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Life Arts    H4'ed 12/7/16

The Pre-Birth Lottery

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I first encountered the term "pre-birth lottery" when I read The 2% Solution, by Matthew Miller. What a humbling concept. I've always considered myself reasonably successful. Getting through medical school and residency is no picnic. I have always been proud of this accomplishment. However, the notion of the pre-birth lottery caused me to examine my life honestly. I've concluded that where I stand today is the result of 80% luck and 20% my own initiative. When I say this people think I'm crazy. They usually say something like, "You've worked hard! You deserve everything you have!"

To which I reply: "I have an upper-middle-class background. I have 2 loving parents who provided my education. They taught me how to work hard. I have never been hungry. I have never been the victim of violence. I have always had shelter. My genetic makeup is advantageous. I am free of chronic disease, and have never been denied health care. I don't have an unusual physical appearance. Countless people have helped me get to where I am. My own initiative has nothing to do with this extremely favorable foundation." Though the exact percentages are debatable, anyone who is successful in life, if they really commit themselves to honesty, will have to conclude that their success is more circumstance than volition.

This led me to wonder why my situation was so favorable. What did I do to deserve such good fortune? I often wonder how I would have turned out if my pre-birth lottery card were less favorable. I realize individuals escape poverty every day. But if I had to guess, there are many more people who never break those chains, some of whom are much smarter than me. It seemed to me that in the race of life, I only had to run two laps and the majority of humans on the planet had to run four. I'm not guilty about this. I didn't design society. We all are forced to navigate this skewed landscape. I then thought about the billionaires. They don't even have to step on the track and they will always win the race. It led me to consider, "Well, who is writing the rules of life's race anyway?" Though no human is shielded from chaos, the rules, traditions, and values of society are being manipulated to favor those at the top. Thus, there is a rejection of how important luck is in how people turn out. There is a glorification of individual achievement: the "rugged individualist". This myth allows one to ignore that most accomplishments are collaborative. It allows this idea: "I deserve to be rich." Also implied is the converse: "You deserve to be poor." Ignoring the pre-birth lottery allows the acceptance of the obscene inequality of wealth in the United States today.

Even those of you from modest means that built billion-dollar companies, I'm still not impressed. All this means is that you are genetically gifted with the specialized intelligence and ruthlessness required to succeed in a hypercompetitive, vicious, and scarcity-driven playing field that defines capitalism. These are "gifts" you were born with, the hot numbers on the pre-birth lottery ticket. Hard work is the easy part. You want to impress me? Be a penniless, learning-disabled orphan whose first instinct is compassion, born in Sub-Sahara Africa, co-infected with HIV and malaria, and surrounded by violence and drug abuse. Then build up your billion-dollar company. Then I will be impressed. Then I will say that you pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps.

To conclude, I offer a disclaimer. When you engage in social commentary like this, you are almost always guilty of oversimplification. This is necessary to convey key concepts, without having to write exhaustive clarifications. We progressives vilify the billionaire class. I have never met a billionaire. Individually, they are probably very nice people. Most, if not all, have huge charitable foundations that do a lot of good. Perhaps the billionaires are acutely aware of their lucky situations. However, collectively they are doing a lot of harm, by dominating our political system. Domination is an unstable social situation. It is my belief that our future depends on the billionaire class realizing that they are the only ones that can create a world where humanity is freed from the tyranny of the pre-birth lottery. Humanity has to talk to the billionaires.

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Retired Emergency Physician.
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