Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Work and Luck, Luck and Work

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Okay, let’s start here:  the night before last, my older son was hit by a car.

You can calm down now.  It wasn’t a bad hit.   He wasn’t seriously injured.  He was stepping off the curb as the walk light went on and this guy in a parking space pulled out without looking, and Matt got clipped in the knee.  This was not fun, and he had to take a bunch of prescription ibuprofen, and I called him  at weid hours for the next 24, just to check up on him, but he’s fine.

None of you out thre would deny that what happened  to my son in this instance was luck–he wasn’t jaywalking, so he didn’t bring it on himself, it could have been a lot worse, and all that kind of thing.

But Robert and I have discussions every  once in a while about whther we should call the people who make more money people who are “more fortunate” or people who work harder than other people do, with Robert seeming to insist that the rule would be the people who work harder, and me saying that it isn’t that simple.

It also occurs to me that richer parts of the country tend also to be the most “liberal” parts of the country, with “liberal” here defined as people who think it’s a good idea to have higher taxes for higher brackets of income and to be in favor of the government giving money to the “less fortunate.”

I want to make a suggestion–those of us on the coasts tend to be more “liberal” not because we despise conservatives or the middle class values of hard work and thrift, but because we live every day with the very people who do in fact have the money.  We are forced to confront the impact of luck head on, and we see a lot of it.

Inheritance and marriage are the two most common ways in which any individual will enter the Fortune 400 list of richest people in the country.   Yes, of course, there are plenty of top earners on that list, but just go down and check off  how many people have “inheritance” as their source of money.

But the impact of luck goes much farther than this.  Cheryl said she was surprised that upper middle class parents wouldn’t want their children to study something ‘practical” in college–and a mountain of luck is implied in whether or not your parents understand that she’s misunderstanding the situation.

Culturally upper middle class parents want their children to major in philosophy at Yale rather than accounting at Ball State not because they oppose being practical, but because they know that a philosophy major with a C average from Yale will get a better job (in finance, even) after graduation than an accounting major with an A average from Ball State.

In fact, most large compaines have tiers of job recruiting drives–they go to Ball State to hire middle management, they go to Yale to hire the guys they think may one day end up as CEOs. 

And it gets even worse.  Want to go to law school, med school, grad school?  All the first rate ones weight grades from different institutions, so that 4.0 from Western Connecticut State  College is probably viewed as a C next to Bs from Harvard and Cornell, which, with the weight, will b treated as As. 

And it gets even worse than that.  The chances are good that the kid at  Ball State will in fact pay more for his education than the kid at Yale, and have more loans when he leaves.  Why?  Because the top tier or uninversities have huge endowments and hand out lots of money to students they want to recruit.  Ball State, not nearly so much.

Hell, Harvard made an announcement a while back that it will no longer charge any tutition at all–none–to students from families making less than $60,000 a year.

Information like this is incredibly valuable, and not having it can cost you a career.  My husband turned down Harvard because–God help me–they didn’t have a major in broadcasting.  He had nobody to explain to him that he’d find an easier time getting an actual job in broadcasting if he went to Harvard, majored in English, and then went looking. 

Guidance counselors should fill the information gap here, but they don’t.  I don’t know what qualifies somebody to get a job as a high school guidance counselor, but I can tell you, from having dealt with the money problems of lots of kids, that most of them don’t have the faintest idea how the financial aid system actually works. 

How many kids do you think have given up the dream of going to Vassar to go to the local community college instead, because the  CC is “affordable”?  How many have given up the hope of becoming a lawyer, or a doctor, and signed on for nursing or paralegal studies instead, because—well, they just “couldn’t afford” the right school?

The offices of international law firms, the staffs of famous hospitals, the buildings of famous banks are stuffed full of people who, if their parents had been other than they were, would have ended up at that community college.  The nursing rosters of local facilities, the middle management cubicles of small local companies, the paralegal bullpens of mid-sized state law firms have a sprinkling of people who do in fact have far more in the way of raw talent, dedication and drive than the low end of the big deal.  Except that the low end of the big deal is making nearly ten times more money.

I could go into other ways in which luck counts, but I think I’ve hit it right when  I say that the difference between red states and blue states isn’t any of the values/lifestyles/whatever that we’re always talking about.  It’s that states are blue when lots of first-tier people live in them, and the population can get a good, day to day look at what that first tier does and does not consist of.

Yes, the best of the best are as good as it gets.  They work hard.  They learn more and do more than any of the rest of us. 

What’s right below that, though, is mostly luck–at $250,000 a year, a full benefits package, and the kind of Christmas bonus that makes your teeth hurt.

Written by janeh

February 13th, 2009 at 1:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Work and Luck, Luck and Work'

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  1. I’m glad Matt isn’t seriously hurt.

    I’ve always thought success in life (any kind, really; business or personal) was due to a combination of luck, effort, and native talent/intelligence/ability. Happiness (or at least contentment) is probably due to all those plus a certain type of psychology, or learned coping skills, or whatever it is that makes people dust themselves off and adjust their view of what is necessary for a good or happy life after everything they own goes up in an out-of-control bush fire, or they finally admit they don’t have the talent and body build to become a prima ballerina or their only child dies of one of those incurable and unpredictable diseases.

    I don’t know anyone who would choose a top university on the basis that that’s where the big boys pick their future CEOs. I don’t know many who’d gamble the family finances on an attempt for their son or daughter at Harvard – even with scholarships, housing and travel expenses and such make it much more sensible to stay nearer home, and after all, not all Yale graduates become top successes.

    I suppose this approach must work for people in the upper middle classes – although of course, this doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t suffer economic loss when the business of which they are CEO collapses. Everyone else does, and they arguable have even more responsibility for the collapse than, say, the tellers.

    Why ‘upper middle’, anyway? Is this like the old joke that no one in the US is lower or upper class; they’re all lower middle, middle, and upper middle? Or is there yet another class out there?


    13 Feb 09 at 2:43 pm

  2. Well, I don’t think what you’re talking about is luck (except for your son!). I think it’s privilege and the old boy network, or whatever it is called these days. I didn’t know about the recruitment; I thought it mostly worked by phone calls and connections. I actually graduated from one of those top-tier schools and I never got a bit of that luck or privilege. But then the school had just started accepting women, I was a bit older and didn’t live on campus, and I never tried to summon up any of the magic. I think I got a good education, and I think the school on my resume testifies to my general intelligence — but other than a zillion alumni fund requests that I started getting the second I graduated, I never reaped the supposed benefits of my classy diploma.

    I think that richer people simply have more disposable income than poor people, so a tax hike might annoy them, or limit the amount they can put into stocks or whatever, but it won’t kill them. For poor folks, an extra $500 tax payment can break them. I also think that when you are richer (and can afford higher taxes without it changing your life), you also look around and realize that you’d be safer and more secure if the poor folks around you weren’t so poor. If you don’t have much money, you look at the even poorer folks around you and — it seems to me — you’re more likely to think that they should just work harder, like you. I think this is why immigrants and children of immigrants tend to be conservative Republicans. They don’t have the luxury of generosity.


    13 Feb 09 at 4:23 pm

  3. So many openings! No ways to save a few for later?

    I should have said the leftward tilt of the northeast–West Coast liberalism is somewhat different–was the outcome of greater economic disparity. The worst “bad neighborhood” in my home town couldn’t qualify for a northeastern slum if you gave it three tries. The children of millionaires attend the same public schools. Add to this the greater ethnic divisions of the major cities. (It’s easier to soak the rich if you’re not planning to put the arm on one of them at Thanksgiving.) Upstate New York is more like Ohio and Indiana in these regards, and votes much like them. Chicago more closely resembles New York City and votes to match. Sadly, the voting record of Wisconsin and Minnesota would suggest that both my explanation and Jane’s are too simple.

    As for good fortune vs hard work, that’s a full-scale essay by itself. And of course it’s “not that simple,” which was MY point. We seem to have a fair number of politicians who seem unable or unwilling to grasp that wealth is not something that just happens, but stems from behaviors they frequently and enthusiastically discourage.

    In fact, newly-created wealth seems easier to discourage than hereditary privilege. You could ask the “red princes” of China and the Soviet Union, who lived VERY well, even before the return of enterprise–or I could name names much closer to home.

    But are wealthy idiots a refutation of security of property and equitable txation? We don’t, as a rule, regard morons hosting television news programs, lunatics with radio programs or liars with newspaper columns as refutations of free speech. They are the price we pay–and must pay–to have the benefits of free speech from the intelligent, sane, and honest.

    I have the benefit of Amazon, Wal-Mart and Microsoft. One of the prices I pay for this is a certain wealthy hereditary politician, who never worked a day in his life, but can always take a little time to sneer at or second-guess anyone who met a payroll. It’s a stiff price, but worth paying–and it isn’t MY people keeping him in the Senate.

    Of course, if you really wanted to nail hereditary wealth without affecting newly-created wealth, there would be ways to do it. Flatten the personal and corporate income taxes and install stiff consumption and luxury taxes instead. Apply “progressive” taxation to palatial residences. But I don’t think the Hyannisport Compound is in any immediate danger.


    13 Feb 09 at 7:09 pm

  4. “I think this is why immigrants and children of immigrants tend to be conservative Republicans. They don’t have the luxury of generosity.”

    Is this the case in the US? Because in Canada, immigrants have voted Liberal (which is probably more left-wing than your average Democrat) for a good 30 years or so – at least since Trudeau. They were always seen as the immigrant’s party. This may well be changing since the Liberals imploded and the revamped Conservatives are making a determined effort to appeal to their vote, and it is no longer unusual to see Conservative candidates and supporters whose ancestors don’t seem to have immigrated from the UK or France.

    It would never occur to me to assume that an immigrant or an immigrant’s children would vote conservative.

    Being born in the ‘right’ family IS a matter of luck, in the sense that it’s good or bad fortune that you can’t really control. Membership in some versions of the old boy network can be affected by your own efforts, I suppose.

    I do wonder if the lifetime financial benefits of an Ivy League (or equivalent) education is really all that high. After all, not all graduates become Presidents of the US or CEOs of multinational corportations.


    13 Feb 09 at 9:01 pm

  5. Hm. I suppose I shouldn’t have made my sweeping generalization about all immigrants. The only group I know well are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and they are overwhelmingly conservative. My parents were children of these immigrants (only then it was the Russian and Austrio-Hungarian Empire) and they were also conservative Republicans. They had had a hard time in their youth, and they “made it” by very hard work and, I think, in the face of a lot of, well, not perhaps discrimination, but certainly assumptions about them. At that time (20s and 30s) being a “greenhorn” was the worst thing in the world. Today I think it’s called FOB (fresh off the boat). Whatever they had earned, they wanted to hang on to, and they were generally not very synpathetic to other people who were getting “hand outs.” But maybe I shouldn’t generalize from my family.

    This is probably more complicated than we are making it, and I think there are about 20 books on voting patterns. I’m from upstate NY, and my hometown is now fairly poor and I would have said socially conservative. It’s also very white. But it voted for Obama.

    For someone like me, who didn’t go the corporate route and never attended all those alumni get-togethers (which I think are for networking), I don’t think my diploma had any effect on my income over the years. But I might be the exception rather than the rule.


    14 Feb 09 at 3:55 am

  6. I live in an area which hasn’t quite gotten over its shock from its sudden conversion from a ‘have-not’ to a ‘have’ province for the first time since the equalization programs were instituted (that is, we pay in more than we get out, but the whole system is horrendously complicated). Nevertheless, we’re overwhelmingly white and, mostly poor, very dependant on cyclic resource-based industries, and what immigrants arrive here usually stay just long enough to save the money to move to a large city with more jobs and more members of their community. I’d say we used to be socially conservative, too, although that’s changed a lot and probably never meant exactly what it does in the US. Traditionally, our rural areas vote Liberal and our urban area (note singular) Conservative, although that tends to vary somewhat depending on whether you’re thinking federal or provinicial and how the two levels of government have been getting on together recently.

    Explaining voting patterns does get complicated sometimes. A lot of people would probably expect my area to be more politically conservative than it is.


    14 Feb 09 at 6:12 am

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