COLUMN: A mental test of equality in our society

Tim Mak

Over the years educators have created some role-playing games and mental exercises to “teach” the idea of social equality. Granted, many of them are mind-opening, some are quite effective, and most of their inventors had a noble vision in mind.

But arguably none cuts through so many fields and disciplines than Buffett’s mental exercise he calls “ovarian lottery.”

In some of his 12-times-a-year college lectures and rare one-on-one press interviews, Buffett challenges his students and the public to imagine that we were called upon by God Almighty right before we were born, to decide on wealth and resource allocations for the world.

Bear in mind that God has already created the universe, and these facts are fixed and you can’t change them: there are roughly six billion people on the planet Earth; living in the countries as we know it today; some in geographically and climatically challenged areas; some in more comfortable parts of the world; some are poor; some are rich; some are born able-bodied; some are born physically-challenged; roughly half are born female and the other half male (only a hugely statistically-insignificant number are born in-between) and some will at one point in their life, come out of the closet. The list goes on and on.

Imagine God is only calling upon you to decide on the political and economic systems of the world. Mostly, it’s how resources are allocated: who is to have ownership of what, how does that ownership come about, and how is the new (and sometimes old, existing) creation of wealth is to be shared (i.e. taxed and spent by the governments) among the citizens.

Of course this is a powerful job. But as Buffett explains, there is a catch: You don’t know where you’re going to be born nor who you’re going to be. In other words, you have an equal one-in-six-billion chance of being born as anybody, anywhere. You could be born very lucky, like Buffett explains his own case, as a Caucasian male, in the U.S., a nation during most of his years that arguably favored him and his skills as capital allocator.

Buffett explains that being born in the U.S. in the year 1930 carried a chance of only 5 percent. But he struck gold; “winning the ovarian lottery,” as he calls it. To take it one step further, being born a Caucasian male in the U.S. carries a lower probability – 2.5 percent.

But you could also be born in a third-world country, a physically-challenged or HIV-infected abandoned baby of a drug dealer and a mother who died of drug-overdose shortly after you are born and so on.

What kind of a world would you want, in terms of social justice and capital allocation, so that you’re making sure that whatever hand you get in the “ovarian lottery,” you wouldn’t do too badly. Because whatever you get, you’re probably going to be stuck for decades to come.

Tim Mak is a teaching fellow at the College of Business Administration and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].