The argument that the rich deserve their wealth because they earned it serves as the basis for a lot of governmental social policy, including our taxation system. But even for the billionaire who started with nothing—and by the way, there are few of those—luck always has more to do with their success than anything they may have done. Drawing on the thoughts of Daniel N. Robinson in Praise and Blame, we can identify several kinds of luck:
- Being born to a wealthy or connected family
- Not being born in poverty
- Not suffering frequent food insecurity, violence or abuse as a child.
- Being born with a special skill or physical attribute. No matter how much you practice, you will never run as fast as Usain Bolt, block as many shots as Shaquille O’Neal, or crunch numbers as well as Alan Turing, because they were born with special skills that cannot be developed.
- Being born at the right place at the right time. Having a degree in television production was worth more in the early days of cable than it was in the 1960s. Or think of a math genius with extreme vision problems, now correctible, back in prehistoric times.
- Having a skill that is honored and well-paid by society, which is really part of being at the right place at the right time. For example, an investment banker and a taco stand owner put in about the same amount of work a week and they have similar ancillary skills (e.g., good with people, good with numbers, entrepreneurial). But society deems the investment banker’s contribution to be worth literally hundreds of times more than that of the taco stand owner.
I summed up this idea of luck mattering more than any other factor in a poem that imagines Willie Mays’s life if he had been born in Alabama a hundred years earlier, a heavily-worked slave, not a professional baseball player recognized as one of the greatest athletes of his generation. “Willie Mays in 1850” was originally published in Cutthroat, and later reprinted in Jewish Currents.
WILLIE MAYS IN 1850
Willie is always the first one selected
when the overseer commands two slaves
to choose up teams for cotton picking contests
because the master gives a cup of sugar
to the slaves on the team that amasses the most.
Willie is the only one who anyone remembers
feeding cotton into gins for hours on end
and pulling out his fingers fast enough each bunch
he never gets injured, not even a scratch.
Willie sometimes wakes from restless sleep
filled with yearning, something he can’t describe,
something with neither shape nor name,
so he steals away to Black Warrior River
and under moonlight pitches stone after stone
into the air across the water and to the other side.
Published in Cutthroat #16 (2014); reprinted in Jewish Currents (Summer 2015)