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Matthew:

A fine pal o' mine spending time here from New Zealand gets a newsletter from his yacht club in N.Z., postmarked in England, forwarded to Seattle, then here to San Diego. Aside from getting his mail 90 days late, who gets the money for postage?

-- C-gar, Shelter Island

Whatever political differences we may have, postally speaking the world is one big slaphappy family. Thank the Switzerland-based Universal Postal Union for our ability to get a postcard from Patagonia to Pacoima with no border skirmishes or harbor blockades. The UPU is more than 100 years old and is now part of the United Nations. The 180-member group makes sure each country's postal system fits into a reasonably efficient international network, sets intercountry rates, and makes the rules for divvying up the money. It's hard to tell from your description exactly how the newsletter gets from New Zealand to the U.K. if it only bears a U.K. postmark. So let's assume your peripatetic pal has simply left a trail of forwarding addresses behind him-- N.Z. to the U.K. to Seattle to San Diego.

The yacht club drops your pal's mail in the box in Auckland, bound for London. The N.Z.-to-U.K. postage is paid to the New Zealand postal service. In England the aging mail is restamped (proceeds going to the U.K. coffers) and heads for the States. It bounces around here for a while until one day the really old, really mangled newsletter is delivered in San Diego. According to the rules set up by the UPU about 30 years ago, there's a big annual accounting of who owes what to whom for handling international mail. Your friend's newsletter is one small item in a grand annual tally of mail poundage used to settle the bills, in this case, between New Zealand and the U.K. and between the U.K. and the U.S. The postal union has given this reckoning the ominous name of "terminal dues."

Each year every UPU member adds up how many pounds of international letter mail, parcels, and special deliveries were sent to and received from each of the other UPU-member countries. They all compare notes and reimburse one another for any imbalances. For example, let's say New Zealand sent 10 million pounds of mail to the U.K last year, while the U.K. sent New Zealand 50 million pounds. At year's end, England would be required to pay N.Z. for handling that extra 40 million pounds of mail. The UPU sets the reimbursement rate according to the type of mail handled (letter, parcel, special delivery).

At the moment, the UPU says, only 20 percent of international communications is by some form of physical mail. By 2005 growth of electronic messaging will far outstrip growth of letters and packages, and the figure may be down to 15 percent. One big issue for the UPU at the moment is protecting their piece of the communications pie and keeping themselves employed. Of course, as the Universal Postal Union, they'll eventually be handling our Christmas cards to Mars and Pluto.

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