May 2016

Kris Rothstein

nonfiction

Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy by Robert H Frank

Robert H. Frank's volume is a slim one. This is because he is not trying to bombard his readers with evidence, to extensively probe every claim, but to present a clear and reasonable argument about how America needs to invest in its public infrastructure, how that can happen and how ideas about our luck are detrimental to society. Reading Success and Luck is almost like having a robust conversation over dinner -- a simple premise, some explanation, a few examples. Frank hopes that his clarity and his brevity will be convincing. And they are. However, I don't think that Frank, even with all his reasonable theories and suggestions, will convince many opponents. Money isn't about logic, as he well knows. It is an emotional subject, and even when he proves that the taxes he proposes would not affect the quality of life for the super wealthy, he does also admit that they would likely feel deprived.

This is a book about taxes and the public good. The method Frank, an economist at Cornell, uses to get at these topics is an investigation of how luck and good fortune affect both personal lives and the lives of nations. So his investigation into the American belief in meritocracy has less to do with the very real difficulties of smart, capable but underprivileged people and more to do with the role of luck for people who have already fought their way close to the very top. Frank doesn't want to offend the successful, so he states again and again that he is not denying that successful people are intelligent and hardworking. His point is that there are many of these diligent and capable people, and they may all rise to excellent positions. But there are a few real plums -- the CEO job, the tenured professorship, the tech magnate. Who gets these positions? How do they get there? Using very interesting data, Frank shows that when many, many excellent candidates rise to the top of their fields and end up in competition, there are very few differences between them. All are outstanding. So the one who wins the final competition is almost always, by definition, the luckiest.

Little coincidences and intangibles may be the difference between a good career and a fabulous career. Frank describes his own history, showing how lucky he was to get his first job, to publish a flurry of papers, and to get tenure. He sees this as a series of happy accidents, which could easily have happened to someone else with similar skills and a similar background. The personal storytelling touch, here, is very effective. And while many people believe in luck when it comes to accidents or health scares, they think that when it comes to success, they are in complete control. He notes that most people are more willing to blame lack of success on bad luck than will admit that good luck has contributed to their achievements.

The greatest luck of all, though, is access to the opportunities that come from being a middle-class American. A young Bhutanese hill tribesman who was Frank's cook during a stint in Nepal, he notes, may be one of the most talented and resourceful people he's met, but with little education and few opportunities, he was not likely to achieve the success that he might have had he been born an American (that he might not want this is a question unasked). Here Frank is really just talking about finances, but also, to some degree, prestige.

The two types of luck (specific happy accidents and being born in a rich, powerful country) are indeed related but perhaps not as inextricably as Frank claims. The main way they are related is as external factors. And if successful people do not recognize the roles of small incidents of luck and happenstance on their way to the top, they are also unlikely to recognize the good fortune of the large structural and institutional factors that have allowed them to prosper.

He demonstrates that people who have been selected as leaders, even randomly, feel they deserve a bigger share of the resources (in the study cited, an extra cookie). And because of the rise of winner-take-all contests -- that is, the ways in which increasing scale and scope of markets and communication have allowed fewer players to control global trade -- that extra cookie has come to be billions and billions of dollars. There are people who are quick to acknowledge the effect of good fortune (Bill Gates is given as an example, who describes how a series of unlikely events led him to acquire DOS and start his career at such an advantage). These people are more "likely to support the kinds of public institutions that made their own success possible." This is the crucial link. Frank truly believes that if more people were to understand their own luck, they would be more generous and they would be more open to taxation.

The specific taxation Frank proposes is a progressive consumption tax. If you want to know more about it, Frank answers many questions about it in his appendix. It's designed to increase investment while discouraging luxury consumption. He believes that the super wealthy would not, in fact, miss any element of their current lifestyle. This "unobtrusive policy change could steer trillions of dollars [...] into desperately needed public investment without demanding sacrifices from anyone." Frank knows that he might be written off as an idealist but he gives examples showing how unlikely events come to pass and how public opinion can change quickly in some instances.

Frank's writing is wonderfully transparent. It is also entertaining. Frank summarizes a lot of fascinating experiments to prove his points, some of which he designed himself. He also uses many personal stories, about himself and others, to illustrate his ideas. These techniques make the book highly readable and break up the prose in a way that makes this much different from other books on popular economics. Reading Success and Luck is something like reading a Malcolm Gladwell book, but one that is only about one fairly obvious and non-obscure topic.

By acknowledging luck, what Frank really wants people to do is to be grateful. Grateful for everything they have received along their journey to the top. But I can't see him convincing his core audience, which includes many people who believe in divine will and the absence of luck. Humble people already recognize their good fortune and tend to be generous. Frank also hopes to convince the wealthy with data that shows people will think better of you if you acknowledge the role of luck (maybe that's obvious!). But I'm not sure this carrot will be attractive to most of those who complain about taxation while enjoying many of the benefits it pays for.

We need these people to invest in public infrastructure. What good is a luxury car with no roads to drive it on? The ideology of meritocracy could end up crippling America; obviously Frank does not want that to happen. And though I don't think he finds all the answers, there is certainly much food for thought here. It is a good basis for conversation and it is commendable that he is addressing the problem with an actual solution in mind.

Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy by Robert H. Frank
Princeton University Press
ISBN: 978-0691167404
187 pages