Warren Buffett has often commented on his good fortune.
“I’ve had it so good in this world, you know. The odds were fifty-to-one against me being born in the United States in 1930. I won the lottery the day I emerged from the womb by being in the United States instead of in some other country where my chances would have been way different.
Imagine there are two identical twins in the womb, both equally bright and energetic. And the genie says to them, “One of you is going to be born in the United States, and one of you is going to be born in Bangladesh. And if you wind up in Bangladesh, you will pay no taxes. What percentage of your income would you bid to be the one that is born in the United States?” It says something about the fact that society has something to do with your fate and not just your innate qualities. The people who say, “I did it all myself,” and think of themselves as Horatio Alger – believe me, they’d bid more to be in the United States than in Bangladesh. That’s the Ovarian Lottery.”
The Ovarian Lottery was not the reason for his success. In 1930, there were approximately 1,137,000 white males born in the United States. Buffett was the only one of his cohort to become the world’s richest person.
He still had to do the work.
Cultivate a network of contacts and build his team.
Enjoy the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time.
Yet also have had the foresight to equip himself with the skills and experience necessary to act upon those opportunities when they presented themselves.
Succeeding isn’t easy for anyone. For some, it is just slightly less difficult than for others.
Winning the Ovarian Lottery does not guarantee success. But it certainly helps!
I too won the Ovarian Lottery.
I was born in prosperous western democracy during a time of relative peace.
The state provided adequate free education and healthcare to the majority of its citizens. Together, these key prerequisites for future success afforded most of the population with opportunities that would be the envy of many around the world.
Those opportunities only benefited those who were willing to help themselves.
Some were left behind. Inevitable perhaps, but unfortunate nonetheless.
The smaller or more remote the community, either in terms of geography or size or importance, the smaller allocation of scarce resources they received. Economies of scale. Economics 101.
Our society is a complex system that generally relies upon a steady supply of commodity parts.
If you didn’t fit the mould, you either got ground down until all the rough edges were smoothed away to conform and eliminate friction, or were discarded as unfit for purpose. Written off as a sunk cost. Unworthy of further investment.
Which meant anybody who was different had to work harder than the norm, or risk finding themselves left behind. The disabled and the sick. The disadvantaged. Migrants. Non-native English speakers.
A few manage to thrive and succeed despite the challenges they faced. Some of the smartest and most successful people I know are first or second-generation migrants. They wanted it more.
Many more do not.
Failed by those health or education systems. Shut out of opportunities and the financial wealth those opportunities provide. Low wages requiring low-cost housing, typically located in disadvantaged neighbourhoods with poor schools and substandard healthcare. Consigning them, and subsequently their children, to another lap of the poverty cycle. One of the few genuinely self-perpetuating machines that humankind has managed to create.
My choice of parents was fortunate. Allowing me to travel through life with white skin. Straight(ish) hair. Fluent English. A name unlikely to be “randomly” selected for additional scrutiny in airports.
My parents saw their job as delivering their children to adulthood free of criminal records, tattoos, teenage parenthood, and baring relatively few scars. In this, they succeeded.
Unable to afford the price of admission for an old school tie and the membership to the old boys’ network that provides, they instead sought to equip us with some superpowers.
The ability to determine right from wrong. The confidence to act upon that knowledge.
Like Buffett, my Ovarian Lottery win did not provide any guarantees. But as far as starting positions go, things could have been a great deal worse.
I have watched the civil disharmony playing out across the United States with detached interest.
Protesters airing some valid grievances. As their parents did after the Rodney King verdict back in the early 1990s. As their grandparents had in the late 1960s following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The underlying issues differing little across the generations.
Reactionary authorities ably demonstrating the legitimacy of those concerns live on television.
Brands, influencers, and megacorps spotting a bandwagon to jump on board.
Virtue signallers preaching “raising awareness”. Pledging support. Proclaiming solidarity.
As ever, there is a lot of noise about the symptoms.
Yet little constructive discussion about how to address the underlying causes.
Plenty of hand wringing. Motherhood statements. Pithy tweets. T-shirt slogans.
Precious few tangible actions. A hashtag is not a plan for change.
Fewer logical next steps towards solving what is a truly wicked systemic problem.
Karl Marx once wrote “Only your small-minded … philistine who measures world history by the ell and by what he happens to think are ‘interesting news items’, could regard 20 years as more than a day where major developments of this kind are concerned, though these may be again succeeded by days into which 20 years are compressed.”
Would this week of national protest contain one of those exceedingly rare days, where 20 years’ worth of progress appears to occur seemingly overnight?
I doubt it. They may succeed in toppling an unpopular authoritarian President. A trophy perhaps, but as with the mythical Hydra who once guarded the entrance to the underworld, chopping one head off the beast will see it swiftly replaced by another.
The grassroots level organisations of both the Republican and Tory parties having been captured by backers of the current incumbents. Ensuring that moderate and dissenting voices are not heard because they don’t get pre-selected to stand for election. If left in place, this forms another self-perpetuating machine: a production line of new heads for the populist Hydra beast.
Lasting change requires addressing the underlying causes of the issues behind the protests.
Electing representatives willing to make more equitable allocations of scarce resources.
Channelling investment into the education and health care systems, to ensure that the disadvantaged have similar access to the opportunities available to the privileged. This won’t guarantee success, but it will help ensure that the outcome is not contingent upon an Ovarian Lottery win.
Barack Obama had it right when he recently wrote that “… the bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform.
Finally, the more specific we can make demands for … reform, the harder it will be for elected officials to just offer lip service to the cause and then fall back into business as usual once protests have gone away.”
President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and Prime Minister Johnson’s Brexiteer voter bases both largely consist of white folks from the poorer parts of the country who feel like they were doing it tough, being ignored, and had been left behind.
Easy prey for opportunistic populists to whip into a frenzy and transform into an angry mob.
Sound familiar? It should, because many (but not all) of the underlying themes affecting those communities are similar to those impacting the protesters.
Lack of opportunity.
My detachment was shattered when my lady wife fired a salvo proclaiming that anyone who wasn’t vocally opposing racism was complicit in perpetuating it.
I opened my mouth to disagree. Paused. Goldfished a little. Then thought better of it.
Her statement sounded like one of those false dichotomies we frequently see play out in political press conferences and social media culture wars. “Silence is violence”. “You’re either with us or against us”.
I smelled a trap.
I don’t wear a t-shirt proclaiming my opposition to cancer. That doesn’t mean I secretly support it.
Nor does my Twitter profile boldly declare a deeply held tribal belief that Timtams are a superior chocolate biscuit. Would the lack of such a statement allow somebody to reasonably infer that meant I was pro-Penguin?
The dubious logic of my lady wife’s position left me somewhat puzzled, and more than a little wary.
To my simple mind, the determining factor is actions rather than (often empty) words.
Past experience suggested this was dangerous ground. Racism is a loaded topic. One that as a “privileged white male” I have often been told I am unqualified to hold an opinion about.
I reflected on that thought for a moment and concluded it was bullshit.
Long ago I married into a family from a cultural background very different from my own. My in-laws referred to me then using a colloquial derogatory term for white man, which literally translates as rancid meat. They still do today.
My children are mixed race. Part of three different cultures, yet neither fully accepted by, nor fully belonging to any of them.
I have had an immigration officer at a British airport throw my passport at me and declare “if I had my way Mr indeedably, we wouldn’t let people like you into this country!”
I was once screened out of a freelance engagement shortlist because of my accent.
My firm has lost bids for projects because the prospective client only wanted to deal with “British” firms. Despite holding a British passport, I was deemed a “colonial from the antipodes”.
As a migrant who originated from Australia, witticisms about my supposed “convict ancestry” are a daily occurrence.
My experiences pale in comparison to those protesters who suffer an innate fear of the police. Or those who have legitimate reasons to fear their children may be stabbed or shot because of their skin colour.
Yet they do provide a small insight into some of the daily challenges faced by those who don’t fit the mould, meet expectations, or who happen to share an origin with a commonly held stereotype.
Free to choose
Long ago, I adopted a policy of equal opportunity discrimination. Treat everyone equally. No special treatment for anyone. Unless they are a dickhead or a bully. Those I have no time for.
I have little interest in where people originate from. What they do in their spare time. Whom they do it with. Or whether they seek the help of an imaginary friend during moments of doubt and uncertainty.
It is none of my business.
What is relevant to me is what people do. How they conduct themselves and treat others. The potential that they have. Their hopes and dreams for the future. The rest is mostly noise.
To my simple mind, if somebody makes any decision based upon a person’s appearance, beliefs, ethnicity, origin, race, or skin colour then they are failing to treat people equally.
That includes obvious discrimination like America’s history of segregation or South Africa’s apartheid.
It includes so-called “positive” discrimination like affirmative action or gender equality quotas. If everyone is supposed to be equal, then how can some groups be more equal than others?
It also includes less obvious forms of discrimination. Rewarding people for what they are, not for what they do.
If you frequent a store because of the nationality of the owner, you are actively discriminating against all other nationalities. Use your custom to reward those stores offering the best service at the best price. They have actually done something to deserve it.
Amplify voices because their ideas are inspiring, insightful, or worth sharing. If you are only sharing because of the tribe they belong to, then you are discriminating against all those who are not members.
I reject the accusation of complicity. If a lasting difference is to be made, it will be through tangible actions not empty words.
Hypocrisy and virtue signalling just get in the way.
- Bain, M. (2018), ‘Nike’s Kaepernick ad is what happens when capitalism and activism collide’, Quartz
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (1980), ‘Live Births, Birth Rates, and Fertility Rates, by Race of Child: United States, 1909-80‘
- Foer, F. (2020), ‘The Trump Regime Is Beginning to Topple’, The Atlantic
- Lefsetz, B. (2020), ‘Gaslit Nation‘
- Marx, K. (1863), ‘Marx to Engels In Manchester‘, Der Briefwechsel zwischen F. Engels und K. Marx
- Obama, B. (2020), ‘How to Make this Moment the Turning Point for Real Change‘
- Packer, G. (2018), ‘The Demise of the Moderate Republican’, The New Yorker
- Reid, E. (2017), ‘Eric Reid: Why Colin Kaepernick and I Decided to Take a Knee’, New York Times
- Sharp, G. (1993), ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy‘, Albert Einstein Institution
- Schroeder, A. (2008), ‘The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life‘, Bantam
- The Guardian (2019), ‘The Guardian view on Tory purges: a historic betrayal‘