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The Straight Dope

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Recently a friend and I got into debate over the price of stamps in the U.S. I was complaining that the price of a stamp in this country was too high, and talk of a price increase next year I found too odious to contemplate. My companion, who hails from the continent, claimed that we Americans were spoiled, and that the 29-cent stamp was probably the cheapest letter stamp in the world, and most assuredly in Europe. We would appreciate it if you could enlighten us as to which countries give the best bang for the postal buck. A six-pack of Molson is at stake. --Robert

A six-pack? You louse, make it a case, and throw in a couple bags of beer nuts while you're at it. Your friend is right. Excluding countries that subsidize their postal services, the U.S. has the lowest rate for standard-size letters of any industrial country (or at least any of the 20 industrial countries I was able to dig up rates for). Letter rates for our two principal economic competitors, Japan and Germany, are more than twice as high. I might note that Americans also shoulder a lower per capita tax burden than most of the developed world, yet persist in moaning about the crushing cost of government. Herewith a list of comparative letter rates, starting with the most expensive (exchange rates as of September 2):

1. Germany, 60 cents (1 mark)

2. Japan, 59 cents (62 yen)

3. Switzerland, 55 cents (80 centimes)

4. Denmark, 55 cents (3.75 kroner)

5. Austria, 47 cents (5.5 schillings)

6. Norway, 46 cents (3.3 kroner)

7. Ireland, 45 cents (32 pence)

8. Italy, 44 cents (700 lire)

9. Netherlands, 43 cents (.80 guilder)

10. France, 43 cents (2.5 francs)

11. Belgium, 42 cents (15 francs)

12. United Kingdom, 36 cents (24 pence)

13. Finland, 35 cents (2.10 markka)

14. Sweden, 35 cents (2.9 kronor)

15. Canada, 34 cents (42 cents plus--get this--7 percent goods and services tax)

16. Australia, 30 cents (45 cents)

17. U.S., 29 cents

Letter rates in the following countries are government-subsidized:

18. Greece, 26 cents (60 drachmas)

19. Portugal, 22 cents (38 escudos)

20. Spain, 20 cents (27 pesetas); in-city letters are even cheaper at 13 cents (17 pesetas). Sounds great, but since subsidies come out of taxes, we may be sure the Spanish public pays one way or another.

Why are U.S. rates lower? Economies of scale have something to do with it, of course. European countries typically also have much higher labor costs. Postal work is considered a prestige job in much of Europe, and workers there undergo extensive training and enjoy many fringe benefits--including, believe it or not, postal-worker resorts.

Do European countries get better service for the money? Not necessarily. Germany used to promise overnight service to any domestic address, but since reunification has not been able to deliver on this consistently. Generally speaking, though, service in most northern European countries is excellent. Considering what it costs, it ought to be. Kwitcherbitchen.

ENOUGH ALREADY WITH THE WMCA SWEATSHIRTS

Cecil has been showered lately with Polaroids, photocopies, etc. of WMCA smiley-face sweatshirts, along with numerous other examples of the smiley in history. I am awestruck at the enterprise the Teeming Millions have shown in this regard, but feel obliged to say that if I see ONE MORE FREAKING SMILEY FACE I AM GOING TO THROW UP. Thank you, and have a nice day.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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