I received a letter this month (February 2021) from the Internal Revenue Service, which is a branch of the Department of the Treasury. The letter concerned money sent to me, unsolicited, unbidden, and unneeded, as part of the government’s massive, multi-trillion dollar, scattershot, responses to the disastrous economic dislocation caused by the Corona Virus Disease-2019 (CoViD-19). Or perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to the economic dislocation caused by the public response to the disease.
The response itself raises many questions which need to be considered when passions have cooled, vaccines have been widely administered, and the course of the disease is better understood. One such question is whether public health officials have primarily been sharing accurate information or have primarily sought to shape public behavior. Another such question is why most news media outlets never distinguish people dying with CoViD-19 from people dying of CoViD-19. The distinction is elementary, even if it is not always easily drawn in particular cases. If such a distinction were not made in the case, say, of prostatic cancer in men over 65, treatment of prostate cancer would be disastrously skewed. One suspects failure to make the distinction in the case of the new corona virus disease is producing similar distortions. But I digress….
I just said that money was sent to me ‘unneeded’. That was true of both checks sent to me as part of the official response. One might note that I could have destroyed the checks or returned the money to the United States Treasury in the form of gifts. I am, however, mindful of the late Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s comment to one of her sons: ‘Your father will do so much more good with money than the United States will ever do, that it is a crime to let it change hands.’ In the case of my first ‘stimulus’ check I paid bills for someone who has worked for me for 30 years and is quite poor, and I otherwise did ‘much more good’ than I suspect the profligates in Washington would have done.
In regard to the second check and the accompanying letter, however, my present complaint does not concern the check itself but the letter. Here is a sentence from that letter: ‘An EIP2 payment in the amount of $600.00 was issued by Check/Debit card.’
The jargon of ‘EIP2 payment’ is not mysterious or confusing, since the term is spelled out in the previous paragraph: ‘a second economic impact payment (EIP2)’. The term is nasty jargon, but it is not unclear or confusing.
But consider the final phrase, ‘by Check/Debit card’. First, why did anyone think ‘Check’ or ‘Debit’ requires capitalization? Neither ‘Check’ not ‘Debit’ is a proper name or even an unusual term of art. A check is a check is a check. Queen Victoria and not very good users of the English language in Modern times randomly indulge in such Capitalization of Words that do not Need or Deserve such Capitalization. The Department of the Treasury should do better.
The main problem, however, is the slash mark, ‘/’. The slash is a lazy substitute for the perfectly simple, very short, universally understood word ‘or’. There are very few cases in which such a slash is appropriate in a rather formal letter, such as a business communication from a government agency to a taxpayer. The letter ought to have told me that a payment was ‘issued by check or debit card’.
Moreover, the slash introduces an element of actual confusion and doubt on a first, quick reading of the letter. While I quickly realized what the letter meant to say, it is objectively confusing and imprecise. The slash, if it means anything other than ‘or’, means that the two words separated by the slash are parallel and coordinated. In the IRS letter the slash suggests that the two separated words, ‘check’ and ‘debit’, modify the following noun, ‘card’, equally. The apparent meaning of the slashed sentence in the letter was that I had been sent $600 ‘by check card or by debit card’. Now I do have a debit card, but I do not receive payments by that card. The slashed sentence left me wondering for a moment if I had been sent another $600 amount by the Department of the Treasury, perhaps by means of some newly issued card or some other new means of which I was unaware.
Since I had in fact received a check for $600 from the government some weeks earlier, I was able quickly to eliminate the confusing ambiguity and interpret the letter accurately. In the relevant sentence the writer meant the slash to separate and coordinate the single word ‘check’ from the compound ‘debit card’. Figuring that out, however, required me to discount what the letter actually seemed to say on my first reading. In short, this business letter about money from a government agency is ambiguous in its meaning. A simple, standard, traditional use of ‘or’ would have been clearer, would have taken no more space, and would have avoided annoying, breezy IRS informality.
The United States Post Office took more than a month to deliver several Christmas cards to me. A friend yesterday, on February 22nd, received a Christmas card mailed in November. In mid-January a Priority Mail letter sent in late December arrived at my office three weeks after its sender paid for its priority handling. One’s general sense is that the post office is falling apart.
I must say that when I have in the past had occasion to speak with IRS employees by telephone, they have been helpful, courteous, and professional. Alas, the IRS also seems unable to write simple, clear letters. This does not fill me with longing for a larger government entrusted with more power and responsibility.