Saturday, June 16, 2012

Luck and Just Desserts

Some of you have probably heard about the writer Michael Lewis’ speech at Princeton’s graduation ceremony. He seems to have shocked a lot of people by asserting that luck, sheer, blind luck, plays a bigger role in most people’s lives—particularly those who are “successful”—than either they or anyone else likes to admit. He gave several wonderful examples of this. In his own life, for instance, he graduated from Princeton with a degree in Art History, a degree that qualified him for essentially nothing. But after some fumbling around and going to Law School (like many others who have no idea what to do), he happened to be sitting next to the wife of the CEO of Salomon Brothers and that dinner led to her convincing her husband to hire Lewis. Whereupon he was, with no qualifications whatever, put in charge of Salomon’s newly-expanding derivatives desk—which in turn led to a contract to write about this potentially hazardous field in a book called Liar’s Poker. The book became a best-seller and Lewis’s writing career was launched. All thanks to the luck of sitting next to the right person at dinner.
            Lewis adds a couple more examples—his book Moneyball, for instance, which contrary to most impressions of the book, has an underlying theme:

            The [baseball] players were misvalued. And the biggest single reason they were misvalued was that the experts did not pay sufficient attention to the role of luck in baseball success. Players got credit for things they did that depended on the performance of others… Players got blamed and credited for events beyond their control.  Where balls that got hit happened to land on the field, for example.

In truth, I have often wondered why more attention is not given to this in sports commentary in general. It’s really so obvious. The ball, any ball, takes funny bounces. Rebounds fall right into the hands of some player far from the basket. A pitcher makes a mistake and throws a fast ball right down the middle, resulting in a home run; or a pathetic dribbler goes for a base hit while a smoking line drive goes straight to a fielder for an out. A football is tipped by a receiver and falls right into the arms of a waiting defender, who runs it in for a touchdown.  All pure luck. And yet we are bombarded with ecstatic comments about how great, how talented this player is over that, or this team over all others. Lewis also described the cookie experiment at UC Berkeley, whereby teams of 3 students were told they were to solve a difficult problem (cheating on campus, for example); but in truth the experiment was about them, to see what happened when, midway through their deliberations, a tray with 4 cookies was given to them as a break. Each would eat a cookie, yes, but what would happen to the 4th cookie? As predicted, the leader, chosen totally at random, grabbed the cookie and ate it with self-righteous gusto. The conclusion: any leader (pure luck) feels absolutely entitled to the extra cookie simply by virtue of his dominant position.
            This is Lewis’ point: those who are blessed by life’s fortune always feel that they deserve it. As he puts it regarding Moneyball: “Don’t be deceived by life’s outcomes…(they) have a huge amount of luck baked into them.” 
            Most people, as Lewis points out, cannot accept this. I had some experience with this resistance when I was teaching college freshmen. These were among the most privileged freshmen in the world, so I assigned for their very first in-class essay a simple subject: ‘Would you rather be blessed with more luck or with more brains?’ At first, they couldn’t even understand the question. Luck or brains? Is that even an issue? When I finally explained it a bit, they set out to write and the results were predictable: forget luck, we’d choose brains (forgetting, of course, that an ample brain is also luck). We’ve been taught the brain thing all our lives: be smart, work hard and you’ll be rewarded. What’s luck got to do with it? This is partly because in the general culture, if people even admit that luck plays any role, it’s usually with the caveat that success via luck usually goes to those who are prepared by previous exhaustive work for the lucky break. A scientist may stumble upon an experimental mistake that turns out to be a miracle cure, but of course it was all his years of work that prepared him uniquely to see it. But is this the whole story? Every example Lewis cites suggests otherwise. Dumb luck plays a major role in success—especially, as Lewis knew firsthand, on Wall Street.
            And, of course, it’s more than just Wall Street. It’s our very lives. How much did any of us have to do with being born—the lucky product of one tiny sperm managing to make it on one particular night through the gauntlet of flesh and acids to penetrate one particular egg that happened to fall that very cycle and result, after countless fortunate happenings, in gestation and implantation and survival of all the possible accidents that might snuff out a life, any life, at any moment, to emerge whole into the air and be able to breathe. And how much did any of us have to do with being blessed by the absence of earthquakes and fires and wars and plagues and major diseases and infinite numbers of smaller catastrophes capable of ending a small life at any moment, then to be nurtured in a way that did not pulverize us into self-or-other destruction but allowed our organism to thrive and be articulate enough to reach adulthood with a reasonable chance of success. The nuns in parochial school used to emphasize this continually: how lucky you are to be who you are, and how you have done nothing to deserve such blessings and so should be thankful to god and contribute to others who are less fortunate. And then pass around the donation basket for the missions; which the nuns and the Catholic Church at least had right. Because this was Michael Lewis’ point in his speech to those Princeton graduates. You are the lucky ones. You, through no fault of your own, are the massively blessed ones—graduates of a prestigious university, through which you will meet other lucky ones who will enable you to increase your luck and wealth in this, the wealthiest, least dangerous society the world has ever seen. And you will no doubt, some of you, be among those who grab that cookie and eat it with gusto, convinced that you fully deserve it. And you do not. No more than anyone else. Because like the cookie group leader, your “status is nothing but luck.” You therefore ought to remember the many other unlucky ones who—despite what our society now pretends and promotes—contribute to and make possible every bit of luck and success you will manage to seize as your own.
            It was an amazing message to present to these privileged grads. And it should be promoted far and wide in this nation at this very moment. Because the pernicious message about success and luck that we have been brainwashed with virtually since this nation’s founding is that those who succeed materially are the chosen ones—God’s elect who deserve everything they get, whose material success is in fact a sign of their election (i.e. to their heavenly reward). And those who fail—why they are the lazy ones, the undeserving ones, the losers who are not only a burden on all others, but who are likely, their failure being a sign of it, doomed to everlasting perdition as well. And the message has been made ever more pernicious since the conservative backlash starting in the 1980s with that movie-trained salesman of success, Ronald Reagan. For he was the one who sold America on the nasty message of conservative Republicans: taxes are unfair; the wealthy deserve to keep every bit of their wealth because they’ve earned it, unlike the poor, who, coddled by government handouts, want to take it from them. No, they shout. Let those who win life’s lottery keep what’s theirs. And let those who lose suffer their just desserts. The ethic of Wall Street in recent years has reinforced this message and amplified it and brought us into an era of inequality and cruelty more suited to a banana republic than a constitutional democracy, and thence to the brink of collapse—whence all those ‘self-made banksters’ suddenly found they had need for government handouts after all. With only this difference: as life’s elect, they were sure they deserved it. They were the leaders after all, the lucky ones at the summit of American society, and so possessed of an inalienable right to all of life’s cookies.
            Well, we shall see. We shall see if Michael Lewis’s little speech has any resonance. We shall see if the constant message of every religion and every wisdom tradition and even every political party—that luck in life’s lottery entails an obligation to those who not only are not lucky, but without whom the lucky could not even aspire to their privileged position; the unlucky including all those unseen producers from the bacteria onward whose feverish work digesting and photosynthesizing make life possible to begin with—can ever be taken seriously. We shall see if the lucky few come to their senses before they are brutally forced to do so by those at the bottom who finally realize that they have the only strength that matters: the strength of right to their fair share of the earth, the strength of real desserts that have been denied them for generations, the strength of numbers of those who have always done the work and have always been scorned for it and have nothing more to lose. We shall see.

Lawrence DiStasi

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