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The Luck of the 1%

By Alex Planes - Updated Apr 6, 2017 at 5:55PM

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What if getting wealthy was a matter of chance?

One of the biggest criticisms of the Occupy movement is that it's choosing the lazy way out. Surely the hippies in Zuccotti Park could be the next Mark Zuckerberg, if they would only work hard instead of marching around complaining about inequality. But how much does skill really account for great economic success? Perhaps much less than we'd like to think.

Research from the University of Minnesota found that the fortunes of the 1% could be wholly built on luck and that random chance alone can account for the dramatic (and increasing) disparity between the rich and the rest. Under this assumption, the 1% didn't rise to the top because they turned lead into gold, but because they were lucky enough to find the gold first.

"Everything in life is luck." -- Donald Trump
Americans can't easily reject the supremacy of personal ability, and attributing all success to blind luck overlooks the impact of one's attitude on one's fortunes. Luck isn't just a sprinkling of fairy dust over the heads of a few chosen champions. It's also part of a broader spectrum of personality traits -- and it can be improved, as Richard Wiseman discovered nearly a decade ago:

Lucky people generate their own good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophecies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.

Sounds a lot like a certain turtleneck-wearing rock-star CEO, doesn't it? But this lucky attitude can still be learned by others who consider themselves unlucky. Wiseman found that by internalizing these four principles, nearly anyone can improve their luck and lead more successful lives.

"Fate's distribution of long straws is wildly capricious." -- Warren Buffett
But if luck is controllable, why does great wealth remain elusive? As time goes on, reaching the heights of success might require increasing levels of luck. The UMinn study found that wealth, left unchecked over long periods of time, would eventually concentrate in an ever-shrinking pool of extremely fortunate people. The reality isn't far off. The 400 richest Americans, at the apex of the wealth pyramid, have seen their earnings grow far more rapidly than the rest of the country.

Sources: Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Department of Labor, and author's calculations.

If everyone else had received a similar pay raise in this time frame, the average American taxpayer would have earned about $330,000 in 2007. Total reported income in the United States increased by 71% from 1992 to 2007. However, average incomes increased 36%, while the top 400 saw their income rise 427%.

That's well beyond the incredible appreciation of the Dow (INDEX: ^DJI) over that time, which gained "only" 322% from the start of 1992 to the end of 2007. Those who receive a lucky windfall early tend to see their luck continue because they have more chances to get richer as the game goes on.

"I am what I am, and I'm a very lucky guy." -- Michael Bloomberg
Plenty of people believe that raw ability and dogged determination can make anyone rich, and that circumstances will never supersede attitude. Most people give Mark Zuckerberg tremendous credit for Facebook, and many believe he earned every penny. After all, he is the boy who built an empire from his dorm room. But what does it take to become Mark Zuckerberg? To be born in the United States, to have two doctors as parents, to get into Harvard, and to apply your prodigal skills as a computer programmer -- the rarity of these opportunities coming together requires incredible luck, perhaps far more so than talent.

Change any of these circumstances and he's no longer Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Think about your own life. If a single variable had changed, how different would your world and your wealth be? Would Zuckerberg's success be yours? If you could have gone to Harvard in 1973, would you -- and not Steve Ballmer -- have met Bill Gates and become one of Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT) largest shareholders?

"Like Warren … I was born at the right place and time." -- Bill Gates
The problem with luck's extremes is that they might shut out the vast majority. One potential doomsday scenario in the UMinn study saw the 1% increase their share of the nation's wealth from 40%, where it stands now, to 90%. This could happen in a century if nothing changes. In a capitalist world built on consumption, such imbalances are beyond unsustainable.

And more wealth in fewer hands creates greater social problems. Many studies have shown that the United States is already more unequal than most other developed economies, but not what that inequality does to its citizens. Richard Wilkinson's presentation at a TED talk earlier this year revealed that greater inequality -- not lower average incomes -- in a country leads to lower life expectancies, lower literacy, higher infant mortality, more homicides, higher imprisonment rates, more teenage births, greater levels of obesity, more prevalent mental illness, lower social mobility, less well-being for children, and even lower levels of trust between people. The good luck of the 1% becomes bad luck for the entire country.

The study's solution is simple: An inheritance tax on the very upper echelons -- the top 0.1%, for example -- could stop accumulation in its tracks without discouraging entrepreneurship. The proceeds of the tax, instead of filling government coffers, might instead go toward reducing tax rates for the rest of the nation or could be spent on various beneficial causes. Some prominent members of the 0.1% -- including Gates and Buffett -- haven't waited for the government to adopt this policy, instead pledging to donate much of their wealth to charities.

Gates and Buffet aren't alone in recognizing their immense good fortune. Many of their fellow rich and have joined Gates' Giving Pledge, which aims to commit the majority of each pledge's wealth to philanthropy. There are already 69 billionaire signatories, a remarkable achievement for a drive that launched only last year. When Gates finally leaves the world behind, it should mark his passing with much greater praise than was heaped on Steve Jobs this fall. His legacy will deserve it. The Giving Pledge might not address the outsized role of speculative finance in fueling inequality, but it's a far better beginning than anyone else has ever managed.

"I think the harder you work, the more luck you have." -- Dave Thomas
Recognizing the role of luck in the creation of wealth doesn't remove skill and dedication from the equation, but it should provide perspective. You might feel self-made, but no one reaches the top without a few things going just right at just the right time.

Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no stake in any company mentioned here. Subscribe to him on Facebook, add him on Google+, or follow him on Twitter. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of and creating a bull call spread position in Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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