In the Footsteps of Tocqueville (Part Three)

Death row and a brothel in Las Vegas; a pilot's lecture on creationism; genealogy and the Mormons; higher learning in Austin; a gun show in Fort Worth; and the rain-struck opening of the Clinton Library

Twenty thousand victims of the Shoah have been baptized, a non-Mormon in Salt Lake confides, by the companions of the living prophet … Some court proceedings have been started by institutions or churches that, after all is said and done, regret having lost their own … Yes, it's open war!

Social insecurity

Tracy is a bartender in a hotel restaurant in Grand Junction, Colorado, just over the Utah border, where we've stopped for the night.

She's about forty, looks like a fine, solid, happy American, trouble-free, and keeps insisting, "My life is my customers. I'm happy when they're happy."

Except when you dig down a little; when you ask her, after the last customer has left, about her work, her family, her life; when you ask her what she's doing here in this godforsaken hole, with her automatic smiles, her "Did you enjoy your meal?" or "Are you still working on it?," you discover a far less cheerful story.

A father who worked in the Utah coal mines. One day, when he was fifty, he couldn't stop coughing. He had a heart attack and never fully recovered.

A brother, also a miner, but a specialist in mine safety. "That's a cooler kind of work," she admits, "since there's the whole inspection aspect, which takes place mostly aboveground. But if a fire breaks out, or if there's an explosion, or if the roof caves in, he's the one who has to go down to bring back his men, dead or alive. Last time there were eighty dead. He had to walk through all the corpses, and we were so afraid he wouldn't come back up!"

Three other brothers, also miners. But since the coal mines are dying out, they had to move on to soda-ash mining. "And that," she goes on, "is worse. My father says you can't call it worse. But I think you can. I've seen them, my brothers, in Wyoming and Utah, working in all the soda-ash mines of the Green River basin. And I think it's much more exhausting than coal."

And then, finally, her husband, a miner too, the most damaged of the lot, with chronic depression, unable to work at all. They are divorced. But she remembers—in the beginning, when she was pregnant with their first child—those strikes that lasted for months, when no money was coming in. She remembers those mornings when she would awaken crying, unable to get up.

"What is the system in America when you're sick like your husband is? In France they think Americans don't have real social security. Tell me what it's like in this case."

Tracy reflects. Concentrates. And, adopting the expression of someone who is about to embark on a long, complex explanation, borrows my notepad and begins to write down some numbers.

The husband. He benefits from the federal Medicare program for his medical needs, and also from the supplementary Medicaid program, which I understand is state-funded. He lives on $2,000 a month, or 60 percent of his last salary, which comes, in differing proportions that she's not aware of, from the federal government, the state government, and the mining company. He is also entitled to food stamps, but she doesn't know the amount. Finally, he has a subsidized apartment that he rents for about $250 instead of the $600 or $700 it's worth.

The father. Same thing for the medical care—same coverage by Medicare and Medicaid. Plus a retirement pension that in his case comes to 75 percent of his last salary. Why three quarters and not 60 percent? And why, in the same profession, two different systems? She doesn't know this either. Maybe because one is drawing money from the retirement system in Colorado and the other in Wyoming, and it changes from state to state. Or maybe because her father also subscribed to a private fund. She doesn't know.

The brothers. They're still working. During periods of unemployment they continue to be paid for fifteen or twenty weeks, but if these periods last longer than that, a private fund, provided by a church, has to take over. As to health and retirement benefits her brothers aren't so confident; they understand that the government system is on the edge of bankruptcy and that there are plans to demolish it, so they have signed up for savings accounts run by their mining company.

And what about her? Oh, her! She laughs … She never would have thought she'd ever get a divorce. So until these past few years she never worried about it. But oh, well. She's started saving a little. She also has private health insurance. Once, when she had a minor health problem, she was treated free by a hospital run by Methodists. The fact that there's an invalid and someone with a major illness in her family also makes her eligible for a special subsidy. And then she has a young son, and that entitles her to an allowance of $800 a month. Despite Clinton's reduction of Aid to Families With Dependent Children? Yes, that has nothing to do with it, since I'm speaking here, she says, of a program run by the state of Utah, where we live.

In short. I don't know how much I can generalize. And I am well aware that none of the people Tracy talked to me about are among the tens of millions who constitute America's poorest and most marginal—the truly problematic category.

But in the end there are three lessons that I would draw from her story.

First, an American social-welfare system exists; it may be threatened, but it does exist.

Second, the American social-welfare system is bewilderingly complex; despite what we say in Europe, it covers the main part of the active population, but it is complicated, varies from state to state, profession to profession, person to person.

Third, the main source of complexity, and thus of misunderstanding—the profound and almost philosophical reason for such a variety of situations—stems from the mistrust of the very idea of a government's centralizing all the tools of distribution in its own hands, as in France. It stems from the methodical "individualism" that, Tocqueville clearly showed, aims to leave with each individual the responsibility for his fate, or to associations chosen by each individual.

I read somewhere that social-welfare expenses per U.S. inhabitant are roughly equal to those in most European countries, including France. But this is true only if you add to the government share the contributions made by private institutions and private philanthropies.

Now, on the road again. Early in the morning, taking not the route that goes fastest from Grand Junction to Colorado Springs but, because we have a little time, the other one, Route 65, which goes through Grand Mesa and then Aspen.

Heat. Blinding, glorious light. Rust-colored ravines, scorched by the sun. Giant rocks, sprawling wherever they please, sometimes crumbling with loose stones, sometimes reaching so high up that their jagged outlines seem to overlap one another in the sky—a barrier of rock, a Great Wall of China in the middle of America.

The Myth of the American Empire

I remember the way we used to demonize the American Army when I was young. I remember the image we had of the My Lai kind of GI—all the makings of a brute and a fascist. And I remember the fever with which a few months ago Europeans in general and the French in particular seized on Seymour Hersh's investigations revealing the despicable crimes committed in the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib.

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