Magazine | April 18, 2011, Issue

Decline and Fall

There is a school of psychology called Situationism that pooh-poohs the notion of individual character. This line of thought began with some experiments by Stanley Milgram of Yale in the early 1960s. By manipulating his test subjects’ conformism and respect for authority, Milgram was able to get ordinary pleasant people to give near-lethal 450-volt electric shocks to slow learners. (The “learners” were hired professional actors, the shocks imaginary, but Milgram’s subjects did not know these things.) The most extreme Situationists argue that personal character is a fiction, and that given an appropriate situation, anyone will do anything. This has been on my mind recently.

Sometime in the spring of 1967, while Milgram’s results were still being keenly discussed, I walked over to the office of the bursar at Liverpool University and received a check, signed by some functionary of Her Majesty’s government, to cover fees and expenses for my last college semester.

There followed an interval of 43 years during which, to the best of my recollection, I received no money from any department of any government, other than as payment for work done. I of course consumed government services, but cash-wise and check-wise my post-college life was an entitlement-free zone. Even my occasional spells of unemployment were benefitless. There was always some reason I was ineligible for the dole. I had been too long abroad; I had been self-employed; I was single and childless; I was not a citizen.

I read with wonder of new-landed immigrants signing up for welfare, of able-bodied citizens spending years unemployed; of the stupendous sums shelled out by my state and nation on Medicaid, SSI, TANF, food stamps, Section Eight. I once watched with wonder as the fit-looking young adult man ahead of me in the supermarket checkout line, told that the food stamps he’d offered the cashier did not cover some part of his purchases, produced from his pocket a roll of twenties the size of a soup can and peeled one off, talking all the while to a companion in Spanish.

Now, I’m not going to be boastful about this — quietly smug, perhaps, but no worse. I’ve been lucky, health-wise and work-wise. Attitudes inherited from doggedly respectable working-class forebears helped: We never took relief. The old Anglo-Saxon spirit of independence, too, I like to think. “Do you know what is the pride of the English?” asks Mr. Deasy of Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses.

– That on his empire, Stephen said, the sun never sets.

 – Ba! Mr Deasy cried. That’s not English. A French Celt said that. He tapped his savingsbox against his thumbnail.

 – I will tell you, he said solemnly, what is his proudest boast. I paid my way.

Such attitudes are in any case so quaint and fogeyish now, they are as far beyond praise or blame as the wearing of a tricorne hat would be. They are relics of the time before Anglo-Saxon civilization collapsed into hedonism, dependency, ethnic masochism, consumer credit, and trillion-dollar national deficits. In Liverpool today, one household in three is “economically inactive” — that is, contains no working adults. In Britain overall, the statistic is one household in eight. No doubt parts of the U.S. are as bad.

#page#Still I never took relief. Now I am taking it, and wondering whether perhaps the Situationists are right: that my proud disdain for government cash was mere fancy, and that the rot has reached into my soul too.

This started last May when, quite unexpectedly, a letter arrived from something called The Pension Service in Newcastle upon Tyne, England NE98 1BA. My 65th birthday was imminent, the letter reminded me. I should fill out the enclosed form to claim my pension. Would I like it deposited in pounds sterling in a U.K. bank, or converted to dollars and sent to my U.S. bank?

Good grief! Having worked some years in the old country, I had a vague idea that I was entitled to the U.K. equivalent of Social Security, but had never expected Her Majesty’s servants to be so proactive. I consulted a fellow expat somewhat older than myself. His advice was to open a U.K. bank account, have them deposit my pension there, and take a vacation in Britain every year or so to spend it. “Otherwise the IRS will jump on it.”

Those quaint, fogeyish attitudes kicked in again. I love the IRS no more than does any other citizen; but Uncle Sam having taken me in, given me a home and a living and friends, it seemed a low thing to deprive him of what was lawfully his. I checked the box for conversion, and gave my U.S. bank-account details. And Lo! in the month of my birthday, and every month thereafter, several hundred dollars have crossed the ocean from Newcastle upon Tyne and slipped painlessly onto my bank statements.

This small miracle — income without effort! — turned my thoughts to my U.S. Social Security entitlement. I’d had a vague idea that the longer I held off claiming this, the more I’d get, so it would be best to hold out until I might actually need it, which I currently don’t. I checked with my accountant. He: “Take it as soon as you can. Sock it all into a muni fund. Later you can pay it all back and re-set at the higher level. You get that higher level. You get that interest from your fund. If you kick the bucket, your family has something. Hell-o?

Still I dithered; but while dithering I learned another thing: that Social Security would add a handsome supplement for each of my two high-schoolers. That was the decider. I signed on, and now get a monthly check from Uncle Sam to add to the one from Her Majesty’s Treasury. I am a welfare king . . . or at any rate — the sums are not that large — a welfare baron.

So much for my prideful independence and self-sufficiency. It has vanished like dew in the morn, and I am a contented client of the welfare state. Given our nation’s fiscal condition, I may have arrived at the banquet just as they are serving coffee, but never mind. I’ll take the coffee, and square matters somehow with the keening shades of my never-took-relief ancestors.

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