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Robert H. Frank

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Success and Luck

Posted: 05/02/09 02:35 PM ET

There's no question that hard work and talent make someone more likely to achieve economic success. But for every successful person who exhibits these qualities, there are hundreds of others who are just as talented and work just as hard, yet earn only modest incomes.

Even talent and the inclination to work hard are themselves heavily dependent on chance. In combination, genes and environment ultimately account for all important individual differences, which means that someone who was born talented and brought up to be hard-working was incredibly lucky to begin with.

This is all so straightforward as to seem completely beyond dispute. Yet luck's role in success remains oddly controversial. If you don't know where a new acquaintance stands politically, just ask him about this. If he insists luck doesn't matter, he's almost surely a staunch conservative. Liberals, even those who have achieved spectacular success in life, are for some reason far more inclined to acknowledge their good fortune.

I wrote about these issues in my most recent column in the New York Times, suggesting that many anti-tax protesters at the recent tea parties were born on third base and thought they'd hit a triple. Shortly after the column ran, I got an e-mail from a producer at the Fox Business Channel asking me to appear on Stuart Varney's show to discuss luck's role in economic success. I agreed, knowing full well that Fox hosts generally go after guests who espouse non-right-wing positions. But I was probably naive not to have expected the relentlessness of the diatribe I faced throughout the segment.

Mr. Varney, like most highly-paid conservatives, is dead certain that his own success owes nothing to luck. Didn't I realize, he asked me, what a handicap it was for someone with a British accent like his to host a television show in the United States? Actually, I didn't. The evidence, in fact, suggests otherwise. Socially disadvantageous accents tend to decay over time, but socially advantageous ones tend to get stronger. Many British expatriates actually have stronger British accents now than when they first arrived in the US.

Of course, that was just one of the many points I wish I thought of in time to mention as Mr. Varney continued to heap scorn on my position. But if you watch the segment, you'll see compelling evidence that Mr. Varney is himself extremely lucky to be earning such a high salary. You may also think I'm extremely lucky to be earning a high salary. But that's exactly my point!