Utility, Again

George Will has a piece, reproduced today by National Review Online, comparing how American billionaires lived a hundred years ago to how Americans of all means live today. It’s a particularly weak piece, something that could have been written by the ordinary third-grade American after two, maybe three, google searches, and as such, it underscores a fundamental weakness with political and social thinking which seems to have come to prevail in Western institutions.

In the first place, this is a game that can be played forever, straight back to Adam and Eve, who had to sew clothing from fig leaves, until God showed them the advanced technology of sewing clothes from animal skins, complete with a pocket for their iPhones, so they could text each other after Cain killed Abel. “Now r u srry” “U 8 2.” Moreover, you can extend this forward into perpetuity, considering that technological progress has never been stopped (I can’t even think of an epoch where technological progress was slowed). In a hundred years, what marvels of progress would make George Soros, Bill Gates, and <insert other world business magnates whose names I couldn’t care less to remember> beneath the paupers of that age, for want?

In the second place, Will, as so many do, misses the point entirely. Let’s run the third-grade trope both directions: would you give up your iPhone for a billion dollars in 1916? Answer: never, because dentistry, health care, suffrage, civil rights, centralized heating and air-conditioning, electricity, and easily accessible Swedish Death Metal, all of which mark the ease of our lives in these present days.

Oh? Would you give up your iPhone and also your mediocrity for a Fifth Avenue penthouse overlooking New York City, with the mayor of New York City a mere handmaiden, whose significance to you is his opening the door for you so that Presidents, Kings, Warlords, and every other kind of power might call upon you? Yes, a thousand times: yes, yes, I would.

That game also goes backwards into perpetuity. I’d give it all away to go back to the relative squalor of 16th Century England so that I could celebrate the beheading of my Queen, Anne Boleyn, that faithless daughter-producing, miscarrying witch, with a party and a wedding engagement. To be King Herod, who with a whisper, would avoid the embarrassment of reasoning with a mere girl in front of my important guests by bringing my friend’s head in as a gift for her on a platter, because her mother was some kind of lover. Or as Ghengis Khan, I would roll over the steppes to conquer and conquer and conquer some more. Sayonara, iPhone.

I’ll take a lot less, in fact: if I could be an important figure in the politics of the City of Tonawanda, with the ear of the mayor, and, with his ear, the possibility of my name on a plaque near the foot of a new bridge in town, and the attendant honor handed down as a legacy to my fine sons and their children–if so, then, again, yes, the squalor of squatting in an outhouse in exchange for all this mediocrity.

Yes, I get it, George: we, the mediocre, live better than kings of yesteryear. So it could have been said in 1917 of 1817. But what is it to live so comfortably? I’m so content I’m bored to depression! To have lives in my hands, numbers who look to me for livelihood and inspiration, sycophants vying to win my gracious eye: that is living! No billionaire, millionaire, or any other kind of power honorific -aire would ever trade his worth in the more squalid epochs of history for my unimaginably richly appointed bungalow on an undistinguished street in the City of Tonawanda, New York, USA.

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