Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly's Unjust Deserts
The New Press, $24.95 (cloth)

Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success
Little, Brown, $27.95 (cloth)

“It’s not about you,” declares Reverend Rick Warren, the celebrity minister and hair-blown invocationer of Barack Obama’s inauguration, in his best-seller, The Purpose-Driven Life. It’s about God’s purpose for you. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly’s Unjust Deserts also declare that “it’s not about you.” For that matter, it’s also not about Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Beyoncé, Gordie Howe, or any other wildly successful individual; it’s about the circumstances you and they were lucky enough to fall into.

Both of these new books argue that a person’s success depends more on being born in the right place and at the right time than on being the right person. “Success,” concludes Gladwell, “follows a predictable course. It is not the brightest who succeed. . . . Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift.” This is a difficult message for Americans to understand, raised as we are in a culture that insists more than any other that every individual earns and therefore deserves his or her own fate.

Whether Gladwell and Alperovitz and Daly can change the way Americans think about success is another matter. The authors have a strong wind at their backs: the current recession is displacing so many workers and depleting so many investors’ fortunes through no obvious faults of their own that it becomes harder and harder to believe that everyone is getting their just deserts.

• • •

In Unjust Deserts, Alperovitz and Daly attack the moral claim that the wealthy have earned—and therefore deserve—their wealth. The key observation they insist and elaborate upon is that most of everyone’s wealth today comes from the efforts of earlier generations, particularly their contributions to knowledge and technology. Even Bill Gates’s rise to fortune depended on the development of electricity, the know-how to fabricate plastics, the invention of wireless communications, the silicon chip, and all the other technologies that Microsoft products presume, not to mention the markets, schools, law, and other institutions that make any large, modern business possible. Most of the difference—almost all of it, probably—between the way Bill Gates lives in 2009 and the way his ancestors lived in 1809 was determined before Bill was even born. In the last two centuries, the per-capita wealth of Americans increased twenty-fold. He and we simply inherited almost all of that increase.

Therefore, Alperovitz and Daly argue, neither Bill Gates nor we earned most of our wealth; and thus neither Bill Gates nor we deserve most of our wealth. Cumulative knowledge is “the overwhelming source of all modern wealth [and] comes to us today through no effort of our own. It is the generous and unearned gift of the past.”

If this is so, then most of what we have, and especially most of what the wealthy have, is, in economists’ terms, unearned “rent.” It is income we pocket without having produced it, like the landowner whose property multiplies in value once the state builds a highway nearby. As John Stuart Mill put it, “that increase of wealth which now flows into the coffers of private persons from the mere progress of society” is not morally assignable to that person (emphasis in Unjust Deserts).

Who, then, should profit from the increase in wealth that the past has gifted us? Alperovitz and Daly answer: society, which provided that wealth. “Society—all of its members equally—must be the residual claimants to the inherited contributions of past generations; . . . These contributions are of sufficient magnitude to warrant significant social claims on private wealth.” And thus the authors conclude, we have moral warrant for significant income redistribution.

Gladwell’s mission is popular science-education, and he does that remarkably well.

This is the heart of what the authors call the “knowledge inheritance” argument for equality. Alperovitz and Daly also address topics around that argument. They point out, for example, that new inventions themselves are also largely gifts of the past. Breakthroughs come not from individual strokes of genius, but as the predictable fruit of expanding, collective knowledge. If it had not been Einstein, it would have been someone else pretty soon. They challenge the conservative think-tank canard that more equality of outcomes impairs economic growth. It quite clearly does not: several statistical studies show that there is no meaningful correlation between changes in equality and changes in growth rates. One case in point is post-war America, where an economic boom accompanied decreased wealth disparity. Alperovitz and Daly also review the philosophical arguments over what justifies differences in wealth.

Unjust Deserts has a clear political commitment, but it is well-reasoned, well-documented, well-argued. I am convinced. But would skeptics be?

There are at least a couple of seams in the argument. One is the repeated assertion that the wealthy have “siphoned off” the bounty from “inherited knowledge.” That is not obvious. Over several generations, the poorest in our society have gained on the richest. Differences in life spans have narrowed considerably, as have differences in access to basic goods. Although this equalizing trend stalled in the last generation, history suggests that the “knowledge inheritance” may already have been redistributed—at least somewhat—toward equality.

Another seam opens in the authors’ claim that society should redistribute the unearned rent from the past equally to all. Perhaps it should not be distributed at all, but invested in common goods, like a cleaner environment. Or perhaps it should be distributed in accord with how much each individual today makes of and adds to the commons. Those who best harvest the past and plant for the future should, some could reasonably claim, be richer than others.

The authors note this last objection to their case for redistribution, but too briefly. They answer it mainly by shifting the debate to new grounds: since opportunities in modern America are not equal, they say, those who succeed have not really deserved their greater reward. This move takes us into the terrain of Gladwell’s Outliers.

• • •

Malcolm Gladwell, the fantastically successful New Yorker journalist, best-selling author, and lecture-circuit star, also has a message of humility: “It is impossible for . . . any outlier,” any highly successful individual, including himself,

to look down from their [sic] lofty perch and say with truthfulness, ‘I did this, all by myself.’ . . . They are the product of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky.

Gladwell parses the luck of the outliers into three categories: accidents of birthdate, accidents of cultural heritage, and just plain accidents.

Perhaps Gladwell is too modest; his own success seems well-deserved. This guy can write; he can take social science research and bring it. He has an eye for good scholarship and excellent scholars. He wraps compelling stories and engaging characters around the kernel of research, delivering the academic material so entertainingly that readers may not even notice they have been schooled.

To be sure, Gladwell does not delve into the details, contradictions, and ambiguities in the research literature as academics would; he simplifies. Also, he seems content to wander away from his line of argument to find and recount captivating stories. But Gladwell’s mission is popular science-education, and he does that remarkably well, which may be one reason he has been, as Matthew Yglesias noted in his blog, the subject of notably snarky (jealous?) reviews.

The first lesson Gladwell delivers is that luck explains at least part of success. To a startling degree, the year and month someone was born predicts how well he or she will do. Sports provides some clear evidence. It is the arena of achievement in which native talent should most determine who gets ahead. Yet, month of birth is critical. Would-be athletes born just after the cut-off dates for youth sports leagues are much likelier to end up, years later, as successful players and even professionals than those born near the end of the twelve-month period.

Alperovitz and Daly suggest a thought experiment: where would the Bill Gateses of today be if they were transferred to the ‘state of nature’?

Several processes explain this “relative age effect.” The child who is among the older in a league—say, seven years and eleven months old on opening day of the seven-year-olds’ baseball season—will typically be bigger, more mature, and more experienced than the child who is seven years and three months old on opening day. The older will have more success, enjoy the sport more, get more attention from coaches, and be more likely to make the all-star team. Each year the process repeats and the advantages feed on themselves, so that by, say, fifteen, the traveling teams are composed of players whose birthdays bunch up at the early part of the league calendar. One’s success is, then, partly an accident of how one’s birthday matches league rules.

(This example strikes home. My quite athletic daughter had the misfortune of being born ten days before term, in late December instead of early January. Consequently, she was regularly the youngest in her leagues, instead of the oldest. With better luck, she could have gone much farther. Many parents understand this dynamic and hold back their children in school to maximize sports success.)

Accidents of the calendar can affect more than athletic achievement. They also figure in academics. A child’s age relative to the starting date for school is worth—other things being equal—several percentile ranks on achievement tests. The relative-age effect lasts, probably compounds, over time and substantially influences students’ chances of going to college.

Year of birth matters even more. Geeky teens who ended up as high-tech moguls seem to have been born in the mid-1950s, and many major American industrialists of the nineteenth century were born in the 1830s. The reason for the birth clusters, Gladwell argues, is that new economic opportunities emerged in a concentrated moment, just when those men reached maturity.

Gladwell may be cherry-picking his examples, but more systematic data also show that “cohort effects” can be powerful. For example, men born a decade or two before the Civil War grew up shorter and died earlier than men born before or after those years. Women born earlier in the twentieth century were expected to interrupt their careers for the duration of their children’s school years, but women born later were not. Americans who entered old age after the 1970s were half as likely to be poor than those who entered old age before the 1970s. How much money a college degree could earn you fluctuated sharply in the 1970s and ’80s. And Baby Boomers seem particularly vulnerable to depression and suicide.

We are living through another demonstration of cohort effects. Many students leaving high school, college, or graduate school this June and probably next June, too, will start their careers late or on a lower rung than their older siblings did. Their younger siblings will probably have a better start. The classes of ’09 and ’10 did nothing to “deserve” the economic handicap they will carry through life. Such is the fickle hand of fate.

The other fateful accident Gladwell dwells on is of a different nature: the fortune of being born into the right culture. Drawing on superb scholars as varied as historian David Hackett Fischer, sociologist Annette Lareau, and psychologist Richard Nisbett, Gladwell argues that families inherit and pass on distinctive habits. Those habits may be rooted in the exigencies of life centuries earlier—herding in the borderlands of Britain, toiling in the rice paddies of southern China—but, according to this controversial theory, they influence descendants to this day. To be born in the American South or to Chinese-American parents is to inherit the habits, respectively, of reacting violently to any implied insult and of persisting intensively in the face of any problem. The former culture raises the child’s chances of failure in life, the latter of success.

Cultural inheritances are not fixed, Gladwell reassures readers. People can be retrained—as the successful Knowledge Is Power Program does when it conditions students to persist. But culture of birth, like timing of birth, is one those accidents that explains the story of success. Gladwell compares the biographies of Christopher Langan and Robert Oppenheimer. Both were identified as geniuses in childhood, and both demonstrated their ability early in life. But Langan ended up a college dropout, semi-recluse, and unknown because, Gladwell argues, his parents never taught him—as Oppenheimer’s had taught their son—critical social skills. Oppenheimer could get his college to help him find therapy after he tried to poison his teacher, but Lanagan could not get his college to overlook some late paperwork.

Finally, there are just plain accidents. Tech giant Bill Joy, formerly of Sun Microsystems, had the blind luck of choosing to attend the University of Michigan.

When the programming bug hit him in his freshman year, he found himself—by the happiest of accidents—in one of the few places in the world where [thanks to the university’s pioneering of computer time-sharing] a seventeen-year-old could program all he wanted.

High-powered attorney Joe Flom was also “lucky” when, in 1947, the white-shoe law firms he applied to after law school rejected him because of his “antecedents,” that is, being Jewish. Forced to go out on his own and accept whatever business walked in the door, Flom was in the right place when takeover entrepreneurs who needed legal work came along.

• • •

Gladwell tells stories about extreme successes, about “outliers,” but he means to convey a broader message. He aims to demonstrate “that extraordinary achievement is less about talent than it is about opportunity.” He concludes that the “patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine [sic] success” ought to be replaced “with a society that provides opportunity to all.” By such comments, Gladwell opens the door to a vast, long-lasting and complex research arena that he barely acknowledges.

For at least five decades, social scientists have used enormous surveys and complex statistical tools precisely in an effort to explain “status attainment.” How much, they ask, of the variation in people’s life outcomes—who gets ahead and who falls behind—can be explained by individual traits and how much by circumstances? In 1972 Christopher Jencks and his colleagues published one milestone study, Inequality, which emphasized opportunity but also concluded that much variation cannot be explained and so must be due to “luck.” In 1994 Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray notoriously stirred the waters with their book The Bell Curve, which argued that individual success or failure was largely determined by a person’s basic intelligence, which in turn was determined by his or her DNA. Gladwell notes neither book, although he is surely aware of both. (In 2007 Gladwell had to recant a reference to The Bell Curve that included the word “notoriously”; I shan’t.)

Scholars have waged the person-versus-circumstances argument with regression coefficients, simultaneous equations, hierarchical linear modeling, monozygotic versus dizygotic twin studies, and other apparatuses of modern social science. One provisional conclusion is that Gladwell’s summation, “achievement is less about talent than it is about opportunity,” remains unresolved. (For example, many psychologists now assert that the sort of social skills that advantaged Oppenheimer over Lanagan are themselves the product of genetic coding.) I stand on Gladwell’s side in this debate, but we probably cannot yet say what portion of success is the result of native ability; circumstances like timing of birth, family advantages, and teacher quality; and dumb luck.

Even as the empirical issue remains fuzzy, so does the deeper philosophical one. How do we decide what is individual talent and what is luck? Take the child who works intensively at school and ends up with a Harvard M.D. We might attribute the child’s work habits to, say, the hard push that Jewish-American parents or, more recently, Chinese-American parents provided. Gladwell calls that child “lucky” for culturally inheriting a strong work ethic from his or her parents—being in the right womb in the right decade. Others might call that child “motivated”—‘what difference does it make whether the child’s motivation was culturally or genetically inherited?’ they could ask—and assert that that now-grown child is deserving of both success and the sense of pride it provides.

• • •

Alperovitz and Daly suggest a thought experiment: where would the Bill Gateses of today be if they were transferred to the “state of nature”? How much good would their technical or business skills do them there? Absent society, their skills would gain them little. Therefore, the wealth of the real Gateses is not really their own accomplishment. Gladwell is not as radical while making his claims for equalization, but the implications of Outliers are similar.

This may, however, be the wrong thought experiment. Perhaps we need to think the way baseball statistics nerds do, applying the thought experiment of VORP: value over replacement player. The basic idea—never mind the painful complications—is that a player’s worth is measured by what he contributes to winning compared to what the next available replacement for him would contribute. This roughly captures the marginal value of the player. If we think that the next available head of Microsoft after Gates (or, for Apple fans, of Apple after Steve Jobs) would have contributed less total value to global productivity, then Gates deserves credit for a healthy chunk, perhaps all, of that difference. This thinking leads to a contrary conclusion, then, about inequality. It is the sort of argument boards of directors make in justifying huge CEO salaries: that the difference between the best and next-best candidate is worth millions.

Perhaps there is another line of argument about desert, which is not about trying to assess justice by proportional reward, but trying to assess justice by a compassionate moral yardstick. We do not feed children or care for the elderly—or for “the least of these”—in proportion to their value over replacement, but in response to their humanity.

Both the social science and the philosophy of Unjust Deserts and Outliers can be parsed and trimmed. But they surely help puncture the egoism of the successful and remind them that “it’s not about you.”