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Hullabaloo


Sunday, July 29, 2012

 
If it weren't for bad luck there's be no luck at all?

by digby

David Frum has been deconstructing the president's "you didn't build that" line, trying to figure out why it seems to have hit the nerve that it did. In this piece he compares Obama's words with Elizabeth Warren's and susses out the subtle difference between them:

Warren is offering a single message: your success was made possible by the contributions of others, now you must contribute in turn. Nobody would seriously dispute her claim. We're just left to haggle over price: Should the successful pay forward 36% of their success or 39% or 28% or what...

Obama combines two ideas: the familiar and broadly acceptable idea in Elzabeth Warren's speech—and a second, much more destabilizing idea.
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.
Obama's second idea is that success is to a great extent random, a matter of luck. You think you succeeded because you were smart or hard-working? Listen—a lot of smart and hard-working people don't succeed.
(Frum then points out that Hayek agreed and used to grumble that this unfortunately gave capitalism a bad name!)

He notes that this election's overarching theme boils down to an argument over the idea that those who are making obscene amounts of money in this obscenely unequal "recovery" are doing so because of their moral superiority and work ethic, while the rest of us floundering because we are lazy and undeserving. And he thinks this irks Obama, who sort of let his irritation show.

Well, I should hope so. It sure as hell irks me.

But this, I think, is the reason his remarks irk conservatives so much:
To be sure, other politicians have declared that "life is unfair." But that instruction is usually directed to society's losers. Obama is—almost uniquely—directing the message to society's winners, including the very grand winner who will soon be nominated to run for president against him. They're not used to it, and they don't like it, not one bit.
That's exactly right, I think. To even imply that luck plays a role in the success of the 1% is to expose what they are really afraid of: if luck was partly responsibly for getting them where they are then luck could easily put them back where they started. This is why they are working so hard to secure all the protections, all the rewards, all the power for themselves. They are trying to hold bad luck at bay, trying to build a wall of money and privilege so high that they are impenetrable.

And yet it's obvious that they have been hugely lucky. Just to have been born in this time is lucky. There were countless moments where they beat the odds, got an unanticipated break, happened to know the right person, were in the right place at the right time. To fail to acknowledge that, to not know that and be humble, awed and grateful is one of the causes of hubris.

These folks are all too willing to chalk up foreclosed mortgages and lost jobs to "bad luck" and have no problem shrugging their shoulders at those who have the misfortune of getting sick without health insurance and thinking "those are the breaks." But when it comes to the other side of that coin, the side that makes people vastly wealthy with one (or many) good breaks, we are required to believe that it's all a matter of hard work and talent that got them there.

The idea Obama was skirting around was the idea that all of us are subject to the vagaries of luck. The central idea of our modern society was just that we would try to provide opportunity for everyone to be prepared to take advantage of the upside when it comes along and provide some cushion for everyone on the downside. That's it. The whole thing was just an attempt to even out the odds a little bit. And frankly, as Chris Hayes so smartly shows in his book, our current problems can be boiled down to the simple fact that lucky people who have everything are determined to make sure that it's all upside for them --- and all downside for everyone else.

I hate to tell you this Masters of the Universe, but just like the rest of us unlucky losers, you're all going to die one day. Every single one of you. No amount of talent, hard work, moral superiority, money or luck can save you.


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