No Such Thing As Good Luck

Now that we're having a real debate about the fundamentals of capitalism and success, it's worth considering another part of the now-infamous "You didn't build that" speech President Obama recently gave. When he was accused of taking Obama's words out of context, Mitt Romney's defense was that "The context is worse than the quote." As evidence, he cited not the actual context of "You didn't build that" but what Obama said a paragraph before, about the role of fortune in success. And it's that idea—that success has to do not only with hard work and talent but also with luck—that really got Mitt Romney steamed. Here's the passage in question:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me -- because they want to give something back. They know they didn't -- look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I'm always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there

You might think that this would be hard to argue with, but as David Frum observed, many successful people find the idea that luck played a part in their success to be deeply offensive. And it makes me wonder whether Mitt Romney himself believes that the fact that his father was a wealthy industrialist and governor had nothing to do with his financial success. Does he think that if he been born to a poor single mother in backwoods Appalachia, he would have grown up to be the same private equity titan he turned out to be?

I'm guessing he does, but it would be interesting to hear what he said if someone asked him, "Governor, what role do you think luck played in your success? Do you think you had more of a chance to succeed because of who your parents were?"

Don't know about you, but I'm happy to admit that luck played a large part in whatever success I've had. I was fortunate in my parents; we weren't rich, but they valued education highly, created an environment with lots of opportunities for learning, and moved us to a town with excellent public schools. Had I been born in more deprived circumstances, I'm quite sure I wouldn't have had anything like the opportunities I did, and I seriously doubt I would have pulled myself up by my bootstraps unless some other piece of luck fell my way. Luck played some part in getting most of the jobs I had, even if it was just knowing someone who knew someone who had an opening. I work hard enough, but I'm not such a jerk that I don't understand how lucky I am to have a career as a writer, which is absurdly cushy compared to the jobs of people who stand on an assembly line or run around a distribution center or change bedpans. In my youth I had just enough exposure to a series of not-particularly-pleasant jobs like waiting tables and working a cash register in a supermarket to make me never forget how absurdly lucky I am to make a living doing what I do.

Mitt Romney is right about one thing: it's hard to start and maintain a business. And it's particularly hard if, unlike someone like Mitt Romney, you can't live off your stocks when you do it. So I understand why some business owners would get their backs up when Romney tells them that Barack Obama told them they didn't actually build their business. I'd hope they'd take the time to figure out that Romney is actually lying to them about that, but what can you do. But what I struggle to understand is the rich guy who thinks that luck played absolutely no part in him getting where he is. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't hear that coming from a guy who built up a construction business from the ground up. People like that have usually had exposure to enough bad luck to know good luck when they see it. It's only the people whose entire lives have been nothing but a string of good luck who so angrily assert that there's no such thing. It's the Wall Street tools who got six-figure jobs in their uncle's firm fresh out of Wharton who insist so vehemently that everything they have is because of their own talents. Only if you think that could you genuinely believe that an increase in your income tax of a few points constitutes some kind of communist attack on success.

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