Life, Luck, and Laughter

Tuesday, January 12, 2016
Dr. Jonathan Anomaly

It’s been a good year for Jay Ruckelshaus. After completing his certificate in philosophy, politics, and economics last spring, Jay used the summer to hone his writing sample and apply for the Truman, Marshall, and Rhodes scholarships. The chance of winning one of them is astronomically small, but Jay won all three. He was surprised, I was not. He also wrote a widely circulated op-ed about the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and put his words into action by helping make Duke more accessible to people with disabilities. And now, tonight, Jay is a guest of President Obama at the annual State of the Union address to Congress.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The summer before Jay came to Duke on an academic scholarship he had a diving accident that left him paralyzed with only partial movement in his arms. He doesn’t talk about it much, or expect anyone to know anything about his history.

When Jay rolls up to class or across campus in his wheelchair, people quickly realize that what he says is far more interesting than any physical fact about him.

Jay is exceptionally well-read and has the kind of curiosity that can’t be taught. But more than that, he’s just plain fun to hang out with. If you see him around campus, or in a class, you’ll probably hear him cracking jokes or talking to other students about one of three things: philosophy, politics, or Duke basketball. I’ll never forget last Spring, during a break in our Capstone seminar, when I asked Jay where he’d watch the National Championship game. He didn’t hesitate: Indiana – site of the final four, and his home state.

Last March Jay wrote – and by “wrote” I mean dictated into a computer with voice activated software – an exceptionally thoughtful and beautifully crafted Capstone thesis that applied the theory of luck egalitarianism to health care markets. Jay argued that luck egalitarians are right to make the conceptual distinction between deserved and undeserved bad luck – for example, between lung cancer that results from a lifetime of smoking, and a congenital disease that afflicts us from birth. But he also argued that it’s hard to draw sharp lines, since some amount of risky behavior is part of a good life. In the most innovative part of his paper, Jay tried to sort out what luck egalitarianism would imply for public policy, given the limited information and perverse incentives policymakers face when crafting rules for health care allocation.

Jay is the reason I love teaching at Duke. He is a beacon of light, and we are proud to have him as a student. We wish him all the best this Spring, and at Oxford next Fall.