Non-Outliers

| Mon Dec. 8, 2008 12:54 PM EST

NON-OUTLIERS....Matt Yglesias defends Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers:

I've seen a few people express the notion that Gladwell's conclusion — that success is determined largely by luck rather than one's powers of awesomeness — is somehow too banal to waste one's time with. I think those people need to open their eyes and pay a bit more attention to the society we're living in. It's a society that not only seems to believe that the successful are entitled to unlimited monetary rewards for their trouble, but massive and wide-ranging deference.

Beyond that, it's a society in which the old-fashioned concept of noblesse oblige has largely gone out the window. The elite feel not only a sense of entitlement, but also a unique sense of arrogance that only an elite that firmly believes itself to be a meritocracy can muster.

Point taken. But just to push back a little, I'm not sure it's the outliers who are the biggest problem here. To a certain extent, I think most people already understand that there's more than a little bit of luck involved in the fact that IBM decided to license Bill Gates's MS-DOS instead of CP/M or that 24 turned out to be a monster hit for Kiefer Sutherland. The star who gets a lucky break early in his career is practically a cliche. What's more, I think most of us don't begrudge the occasional outliers their jackpots all that much. Sure, Gates and Sutherland were both good and lucky, but at least they were good.

The bigger problem is with the vast amounts of money earned routinely and consistently by people who aren't even all that good. Ordinary CEOs and ordinary Wall Street executives, for example, have gotten enormous paydays over the past few decades not because they were really any better than their predecessors, but simply because they were riding a wave of prosperity. And it's not just a lucky few, either: it's all of them. Most of these guys aren't even outperforming the market significantly, let alone acting as titans of industry, but one way or another they've managed to convince themselves that a rising tide is a sign of personal brilliance. This allows them to sleep easily at night as they keep worker pay stagnant and use the resulting enormous buckets of money to reward themselves and their peers with comp packages that would make Croesus blush.

I wish Gladwell would write that book. It's one thing to make a story about geniuses interesting, but it's the corrosive and stifling triumph of the non-geniuses that could use a popular touch. Maybe next time.

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