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The Luck of the Rich

An excellent post from Felix Salmon that relates to a topic near-and-dear to my heart:

A tweet from Joe Weisenthal yesterday, on the subject of Annie Leibovitz, is I think revealing of a particularly American mindset: call it the Wealth Corollary of the Efficient Market Hypothesis. In a nutshell, it says that if you’ve made lots of money, you must be pretty smart.

I think there’s a pretty good case to be made that the EMH(WC) is responsible for a lot of the rules surrounding the limitations on who is and who is not allowed to invest in hedge funds, and also for many of the obsequious interviews with rich individuals frequently featured in the financial media.

To me the interesting thing goes beyond hedge fund rules and obsequious interviews in financial media, to a much more general phenomenon of the enormous general social, cultural, and intellectual prestige accorded to rich people. In this vein, Leibowitz is not a good example, since obviously she’s a rich person second and a famous photographer first and her work can be judged on its own photo-centric terms.

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But in general it seems to me that we pay extraordinarily little attention to the giant role played by luck and happenstance in determining who becomes a super-successful businessman. Bill Gates, for example, clearly knows something about software and something about business. But there are lots of people who fit that bill. There’s only one Gates because it’s in the nature of things that only one firm gets to write the operating system that, thanks to strong network effects, becomes dominant and lets you start reaping monopoly profits. Nothing wrong with it, that’s life. But in general, as a society we tend to treat successful businessmen as if they were omniscient central planners who’d gotten rich through their powers of clairvoyance. In fact, the whole point of having businessmen instead of central planners is that nobody’s that omniscient — we let some flowers bloom and some chips fall and life moves on. But there’s no particular reason to believe that the ex post winners have enormous insights. If you hang around a casino, on any given night someone’s going to make money playing roulette, but that doesn’t mean you should ask him about his roulette strategy and it certainly doesn’t mean you should ask his opinion about public policy issues far outside his area of focus.