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Cornell professor of economics Robert Frank says he’s alive today because of “pure dumb luck.” In 2007, he collapsed on a tennis court, struck down by what was later diagnosed as a case of sudden cardiac death, something only 2 percent of victims survive. Frank survived because, even though the nearest hospital was 5 miles away, an ambulance just happened to be responding to another call a few hundred yards away at the time. Since the other call wasn’t as serious, the ambulance was able to change course and save Frank. Paddles were put on him in record time. He was rushed to the local hospital, then flown by helicopter to a larger one where he was put on ice overnight. Most survivors of similar episodes are left with significant cognitive and physical impairments. Frank was back on the tennis court just two weeks later.
Frank says his research ideas often come from his own experience, and his work on luck is no exception. His latest book, Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy, argues that the role of luck in life, and specifically in economic success, is not as widely appreciated as it should be. The book claims that if the prosperous were more cognizant of luck’s role in their success they would be more supportive of government efforts to spread opportunity, and of the higher taxes they’d have to pay as a result.
Frank’s other writings include the books The Winner-Take-All Society (with Philip J. Cook), The Darwin Economy, and Principles of Economics (with Ben S. Bernanke.) as well as an economics column that has run in The New York Times for over a decade. I spoke to him on the phone recently while he waited for his car to be repaired at a Syracuse dealership. He was warm and engaging and interested in my own experiences with luck and success, answering my questions as if he had all the time in the world.
What evidence is there that people don’t appreciate the role of luck in their lives as much as they should?
If people want to see a vivid example of that, I would steer them to the website that chronicled the reactions of voters to two political campaign speeches in 2012, one by Elizabeth Warren, the other by Barack Obama. The content of the speeches was essentially the same and if you read both transcripts carefully you’d say, “Wow. There’s nothing controversial here.” What each one said in effect was that, in addition to working hard and being good at what you do, if you’re a business owner, also you ship your goods to market on roads that the community paid for, you hired workers that we helped educate, we hired policemen, firemen to keep you safe. So your success such as it is, is a product not just of your own talents and efforts, but it’s a community project.
The reaction was overwhelmingly hostile to the speeches. The people who run businesses seemed to think that Obama and Elizabeth Warren were saying that they didn’t deserve to have succeeded, that they were impostors by occupying these lofty positions that they had won. That wasn’t the message at all, but it was hard for people to hear the totally reasonable and uncontroversial messages of those speeches.
The whole process of constructing life narratives is biased in ways that almost guarantee that people won’t recognize the role of chance events adequately. So, you’ve been successful, you’ve been at it 30 years. It’s true that you’ve worked hard all that time, you got up early, you put in a lot of effort, those memories are all very plentiful and available in your memory bank. You’ve solved lots of difficult problems. You remember examples of those, too. You know the formidable opponents that you’ve vanquished along the way. How can you forget them? So, if somebody says, “Why did you succeed?” those things are going to get top billing in your story.
Maybe there was a teacher who helped steer you through trouble in the 11th grade. You don’t remember that. Maybe you got a promotion early on when one of your colleagues who was slightly better qualified had to turn it down because he had to stay and take care of an ailing parent. You don’t remember that either. Then there’s all this work on the asymmetry of memory.
You’re running into the wind, you’re keenly aware of it every second. You turn the corner and the wind is at your back. That’s good. You like that. But then two minutes into the return course you’ve forgotten completely about the fact that you’ve got something helping you along. Because a headwind is something that you have to work actively to overcome, you almost can’t fail to notice it. But a tailwind helps you along; it’s out of your field of vision mostly. You don’t think about it because you don’t have to think about it.
You argue that income inequality has increased in part due to increased competition and in part due to the role of luck. How so?
The background of that whole discussion is clear evidence that markets are vastly more competitive than they ever have been in the past. What would make a market less than fully competitive? Well, it might be that there’s a supplier that has a prominent local presence. Buyers don’t know about alternative possible sources of supply. And so, they’re, in a way, captive. They’ve got to deal with that seller. Maybe shipping costs are really formidable…