Gotham Diary:
Good Luck
7 August 2012

Over the weekend, the Times published a column by Cornell economist RH (“Luxury Bob”) Frank, “Will the Skillful Win? They Should Be So Lucky.” It begins with the clearest statement of the ideological rift that divides America’s elite into two camps (each of which brands the other as “the elite”).

There may be no topic that more reliably divides liberals and conservatives than the relationship between success and luck. Many conservatives celebrate market success as an almost inevitable consequence of talent and effort. Liberals, by contrast, like to remind us that even talented people who work hard sometimes fall on hard times through no fault of their own.

Frank goes on to cite a number of tests run at an experimental Web site called Music Lab. I wouldn’t put a lot of weight on these particular findings; assessing the role of luck on the popularity of rock songs — or of much more serious works of art — is problematic in the extreme, because creative works are too far from fungible. But if anybody is running tests showing that luck has nothing to do with success, I have yet to hear of it. It seems to be more and more generally accepted that successful people and projects have at some point accrued a boon that cannot be traced to talent and effort: Daniel Kahneman calls it “the halo effect.” How this halo comes to descend here but not there remains unexplained in terms of talent and effort.

It seems strange to me that, as Frank suggests, conservatives see a moral hazard in the liberal view of luck, imagining that it sanctions passive anticipation of good fortune. And that’s why I’m so grateful for David Brooks’s formulation of the issue last Friday, in his column, “The Credit Illusion.” Brooks pretends to be responding to an artfully crafted question from a successful businessman who signs himself “Confused in Columbus” and who complains about Mitt Romney’s remarks in Israel, crediting “cultural differences” with much of that country’s outsize success. “Confused” wants clarity: how much credit does he deserve for his success? Brooks’s answer is simple but magisterial.

Nonetheless, this question does have a practical and a moral answer. It is this: You should regard yourself as the sole author of all your future achievements and as the grateful beneficiary of all your past successes.

Will the mothers of America kindly start cross-stitching this motto on their infants’ pillowcases? Neither element of the rule is new; it’s the putting them together that’s arresting. You must prepare to work very hard, and you must we grateful when (and if) the hard work pays off. Truly, the most successful people ought to be the most humble. By which I mean that they ought to be the most generous, the most eager to help other hard workers. And the least inclined to stand smugly by while the poor suffer the burdens of poverty. If David Brooks himself actually came up with this solution — which it quite literally is; it dissolves the difference between the parties — then I call three cheers to the Times for paying him to sit around and think all day.

(I would like to amend Brooks’s rule slightly, to include a measure of gratitude not just for past successes but for the health and intelligence that hard work requires.)


The conundrum of fortune has a darker, more effectively political force, one that Felix Salmon wrote about a few weeks ago. Felix began an entry about the control of American education with a description of the Great and the Good who gather together at places like Aspen to discuss matters that, arguably, they know nothing about. 

For me, one of the more interesting tracks of the Aspen Ideas Festival is the series of conversations about education. Aspen is the natural habitat of America’s overconfident plutonomy: the kind of people who are convinced that since they have been successful themselves, they are therefore qualified — more qualified than education professionals, in fact — to diagnose problems and prescribe solutions. The ultimate example of this in recent weeks was the firing of Teresa Sullivan as president of the University of Virginia, by rich trustees who had no substantive beef with her at all. Instead, they just didn’t like her reluctance to sign on to various inchoate strategies, which sound great in a mass-market leadership book but which are unlikely to be particularly helpful in the context of a venerable educational institution.

These people have all read their Steve Brill, and have watched (or even funded) Waiting for Superman. They’re generally convinced that bad teachers are The Problem, and seem to think that that reforming the nation’s education system is a task somehow akin to akin to remaking General Electric. Measure everything, work out who’s good and who’s bad, and fire the underperformers: half of the problem is solved right there. Then, look at the great teachers, the inspirational ones, and the ed-tech innovators. If America’s remaining teachers just take a leaf out of their books, and start doing the things that work really well, that’s the other half of the problem addressed.

Plutonomy” — what a great word. Plutonomists are unusually successful people who can’t give credit where credit is due, and who, in taking all the credit for themselves, proceed to act with decidely ungenerous vanity. There is nothing that they don’t understand, because their success both confers and guarantees a universal acumen. I need do no more than ask you to consider Donald Trump. But, for a more sophisticated example, remember Lawrence Summers on the capacity of women to do rigorous science, back in 2005. These men would be ridiculous if they were not also powerful and influential. It is impossible to attribute their persistence in foolishness to talent and effort, unless it is a talent for foolishness.

While everyone is complaining about bankers, I’m becoming fixated on developers, and I don’t mean just the real-estate types who build strip malls. I mean the visionaries who have the time and the resources to manipulate the ever more dense network of legal constraints that make getting anything done almost impossible for ordinary mortals. Robert Moses, a man who craved power but not wealth, was a tyrant of development that only age and the death of personal feudatories could stop. His legacy is official impotence and private licence. No exponent of the public sphere has been entrusted with more than a small fraction of the power that Moses accumulated, and improvements to the civil fabric have been abandoned to unaccountable warlords.