April 11, 2015 / 2010 / April / The Lottery of Birth

The Lottery of Birth

submitted April 27, 2010 by Matthew Ellis   |   comments
<h1>The Lottery of Birth</h1>

Recently, I read a post on the Get Rich Slowly blog that's stayed with me. On the eve of  our conference with Jubilee Ministry and Episcopal Community Services of America to address domestic poverty, this post seems more relevant to me now than ever. What is our obligation to those around us, near or far?

Here is Warren Buffet's reflection, as recounted at Get Rich Slowly:
[It’s 24 hours before your birth, and a genie appears to you. He tells you that you can set the rules for the world you’re about to enter — economic, social, political — the whole enchilada. Sounds great, right? What’s the catch?

Before you enter the world, you will pick one ball from a barrel of 6.8 billion (the number of people on the planet). That ball will determine your gender, race, nationality, natural abilities, and health — whether you are born rich or poor, sick or able-bodied, brilliant or below average, American or Zimbabwean.

This is what Buffett calls the ovarian lottery. As he explained to a group of University of Florida students, “You’re going to get one ball out of there, and that is the most important thing that’s ever going to happen to you in your life.”

...We should be designing a society that, as Buffett says, “doesn’t leave behind someone who accidentally got the wrong ball and is not well-wired for this particular system.” (emphasis mine) He points out that he is designed for the American system - and he was lucky to be born into it. He can allocate capital, and he lives in a place and at a time when those skills are well rewarded. (His pal Bill Gates is quick to point out that if Buffett had been born in an earlier time, he’d be some animal’s lunch because the Oracle of Omaha can’t run fast or climb trees.)

When Buffett talks about this lottery, he often concludes by asking:

If you could put your ball back, and they took out, at random, a hundred other balls, and you had to pick one of those, would you put your ball back in? Now, of those hundred balls … roughly five of them will be American. … Half of them are going to be below-average intelligence, half will be above. Do you want to put your ball back? Most of you, I think, will not. … What you’re saying is, “I’m in the luckiest 1% of the world right now.”]

Closing Thoughts

Obviously, we can't overturn all of the factors that lead to things like domestic poverty. We can and should, however, take steps to reduce the impact of 'drawing the wrong ball' wherever possible. That means we as a society should work to provide affordable access to health care, nutritious food, housing, and education. 

These are the important topics we'll be discussing in Newark this week. I look forward to our important discussions and more importantly, the actions that result from these discussions.

Would you put your ball back for a random draw?

Matthew Ellis serves as executive director of National Episcopal Health Ministries.