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Universal Postal Union Tries To Divvy Up Countries' Stamp Money Fairly


And it's a good bet you've never given a thought to this question - when you send a letter overseas, which country gets the money from the stamp? The country that sells it, right? In fact, that was a big topic at the Universal Postal Union Congress, which just wrapped up in Istanbul. Robert Smith from our Planet Money team has been waiting by his mailbox for word on what they decided.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: In the old days, it was all so easy. The U.S. Postal Service would sell me an international postage stamp, fly my letter to Kathmandu, and then some mail carrier in Nepal would deliver my letter up a mountain. But the U.S. would keep all the stamp money for itself.

JIM CAMPBELL: And the assumption was that if you send out a letter, on average, you get back a letter and it all sort of is a wash.

SMITH: Jim Campbell consults with shipping companies. And he says the days of equal mail flows are over. When everyone looked at the numbers, they found out that big economies, like the U.S., were sending out more mail than they got back - you know, like the J.Crew catalog going to Japan or Victoria's Secret to Brazil.

CAMPBELL: Or magazines or operating manuals or annual reports or financial statements or all kinds of things.

SMITH: This disparity was a job for the Universal Postal Union. It's like the U.N. for stamps and letters. The Universal Postal Union decided to create a reimbursement system. The sending country needs to pay something called terminal dues to the receiving country. So now if my letter gets hauled up a mountain in Nepal, the U.S. has to give some of the stamp money to the Nepalese postal service. But the exact amount of money is being constantly negotiated. And Campbell says, one of the issues right now is whether or not the U.S. is getting enough money from other countries.

CAMPBELL: It looks like the postal service is winding up as a net loser.

SMITH: So, for instance, China delivers a lot of small packages to the United States. But under current agreements, it doesn't send much stamp money to the U.S. to pay for our postal trucks and our mail carriers. That's why you can order a tiny adapter from Shanghai and only get charged a few bucks for delivery. In fact, U.S. companies like Amazon have complained that the U.S. postal system is essentially subsidizing Chinese shipping.

Jim Campbell says that the most recent postal congress has decided to make that slightly more fair, bumping up fees for Chinese packages.

CAMPBELL: So the Chinese will go from something like a 70-percent discount in 2017 to something like a 50-percent discount in 2021.

SMITH: You might not even notice the small amount of increase in Chinese shipping rates, but in the postal world, this counts as high drama.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.