Is it true U.S. postage rates are among the lowest in the developed world?

Dear Cecil:

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 sixpack of Molson is at stake here.

Cecil replies:

A sixpack? You louse, make it a case, preferably of some deserving American brand. Your friend is right. Excluding countries that subsidize their postal services, the U.S. has the lowest rates 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. Americans also pay lower overall taxes than most of the developed world, and yet persist in moaning about the crushing cost of government. Here’s a list of comparative letter rates, starting with most expensive. The list was compiled in 1993, when the U.S. letter rate was 29 cents, but one presumes the ranking would be about the same today:

1. Germany, 60 cents (1 mark)

2. Japan, 59 cents (62 yen)

3. Denmark, 55 cents (3.75 krone)

4. Switzerland, 55 cents (80 centimes)

5. Austria, 47 cents (5.5 schillings)

6. Norway, 46 cents (3.3 krone)

7. Ireland, 45 cents (32 pence)

8. Italy, 44 cents (700 lire)

9. France, 43 cents (2.5 French francs)

10. Netherlands, 43 cents (.80 guilder)

11. Belgium, 42 cents (15 Belgian francs)

12. United Kingdom, 36 cents (24 pence)

13. Finland, 35 cents (2.10 markka)

14. Sweden, 35 cents (2.9 krona)

15. Canada, 35 cents (42 Canadian cents plus — get this — 7% goods and services tax)

16. Australia, 30 cents (45 Australian cents)

17. U.S., 29 cents

Letter rates in the following countries are government-subsidized:

18. Greece, 26 cents (60 drachma)

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 are paid 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 perks — 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 consistently been able to deliver on this. Generally speaking, though, service, in most northern European countries at least, is excellent. Considering what it costs, it ought to be. Kwitcherbitchen.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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