Think yourself lucky

Robert Frank’s new book [amazon_link id=”0691167400″ target=”_blank” ]Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy[/amazon_link] is a nice, brief overview of why luck plays such a big role in an individual’s economic success (or otherwise).

[amazon_image id=”0691167400″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy[/amazon_image]

This very readable book canters through some of the key evidence on how economic success depends on chance, amplified by phenomena such as winner take all markets, and by policy. Mainly, though, it is another pitch for Frank’s favourite policy prescription of a progressive consumption tax, something he’s been advocating since [amazon_link id=”0691156689″ target=”_blank” ]The Darwin Economy[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0691146934″ target=”_blank” ]Luxury Fever[/amazon_link] and possibly before. As in those books, he relies here on the argument that much consumption consists of positional spending and the ‘arms races’ need to be limited by policy intervention.

I’m not persuaded about the consumption tax idea, because when you ask policymakers to select luxury goods will probably choose something that might be a luxury now but will become a useful mass market product. Remember Norman Lamont in 1991 taxing mobile phones as yuppie status symbols – which indeed they were at the time. (“I turn now to what I regard as one of the greatest scourges of modern life. I refer to the mobile telephone. I propose to bring the benefit of car phones into income tax and to simplify the tax treatment of mobile phones by introducing a standard charge on the private use of such phones provided by an employer. Tax will be paid of £200 for each phone for 1991-92. I hope that, as a result of this measure, restaurants will be quieter and the roads will be safer.” Budget speech 19 March 1991.) One could be on safer ground with, say, gold leaf covered sports cars, but even so my preference is for progressive income and especially property taxes.

Still, the reminder about the important role of luck is welcome, although it is surely neither wholly necessary nor sufficient for economic success. The most important conclusion to my mind is the negative one that people who are poor are most likely unlucky, whether that be in terms of their parents’ income and status or the quality of their school and neighbourhood, and poverty or unemployment can’t be blamed on laziness. As Julia Unwin pointed out so eloquently in [amazon_link id=”1907994165″ target=”_blank” ]Why Fight Poverty?[/amazon_link], we often make unjustified moral judgements about poor people out of fear; we need to recognise the bad hand life has dealt them.

2 thoughts on “Think yourself lucky

  1. Great observation about the perils of designating what is, or is not, a luxury good. What a difference a few decades make!

    I have not yet read the book, so I may be missing something, but it seems to me that the idea of a progressive consumption tax does not rely on identifying luxury goods. AIUI from earlier work by Robert Frank, it looks at the total consumption in a year (tax payers report, in addition to the income that the tax authorities already know, their total bank balance + other savings at the beginning and at the end of the year). Whether someone has spent £300k on 300,000 loaves of bread, or on a single Ferrari would then be treated in the same way.

    • Which is surely the same as a progressive income tax with a tax-free allowance for savings (up to a certain threshold), as we have now?

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