A warm autumnal glow drenches “The Pursuit of Happiness is Happiness,” George Will’s column about his own working life.
Tucked away in this otherwise pleasant banquet of reminiscence is a poison chicken nugget. “Can a nation so thoroughly committed to equality cultivate and celebrate excellence which distinguishes the few from the many?” asks Will. “Much ... evidence suggests we cannot,” he concludes.
Whose equality and whose excellence does Will refer to here? Is he talking about intelligence, race, money, or all three? Like a poet, Will doesn’t say exactly what he means, allowing his reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps in an argument that, if he made it explicitly, would reveal itself for the false, unhealthy thing that it is.
Excellence is demonstrated in the successful achievements of objectives, in the resolution of problems. Public money from public institutions that are the face of a democratically elected government invested hundreds of millions in the early development of the COVID-19 vaccines (through DARPA and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority). Likewise, publicly funded research and public grants and loans have fostered the development of companies, such as Tesla, to address the second great problem of our time, climate change.
Economic inequality — a threat to every facet of our democratic society — has been greatly worsened by the wealthy, anti-democratic actors whose names fill out Will’s dance card. It is ludicrous to suggest that excellence and equality are in opposition to one another. One need only look at West Virginia’s own Katherine Johnson, a Black woman whose mathematical work was crucial to NASA’s space missions, which itself spun-off a wide array of new businesses and useful technologies, such as camera phones, CAT scans, LEDs, athletic shoes, home insulation, wireless headsets, portable computers, etc.
The problems of inequality, climate change and COVID-19 are intertwined, and the Biden administration has offered the “Build Back Better” bill to address aspects of all three problems at once. I hope our elected representatives will side with the problem-solvers and not with George Will’s happy billionaires, because they’ve got nothing.