Book Reviews

Book Reviews Finance & Development, September 2016, Vol. 53, No. 3

When Winners Don’t Take All Robert H. Frank

Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy

Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2016, 187 pp., $26.95 (cloth).

In their 1995 book, The Winner-Take-All Society, Philip Cook and Robert Frank looked at the competition for fewer and larger rewards in winner-take-all markets. They postulate that these markets—in which the best performers capture the most rewards, leaving remaining competitors with very little—have led to spiraling income inequality, higher consumption spending, and perhaps, with their emphasis on winners only, a dilution of culture itself. Since that book’s publication, Frank has been a strong proponent of the idea that a progressive consumption tax might end the income inequality spiral and divert funds from consumption spending to saving and investment.

His latest book, Success and Luck, follows naturally from his earlier work. It is a compelling discussion of how winner-take-all markets work, the rising income inequality and “expenditure cascades” in these markets, the economic need for winners to acknowledge the role of luck in such markets and thereby be willing to share their winnings for the common good, and how a change in tax policy might ameliorate some of these problems.

Frank, a professor of management and economics at Cornell University, argues that talent and hard work alone do not necessarily lead to proportional success in the market. Chance events such as being born into the right family (the influence of genes and early family advantage) or the right country (the influence of the physical, financial, cultural, and educational environment) also contribute greatly to success.

The effect of these chance events, or luck, is magnified in winner-take-all markets, he says. The winner, who may be only slightly better than the second best, takes all, thanks to open markets, most people’s inability to choose among competing options because of a lack of time and energy, and the network effects of social media. Thus, rewards depend more on relative than absolute performance (think of the incentives for athletes to dope!), and rewards are highly concentrated in the hands of a few. Winners then lobby government to lower top tax rates and reduce regulations, which leads to spiraling income and wealth inequality.

One interesting implication is that as the wealthy spend more, those in...

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