‘Irreplaceable’: U.S. WeChat users struggle to imagine life without the app Trump wants to ban—Naomi Xu Elegant

AMC movie theaters will reopen on Aug. 20 with 15-cent tickets—Jonathan Vanian

Stimulus checks and extra unemployment benefits unlikely until September as Senate goes on recess—Lance Lambert

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)

BEFORE YOU GO

It’s 1984 all over again. Epic released a short video, dubbed “Nineteen Eighty-Fortnite,” parodying Apple’s classic 1984 Macintosh commercial shortly after Apple booted the company’s Fortnite video game from its app store.