Magazine August 24, 2015, Issue

In the Belly of a Friendly Beast

We are entitled as citizens to help with our medical bills when we turn 65. The help is not open-ended: Only certain doctors will give it, and they may not be yours. When my wife turned 65, she decided to accept the assistance of the state with respect to hospitalization, not doctors.

This state of affairs lasted for a few years, during which private insurance, through my employer, grew stingier and stingier. Another downgrade was coming in July, so she decided to apply for the government’s largesse.

Easier said. If she had done what the system recommends at the time the system recommends it, she need only have filled out a form. Latecomers have a grace period at the start of each calendar year when they may approach the mourners’ bench. Those who switch later, however, face a stiff penalty. There is an out: If they can show that their insurance ended in summer, fall, or early winter, then the penalty may be waived. The waiver can be requested by mail. But mail can go astray, and delivered letters, when delivered to the government, can go astrayer. An expert my wife consulted advised her to apply to the relevant government office in person.

The nearest relevant government office was in the financial district. I can remember when the financial district was nothing but business: towers of Mammon, two old churches, a handful of wretched services for back-office gnomes. Towers, churches, and gnomes remain, but they have pushed out the shoreline, built apartment complexes, opened shops and restaurants for the residents. The place is hopping.

The relevant government office, though I had never been there, seemed familiar. After a moment I remembered what to. It was large, with rows of chairs, half filled, and nothing was happening: like the rooms in which you wait to be called for voir dire on jury duty. A man in uniform at the entrance, the guard/guide, indicated that my wife should enter her name on a touch screen. Almost immediately we were shown to a young man in a window who took her form. Not bad! I thought. But it soon became not good. My wife had left two questions unanswered: how long I had been covered by my employer’s insurance, and how long she had been covered by her spouse. The expert had told her the only relevant information concerned her coverage after age 65. Not so, it seemed. The young man took my say-so for one question, but he demurred on taking it for two. He didn’t want to “mark up” the form, he said, as if it were the Shroud of Turin. What do we do? we asked. Call your employer, he said. I took out our cellphone. The guard/guide said I could not use it in the room. Quite right — I hate other people’s cellphones. In the hall I called my employer. Fortunately the colleague I needed was at her desk. If she hadn’t been, I would have had to leave a message, await the brmrmrmrm of a callback, then step back into the hall to retrieve it. I explained the situation. May I call you back if I need to? She said yes.

I sat back in the room. The place would close for the day in 90 minutes. My wife had some writing to do, I had a life of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin before the Privy Council — evil Brits! patient Yankee! 1774, and 2015, crawled by. I asked the guard/guide how soon we might be seen again. He gave some assurance, friendly but vague. Our fellow citizens talked among themselves.

After 75 minutes, a summons to a second window, with another person, a young woman, brisk and competent. We explained the situation, gave my colleague’s number. She called, they spoke. The form was filled out, unmarkedly. While this went on, I looked past the young woman, to half-hidden desks. One was decorated with some sort of stuffed creature. Officers of the state have their transitional objects, their lares and penates, just like the rest of us. At last all was in order. My wife’s new coverage would begin  –  — ; she would be notified by mail. On our way back to the subway we stopped at a patisserie and ate a financier.

I write about this, not to write about policy — demography, debt, the cost curve — only to describe the soul of man in the friendly state. The daily operations of the friendly state have no poetry. The program my wife signed up for is called Part B, to distinguish it from kindred parts A, C, and D. There can’t be poetry because too many people are involved keeping the thing running — lawmakers, experts, and many many many administrators. The friendly state can haul out Gutzon Borglum or the Zambellis for special places or occasions, but day by day it fades to gray. The friendly state encourages docility. Warrior states require obedience and creedal states conviction. The friendly state asks you to wait, and take your cellphone to the hall. This is not that onerous: You can go to the hall, and if you wait in the room, you may talk, read, or twiddle your thumbs. The friendly state imposes only the basic norms of crowd control, human husbandry. Its yoke is light.

The friendly state is confusing. With so much to do, it is impossible for anyone to always know what to do. Therefore the friendly state takes time. My wife’s expert did not understand the form; if my colleague had not picked up, we might have had to go back a second day. Says the friendly state: It’s a small price for having (some) of your bills paid (even though you paid — some of — the money in taxes first).

When I finished Franklin, I began the six-volume memoir of life in modern Norway and Sweden that is all the rage. Since the friendly state keeps getting friendlier, might as well see how the Scandinavians manage it.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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