USPS: We Don’t Care; We Don’t Have To

Last Monday, January 11, I mailed off my estimated tax payments to California’s state government (an agency called the Franchise Tax Board) and the federal government (IRS). Both, but especially the check to the IRS, were for large amounts.

At about 10 a.m., I put them in a mail box close to my office in downtown Monterey. The sticker on the box says that pick up is at 12 noon.

At about 2:20 p.m. I received a call from a man at a nearby men’s club. He explained that he had received my letter to the Franchise Tax Board in that day’s mail. He had used my return address to track down my phone number. I thanked him profusely, rushed over to the club, and picked up the letter. My concern, of course, was about what happened to the check to the IRS. Was it badly misplaced also? And if it was, would the person who received it be as responsible and as resourceful as this nice man?

I walked from there to the downtown post office. When it was my turn, the woman I talked to said she would get the postmaster. I waited about 10 minutes until he came to the front. I started to explain the situation. My first surprise was that he told me that the mail from that box hadn’t been picked up yet. I was surprised because I was showing him the letter that I had put in that box. How did he think I got it? When I finally got him to listen and understand, I told him my bigger concern: was the IRS check similarly misplaced?

He answered that he didn’t know and couldn’t know at this point. Then he told me a shocking number. He said that the postal service loses about 2 percent of the mail. Even though I had my mask on, I think he saw my eyes widen.

“Two percent?” I said, “that’s terrible.”

“No, it’s not,” he answered. “We have billions of pieces per day.” (I think he overestimated by at least an order of magnitude, but that doesn’t matter for these purposes.)

“Two percent is a large number,” I answered. “FedEx doesn’t lose 2 percent of its shipments.”

“You can’t mail something with FedEx,” he said.

“Yes, you can,” I replied, “You can put a letter in a FedEx envelope.”

“Then use FedEx,” he answered.

“Meanwhile,” I said, “I’ve got this problem that I did use USPS and I want to make sure my check to the IRS will be delivered.”

“We can’t cross that bridge until we come to it,” he said.

I didn’t understand what that meant in this context, so I asked, “What’s that bridge look like? How would you know we’ve come to it?”

“We would know when the IRS contacts you and says they didn’t get the check.”

“I’m pretty sure they don’t get in touch when that happens,” I replied. “I won’t know until April when I file my taxes and they tell me I owe a big amount rather than sending me my usual small refund. They would also charge me interest and a penalty.”

“So that’s how we would know,” he said.

(I’ve since realized that if I don’t see that the check has cleared by, say, January 22, then it was lost. It’s not clear what I would do. Would I call the IRS? Good luck with that. Would I put a stop payment on the check and send another one? I’m nervous about putting a stop payment on a check to the IRS.)

One of the interesting things about the interaction, which shouldn’t have been surprising, is how little this guy seemed to care and how blasé he was about a 2% loss in mail.

As I say, though, incentives matter. And the USPS’s incentive to deliver all the mail is very low.