postal service: government pricing policy to serve the public interest

The U.S. Postal Service’s pricing structure and price levels illustrate government pricing policy to serve the public interest.  The postal pricing structure has aspects plausibly related to service cost.  An obvious example: mailing prices increase with the weight of letters and parcels.  Moreover, mail prices are lower if (bulk) mail is put into the mail network closer to its ultimate destination.  Mail that cannot be machine-processed has a higher price.  Mail with a higher priority of delivery also has a higher price.  These are price distinctions directly related to service cost.

The postal pricing structure also has public policy aspects.  Evidently to encourage the growth of nonprofit organizations, nonprofits get lower mailing prices.  For standard mail, nonprofit organizations receive mailing discounts that vary based on the  weight of the letter, its entry point into the mail network, the carrier route, and automation.  These discounts appear to have been set as fixed-value discounts rather than percentage discounts.  Whether nonprofit discounts should be calculated as an absolute value or a percentage isn’t obvious from the perspective of public policy.  Neither is the variation of those discounts across particular technical aspects of mail service.  Notwithstanding their tenuous relation to public policy objectives, these detailed pricing issues are a significant aspect of the nonprofit-discount pricing policy.

Content distinctions are another public policy aspect of postal prices.  Mailed materials classed as periodicals receive discounted postal prices.  That price discount might be justified as serving the public policy goal of fostering public information and public consideration of matters of public importance.  The regulations defining periodicals include:

  • The publication must be published in a serial format (such as volume 1, issue 1; volume 1 issue 2; volume 1 issue 3).
  • The publication must be published at least 4 times a year with a specified frequency.
  • The publisher must have a known office of publication. This office should be accessible to the public during business hours for conducting publication business.
  • The publication must be composed of printed sheets.

The periodical mailing price depends on whether the printed sheets contain advertising or editorial.  Compared to regular advertising, editorial has a discount price per pound mailed.  The editorial discount ranges from 16% to 72% depending on where the printed matter is put into the mail network.  Giving an additional discount for periodical editorial compared to periodical advertising is consistent with a public-information justification for discounted periodical mailing prices.  However, the periodical pricing structure includes an extra discount (beyond that for editorial content) for advertising concerning the science of agriculture.  The mail discount for material containing science-of-agriculture advertising probably reflects lobbying by businesses with interests in agricultural advertising.

Another special mail pricing structure is for bound printed matter.  Postal service regulations defined bound printed matters as printed sheets “permanently bound by secure fastenings, such as staples, spiral binding, glue, or stitching.”  The public-policy significance of binding printed matter isn’t obvious.  Detailed knowledge of postal interests and postal politics seems key to understanding these postal prices.

Postal content-based pricing also exists for educational media.  To receive special “Media Mail” prices, material mailed must meet these postal regulations:

The material sent must be educational media. It can’t contain advertising, video games, computer drives, or digital drives of any kind.  Media Mail can be examined by postal staff to determine if the right price has been paid.  If the package is wrapped in a way that makes it impossible to examine, it will be charged the First-Class™ rate.

Some might regard certain video games as educational media.  Computer drives could contain traditional educational media, such a digital forms of school textbooks.  Examining the contents of mailed digital drives probably isn’t infeasible for the postal service.  Hence educational media placed on digital drives doesn’t receive the Postal Service’s Media Mail prices that other educational media receive.

Libraries receive special postal prices.  Compared to educational media receiving discounted “Media Mail” prices, similar mailed content sent by libraries receives about an additional 5% discount.  For mail weights from 1 to 70 pounds, the discount is nearly uniform.  But it isn’t exactly uniform.  The discount is slightly higher for the first pound and it’s lowest by a small amount for the seventh pound.  The interests and calculations that produced these specific discounts aren’t clear.

Setting prices for important public services can be a useful public-policy tool.  Detailed, technical aspects of pricing policy favor narrow private interests.  Getting government-set prices that are meaningful in broad public discussion and relevant to broad public interests is a major challenge.

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Data: postal service price comparisons by mailer characteristics and mailed-content type (Excel version)

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poetic currency of ancient Islamic social distinction

Poetry was a common currency for claiming social distinction in the ancient Islamic world.  Ibn Abi Usaybiah’s biographies of physicians frequently include specimens of the physicians’ poetry.  Ibn Hazm, an early eleventh-century Andalusian public official and scholar of theology and law, interspersed his own poetry in describing aspects of love in his prose book, Ring of the Dove.[1]  An eminent prisoner in twelfth-century Alexandria, petitioning for aid to gain release, used poetry in his petition.[2]  Inserting self-quoted poetry within a prose composition was a common literary practice in the ancient Islamic world.

Poetry was also used in more immediate transactions.  Poetry praising a potential patron could serve as a resume of cultural merit:

Once Ibn al-Mūtrān {a leading physician who served the twelfth-century sultan of Egypt and Syria, Salāh al-Dīn} was sitting at the door of his house, when a distinguished-looking young man, dressed as a soldier, came up to him and handed him a piece of paper on which were written twelve lines of poetry praising him.  After reading them, Ibn al-Mūtrān asked him if he was a poet.  The youth replied: “I am not, but I come of a good family.  I have fallen on evil days and have been given these short lines of verse in order to come here and place my fate in your hands so that you may direct me in the way your lofty mind sees fit.” [3]

Ibn al-Mūtrān, evidently impressed with the poetry, arranged for the young man a lucrative position serving the Governor of Sarhad in Iran.

Florid, obscure language was economically significant.  It helped to provide jobs:

al-Haysa Baysa was once recovering from an illness in which he was treated by Abū al-Qāsim.  The physician prescribed that al-Haysa Baysa eat pheasants, so his servant went and bought one.  On his way back al-Haysa Baysa’s servant passed the gate of an emir’s house where young Turkish slaves were playing.  One of them snatched the pheasant from the servant and ran away.  The servant came and told his story.  Said al-Haysa Baysa: “Bring me paper and ink.”  These were brought, and he wrote:

Although he stole a broken miserable pheasant, which was stopped by hunger in the middle of its flight in the air and was circling on the ground, when the camel’s feet are worn out — it is necessary to hurry and help it.  Why, this matter is touching your honor!  Goodbye!

He then said to his servant: “Take it and have a good trip, bringing it to the Emir.”  The servant went and gave it to the Emir’s steward.  {The Emir’s steward gave the note to the Emir.}  The Emir called his scribe and gave him the note.  The scribe read it and considered the way he could transmit its meaning.

The scribe’s expert learning is key to resolving this state matter:

Said the Emir: “What is it?”  The scribe replied: “The content of it is that one of your slaves took a pheasant from his servant.”  The Emir ordered him to go and buy a cage full of pheasants and send it to him.  That was done.[4]

Florid, obscure langauge transformed a simple matter of a single pheasant into an affair that required expert knowledge and that was resolved with a cage full of pheasants.

Al-Haysa Baysa had a considerable reputation as a poet.  Ibn Kallikan in his biographical dictionary (completed in 1274) described al-Haysa Baysa as a famous poet and praised his poetic diction and eloquent epistles.  According to the Chronicle of Ibn Al-Athir, the lord of Monsul made a large gift to al-Haysa Baysa in response to his ode of praise for the ruler.[5]  Al-Haysa Baysa’s florid language facilitated transactions:

Once, in Baghdad, the poet al-Haysa Baysa wrote a note to Amīn al-Dawlah ibn al-Tilmīdh as follows, asking him for an eye-medicine:

“I hereby inform you, O devout physician, learned doctor, precious and experienced, by whom the world is sustained and the wild beasts driven out, that I am suffering, feeling in the pupil of my eye a tear which is not like the sting of the scorpion, neither like the prick of a needle, nor like the bite of a snake, but rather like a burning coal; so I am going from dusk to dawn without distinguishing between day and night, without knowing the difference between a cold and a rainy day; nay, sometimes I tremble painfully, at other times I become eaten up with worry, now I shrink and now I stretch, sighing repeatedly, my soul intending to raise my voice in a neigh, calling out my disturbance and tumult, each day of the week — Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday — I cannot walk astray nor cower, neither can I get angry nor follow, so hurry and send me the eye-medicine that will benefit my illness and quench my thirst.”

When Amīn al-Dawlah read this note, he jumped up immediately, took a handful of eye-medicine and told one of his friends: “Bring it to him without delay to save us from another of his notes!” [6]

Making an observation prevalent throughout recorded history, a twelfth-century Islamic author noted “the diversity and dissonance so prevalent in poetry {today}.”[7]

Poetry also had value in oral performance.  Writing in thirteenth-century Damascus, Ibn Abi Usaybiah praised a fellow physician `Izz al-Dīn:

He was accomplished in all the literary arts and his poetry was unmatched by either the ancients or his contemporaries.  It contained eloquent phrases and truthful meanings, clever puns and excellent parallels.  Indeed he united in himself all the different sciences, and was equally masterful in poetry and prose.  He was the quickest of men in composing poetry extempore and the most gifted in declaiming it.  I witnessed him several times recite a poem he had composed on the spur of the moment, rich in various meanings, which nobody else could do, for this art was his specialty.[8]

`Izz al-Dīn was a practicing physician who worked in two hospitals and taught at a university.  He also had great literary learning and evidently delighted in displaying his poetic skills.

In the ancient Islamic world, anyone seeking to gain social distinction or rise in a profession benefited from cultivating the poetic skills of a courtier.

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[1] Arberry (1953), p. 13, notes of Ibn Hazm’s poetry, “His poetry, of which he appears to have had a considerable conceit, is in truth very mediocre… .”

[2] HP pp. 646-7 (Abū al-Salt).

[3] HP pp. 822-4.  The phrase “but I come of a good family” seems to explain how the soldier got the poetry.

[4] HP p. 509.  I’ve made some minor edits to clarify the sense of the passage.  Al-Haysa Baysa (“in dire straits”) was the nickname for Shihāb al-Dīn abu ’l-Fawāris saʿd b. Muḥammad b. Saʿd al-Ṣayfī al-Tamīmī.  He lived from 1098 to 1179.  As an adult he lived in Baghdad.

[5] The chronicle of Ibn al-Athīr, the year 544, from Arabic trans. Richards (2007) p. 27.  I’m grateful for Prof. Geert Jan van Gelder for correcting my prior mis-representation of al-Haysa Baysa’s work and reputation.  He also supplied the reference to ibn Kallikan.

[6] HP pp. 509-10.  Id. notes, “In his conversation and correspondence al-Haysa Baysa always used affected eloquence and strange expressions.”  Al-Haysa Baysa, who trumpeted his Arabic heritage, was an eleventh-century “representative of the florid style in vogue in Arabic poetry and ornate prose”:

He dressed himself like a Bedouin chief, riding on horseback through the streets of Baghdad fully armed.  He also affected Bedouin speech, pronouncing the qāf like g; he was fond of obsolete words—he got his nickname from the expression fī ḥayṣa bayṣa “in straits and distress”—and addressed everyone in the classical language with all its grammatical niceties.

Fück (2012).  In the Hellenistic world, some seeking social distinction similarly emphasized literary use of Attic Greek.

[7] HP p. 647.

[8] HP p. 940.


Arberry, A.J., trans. 1953. ʻAlī ibn Aḥmad Ibn Ḥazm, The ring of the dove; a treatise on the art and practice of Arab love.  London: Luzac.

Fück, J.W. 2012. “Ḥayṣa Bayṣa.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online.

HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294Online transcription.

Richards, D. S. 2007. ʻIzz al-Dīn Ibn al-Athīr. The chronicle of Ibn al-Athīr for the crusading period from al-Kāmil fiʼl-taʼrīkh. Part 2. Aldershot: Ashgate.

gender equality and development, or ignoring men's needs

World Bank's Gender Equality and Development doesn't appreciate the history of civilization

The World Bank’s World Development Report 2012, entitled Gender Equality and Development, addresses gender equality in a way so widely supported and so beyond criticism that one can only laugh heartily, or tremble mightily for the future of the world. The very first paragraph of this prestigious publication’s summary states:

in a third of all countries girls now outnumber boys in secondary school.  And more young women than men attend universities in 60 countries. Women are using their education to participate more in the labor force: they now make up for 40 percent of the global labor force and 43 percent of its farmers. Moreover, women now live longer than men in every region of the world. [1]

Given this recognition that men are falling behind women in formal education in many countries, what recommendations does the World Bank make to improve the attractiveness of formal education to boys and men?

Given that women are now participating more in the labor force, what is the World Bank doing to improve opportunities for men to drop out of the paid labor force to do non-market work for their families and for volunteer organizations?

In many countries, men are awarded custody of children much less frequently than women are.  Children to most persons are much more important work of their lives than their labor market jobs.  What is the World Bank doing to address gender inequalities in child custody?

No gender inequality is more fundamental than gender inequality in lifespans.  What is the World Bank’s gender equality and development agenda doing to promote gender equality in lifespans? [2]

Across its 458 pages of earnest, detailed text, the World Bank’s Gender Equality and Development shows no concern for gender inequalities hurting men.  Gender equality in Gender Equality and Development doesn’t encompass concern for men’s shorter lifespans and for improving men’s opportunities for true, meaningful relations with their biological childrenGender Equality and Development ignores men’s needs.[3]  That’s an outrageous inequality in a leading institution’s leading report on gender equality and development.

Gender Equality and Development glibly declares the gender equality is a “core development objective” and also “smart economics.”  Ignoring men’s needs is a prevalent aspect of current, implicitly universalized elite values.  Ignoring men’s needs, however, surely isn’t smart economics.  More importantly, the stakes for gender equality and development are broader than economics.  Gender Equality and Development points to a more general problem in the development of public reason.  Institutions and societies that don’t foster high-quality public reason will not be able to respond effectively to crises and are unlikely to endure.  The challenge for every country is to find a better developmental path than that which the World Bank displays in Gender Equality and Development.

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[1] The full text of Gender Equality and Development is available for free online.

[2] Essential to human capabilities is being alive. The World Bank has declared:

Because of the natural female biological advantage, when female child mortality is as high as or higher than male child mortality, there is good reason to believe that girls are being discriminated against. (World Development Indicators 2003, p. 31)

That’s naturalizing a gender inequality that hurts males.  In the United Nations’ Gender-Related Development Index (GDI), equality of lifespan among males and females is defined as females having a five-year greater life expectancy at birth than males.  See UN, Human Development Report, 2005, p. 343.  Thus inequality is defined to be equality.

Life expectancy changes greatly in response to highly mutable environmental factors.  Across the world, male and female life expectancies vary from under 40 years to over 75 years. From 1790 to 2000, life expectancy at birth for males and females in the U.S. increased from about 44 years of life for males and females to 74 years for males and 79 years for females.  Unequal lifespans for males and females are not natural.  Policies to promote gender equality in lifespans are feasible.  Given prevalent differences in male and female labor market preferences, promoting gender equality in lifespans is probably more feasible than promoting gender equality in labor-market earnings.

[3] The only section of Gender Equality and Development that focuses on men is a three-page spread entitled The Decline of the Breadwinner: Men in the 21st Century.  That title unself-consciously echoes the social reduction of men’s value to providing food (money) to others.  Using selected quotations, the text re-enforces disparaging stereotypes of men, e.g. men as brutish dominators, resisting change.  The text presents a pseudo-quantitative analysis of power based on survey data that could easily be tainted by the observer basis readily apparent in the section itself.  Appropriate to its misandristic bias, the text concludes with a pernicious stereotype of male domestic violence.