by Hugh Gilmore
Ranking #7 this week on Amazon’s sales rankings of books on Social Policy is “Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy” (2016) by Robert H. Frank. It is a book well worth reading, especially with the presidential election now visible on the near horizon.
Frank is one of those rare scholarly economists whose work relates to people, not just to theoretical studies of markets. He also is funny and tells lots of dramatic stories drawn from life to illustrate his economic points. At Cornell University he holds the esteemed H. J. Louis Chair as professor of management while also being a professor of economics. He’s written numerous scholarly articles, columns for the New York Times, and a half-dozen books.
A brief notice of some of his other books’ titles should tell you where he’s coming from as an economist: “Choosing the Right Pond: Human Behavior and the Quest for Status” (1985), “Luxury Fever: Money and Happiness in an Era of Excess (1999), “What Price The Moral High Ground?” (2004), “Falling Behind: How Income Inequality Harms the Middle Class” (2007), and “The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good” (2012). He obviously is a man who cares about the human condition, almost in a humanistic way.
“Success and Luck” begins with a quote credited to E.B. White, “Luck is something you cannot mention in the presence of self-made men.” Nonetheless, as he goes on to describe, luck is a dominating factor in many people’s lives.
Early in the book, to set the tone, Frank describes an incident from when he was playing tennis years ago and suddenly fell to the court. He wasn’t breathing and had no pulse. His playing partner had no idea what was wrong but clumsily administered CPR while someone else called 911. By the sheerest luck an ambulance was nearby, having been called out to a nearby traffic accident where they weren’t actually needed. They diverted to the tennis courts, scooped up Frank, and arranged to have him flown to University of Pennsylvania hospital. There, experts diagnosed and treated him for a very rare event called “sudden cardiac death.” A few weeks later he was back playing tennis, still alive thanks to at least ten bits of luck that day. Alive to go on and write the books that followed.
That’s an obvious lucky-to-be-alive example, but in reflecting on luck he also wondered: How important is luck to economic success? That basic question, he says, marks a very significant boundary line between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives are probably right, he says, when they note that people who amass great fortunes are talented and hard working. Liberals, however, reply that there are lots of hard-working, talented people in this world who do not ever come close to creating economic fortunes.
Being born American does not mean, no matter what the rich say, that any specific person or group truly has an open door to success – if they only would walk through it. It’s possible to be an American and lack opportunity – and not necessarily because of institutional oppression. Luck is always involved in financial success. The problem here is that too many of the rich underplay that aspect of their rise in the world, and because of that, they unduly influence economic policies that do great harm to the world – and to themselves.
In a winner-take-all world such as ours, for example, small initial differences between individuals or classes grow larger with the passage of time. Eventually the gulf is so wide all understanding of one another is lost. A gospel of wealth based on beliefs about hard work and success is mentally reverse-engineered to make the rich’s success seem pre-destined. And the status of the have-nots is justified by beliefs that they simply “didn’t want it bad enough,” or “didn’t work hard enough.”
Such beliefs, naturally, justify turning a deaf ear to political legislation that might lessen the suffering of the less fortunate. Forgotten are those nurturing factors that helped someone’s talents emerge and then thrive: good health, good schools, sober parents, alert teachers, even simply being born into a neighborhood where education is valued.
A chance meeting can change a life. In his Princeton baccalaureate speech of 2012 the author Michael Lewis (“Liar’s Poker,” “The Blind Side,” “Moneyball.”) told the undergraduates this story. As a young, rudderless man he attended a banquet where he sat beside the wife of a Wall Street big shot. She was impressed by him and convinced her husband to hire him (at Salomon Brothers). Once there, they didn’t know where to assign him since he knew nothing about finance. They put him in charge of “derivatives,” which no one knew anything about – it was a new Wall Street toy then – and told him to tinker around. Given that chance, he made a quick enough study that a year and a half later he was being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to give advice to professional investors. Soon after he quit and wrote his first book, “Liar’s Poker,” about the experience. He was 26.
The book sold a million copies. Lewis offered his story as a case study in how hard work and talent can sometimes pay off, but that luck must never be taken for granted.
Robert Frank’s “Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy,” is filled with stimulating ideas and fascinating anecdotes, all bolstered by scholarly research. It’s highly recommended, especially with election day drawing near.
Hugh Gilmore is a writer who lives in Chestnut Hill, where he maintains a business buying and selling rare books. His books are available through Amazon.com in both print and e-book formats.