The Ovarian Lottery and Social Issues

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Several years ago, Warren Buffett was giving a presentation at the University of Florida, and at the end of the presentation someone asked him the following question:

What would you do to live a happier life if you could live over again?

Here is Warren’s response:

This will sound disgusting. The question is how would I live my life over again to live a happier life? The only thing would be to select a gene pool where people lived to 120 or something where I came from.

I have been extraordinarily lucky. I mean, I use this example and I will take a minute or two because I think it is worth thinking about a little bit. Let’s just assume it was 24 hours before you were born and a genie came to you and he said, “Herb, you look very promising and I have a big problem. I got to design the world in which you are going to live in. I have decided it is too tough; you design it. So you have twenty-four hours, you figure out what the social rules should be, the economic rules and the governmental rules and you and your kids and their kids will live under those rules.

You say, “I can design anything? There must be a catch?” The genie says there is a catch. You don’t know if you are going to be born black or white, rich or poor, male or female, infirm or able-bodied, bright or retarded. All you know is you are going to take one ball out of a barrel with 5.8 billion (balls). You are going to participate in the ovarian lottery. And that is going to be the most important thing in your life, because that is going to control whether you are born here or in Afghanistan or whether you are born with an IQ of 130 or an IQ of 70. It is going to determine a whole lot. What type of world are you going to design?

I think it is a good way to look at social questions, because not knowing which ball you are going to get, you are going to want to design a system that is going to provide lots of goods and services because you want people on balance to live well. And you want it to produce more and more so your kids live better than you do and your grandchildren live better than their parents. But you also want a system that does produce lots of goods and services that does not leave behind a person who accidentally got the wrong ball and is not well wired for this particular system. I am ideally wired for the system I fell into here. I came out and got into something that enables me to allocate capital. Nothing wonderful about that. If all of us were stranded on a desert island somewhere and we were never going to get off of it, the most valuable person there would be the one who could raise the most rice over time. I can say, “I can allocate capital!” You wouldn’t be very excited about that. So I have been born in the right place.

Bill Gates says that if I had been born three million years ago, I would have been some animal’s lunch. He says, “You can’t run very fast, you can’t climb trees, you can’t do anything.” You would just be chewed up the first day. You are lucky; you were born today. And I am. The question getting back, here is this barrel with 6.5 billion balls, everybody in the world, if you could put your ball back, and they took out at random a 100 balls and you had to pick one of those, would you put your ball back in?

Now those 100 balls you are going to get out, roughly 5 of them will be American, 95/5. So if you want to be in this country, you will only have 5 balls, half of them will be women and half men–I will let you decide how you will vote on that one. Half of them will below average in intelligence and half above average in intelligence. Do you want to put your ball in there? Most of you will not want to put your ball back to get 100. So what you are saying is: I am in the luckiest one percent of the world right now sitting in this room–the top one percent of the world. Well, that is the way I feel. I am lucky to be born where I was because it was 50 to 1 in the United States when I was born. I have been lucky with parents, lucky with all kinds of things and lucky to be wired in a way that in a market economy, pays off like crazy for me. It doesn’t pay off as well for someone who is absolutely as good a citizen as I am (by) leading Boy Scout troops, teaching Sunday School or whatever, raising fine families, but just doesn’t happen to be wired in the same way that I am. So I have been extremely lucky so I would like to be lucky again.

Then the way to do it is to play out the game and do something you enjoy all your life and be associated with people you like. I only work with people I like. If I could make $100 million dollars with a guy who causes my stomach to churn, I would say no because in way that is very much like marrying for money which is probably not a very good idea in any circumstances, but if you are already rich, it is crazy. I am not going to marry for money. I would really do almost exactly what I have done except I wouldn’t have bought US Air.

I have written before about the “luck of birth“, and my thoughts are similar to Buffett’s beliefs.

Like Buffett, I also feel very fortunate to have been born in the United States, to have had great parents and to be wired in a way (e.g., my race, my gender, my intelligence, my ethnicity, my place of birth, the year I was born, etc.) that made it easier for me to succeed.

I also believe that the luck of birth, or the ovarian lottery as Buffett calls it, is a great way to think about social issues, particularly ones that we are faced with currently.

A hot topic right now is the refugee crisis, and whether the U.S. should allow refugees from Syria into the country. Many people are against allowing such people into our country, and I just don’t get it.

For those of us living in the U.S., we just got lucky. For those people from Syria and other countries trying to find refuge from war, they were not as lucky as we were to be born in the U.S.

Why should something as random as when and where we were born determine whether we are happy or not, whether we get to live in peace or not, whether we have a chance to make our mark on the world or not.

The same could be said with immigrants, people who are trying to make a better life for themselves, but did not win the ovarian lottery. Should you be punished for that for the rest of your life; should we be building walls to keep you out?

The refugees and the immigrants who want to come to the U.S. seem ideal candidates for such admission. First, they want to be here, and they are often willing to endure whatever hardships are required in order to do so. It must take great strength of character to survive such a move, and to leave family and friends and place of birth behind. I think we should be welcoming people like this, not shutting them out.

The example could be extended to many other examples of people who face some form of discrimination simply because of the luck of birth. This could include women, people of color, people with disabilities, people born into poverty, people of certain ethnicities or religions, and many, many other groups who have faced prejudice in one way or another.

What we need, as Warren Buffett notes above, is a system

“…that does not leave behind a person who accidentally got the wrong ball.”

Timeless words of wisdom from the Oracle of Omaha.

Now is our chance to show the world that the U.S. has built such a system, and that we are ready to share our luck, and our resources, with those who need it.

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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