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Every day, Americans buy tens of thousands of cheap products from China — jeans, electronics, things made of plastic.
We buy stuff from China mostly because the low cost of living and lax labor regulations allow manufacturers to make products cheaply there. But there’s another reason, too. It’s really cheap to send stuff from China to the United States, which means sellers there can charge barely anything to ship an already-cheap item 6,000 miles across an ocean. Want an eyebrow razor? On Wish.com, a site that sells products directly from China, you can buy one for 95 cents, plus a $2 shipping fee. A similar eyebrow razor on Walmart.com, by contrast, costs $2.62 for a three-pack, but there is a shipping fee of $5.99. According to congressional testimony, at current rates, shipping a parcel to Fairfax, Virginia, from North Carolina would cost $1.94. From Shanghai, it would be $1.12.
President Trump has vowed to alter this equation, announcing on Wednesday that he is instructing the U.S. Postal Service to levy higher fees on packages from international destinations, including China. The announcement was not very controversial: A variety of parties involved in e-commerce, from Amazon to U.S. small businesses to sellers on eBay, have been calling on the United States for a long time to charge more for delivery on behalf of foreign postal carriers. The changes could help U.S. small businesses better compete against Chinese merchants while also slowing the flow of counterfeit goods shipped cheaply from overseas.
For more than a century, postal services in various countries have, through the Universal Postal Union, agreed to deliver mail that originated in another country. This service used to be free, until a 1969 update required that postal services pay one another “terminal dues” — fees for delivering another country’s mail — based on how developed a country was: Countries whose postal services were still in transition could charge high dues, while developed countries like the United States would have to charge low dues. In 2006, a new law allowed the United States to enter into bilateral agreements with foreign posts, and essentially agree on terminal dues on their own.
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