It’s better to be lucky than to be good – as any card player will tell you. Of course, over the long haul, talent wins out – but in any given shuffle, the outcome is largely determined by the cards. And the central fact of life is that it’s a one-shot deal. (We hope that top people are working on this problem.) Over many iterations, one would expect talent to dominate other factors. But there are no iterations – how your one passage through life works out is much more about the circumstances you are born into than your individual skills.
Cross-country comparisons vividly illustrate how vast differences in quality of life are primarily attributable to dumb luck, good and bad – to facts completely beyond an individual’s control. Taken at random, a human being is 40% likely to be in India or China, and 5% likely to be in the US (the three most populous nations). American incomes, on average, are about five times greater than Chinese incomes and ten times greater than Indian incomes. The minimum wage in America – about $15,000 per year for a 40 hour work week – is 50% greater than the average Chinese income, and triple the average Indian income. Being born in America is a far better boon to lifetime earnings than being born brilliant or hardworking.
People born into affluence in the West have no more innate talent than the majority of humanity that’s born into grinding poverty – 50% of whom live on less than $2.50 per day; 80% of whom live on less than $10. In fact, people in modern-day stone-age cultures, often surviving on incomes of less than $1 per day, probably have greater innate intelligence than the typical resident of a modern, affluent western city. As Jared Diamond sagely observed, the greatest evolutionary hurdle faced by urban Westerners has, for centuries, been infectious disease. Stone-age cultures are much more violent, putting evolutionary pressure on individuals to be socially and politically adept. Thus it is that Westerners of today descend from ancestors blessed with strong immune systems; while the Pume and Guaja of the Amazon, e.g., descend from ancestors clever enough to survive the machinations of others.
At the margins, individual talent counts for something. In Papua New Guinea, for example, a better gatherer might come home with a larger coconut – but she’s not likely to score a cushy corporate board seat or test into an elite prep school. Millions born in rural India and China have practically zero chance of achieving the living standard of an American stocking shelves at Walmart. If material comfort and length of life are your wishes, it is far better to be born with an ordinary mind in Alabama than to be an Einstein born in Calcutta. Even one’s individual talents are tellingly called “gifts:” what you get – or dont get – is, alas, beyond your control too.
Within individual countries, one finds the same patterns on a more compressed scale. Among Americans, individual incomes are largely predicted by race, gender and parental income. Education is predictive too – but the quantity and quality of an individual’s education are significantly determined by socioeconomic factors – like race and parental income. Education seems to be the consequence of more basic inputs
Americans from disadvantaged backgrounds are not very likely to rise to the highest income levels. Contrary to the myth of “the American Dream,” in no developed country does your parents’ income determine your own income more than it does in the US. The entire world is a luckocracy – but the American luckocracy is absolutely the least meritocratic in the western world. And not only are poor American children much less likely to grow rich – they’re far more likely to suffer such pitfalls as drug abuse, incarceration and teen parenthood, while enduring poorer health and shorter lives. An American child of a low-level Walmart employee is surely far better off than a typical child in the developing world – but he has a much smaller chance of growing rich than a similarly situated person in another western country.
The Field Guide returns on Wednesday, to consider how our knowledge of the luckocracy should inform public policy.