The Value of Luck

Few people are as good at framing ideas as Rory Sutherland. In a talk he gave at the SprintAd-dagen in March of 2019, Rory opened up with the following thoughts on the role of luck and experimentation under capitalism:

You’ve got to leave enough money free and you got to enough eccentric things to give yourself the change to be lucky…

One of the reasons that a lot of people don’t like capitalism is that some of the people who do very well under capitalism are actually total idiots. They happen to stumble into a business at exactly the right industry at the right time. They got lucky.

And even spectacularly intelligent people, I think we can argue…I don’t think there is any argument that Gates and Jobs are hugely intelligent….they were both spectacularly lucky as well as being hugely intelligent…partly by accident of their birth.

If you notice, a lot of those people, Ellison, Gates, Jobs – the giants of the tech industry – were all born within about 18 months of each other. And there was a tiny moment where you had to be young to make it in tech. Five years earlier and they would have ended up working for IBM. Five years later and it would have been to late.

One of the important things about capitalism, interestingly, is that it is a mechanism for rewarding people simply for being lucky. And the strangest thing about that is that it is precisely that, that makes people so angry about capitalism.

But if you don’t have a mechanism that rewards luck, the majority of great discovery don’t get banked.

If you look at the history of science, there is probably as much you can attribute to lucky accidents… Penicillin, Viagra, for example…the two wonder drugs. Those were both a product of completely lucky accidents.

The discovery of vaccination was just one man that happened notice that milk maids didn’t get smallpox. It’s just those tiny things that can have huge effects and we need to leave enough space to actually be lucky.

And the very strength of capitalism is precisely that it rewards ideas that at first make no sense.

Rory’s full talk at SprintAd-dagen

More on How to Value Stuff

The Net Benefits of Gaming

Is the video game industry a net benefit or a cost to society? Does it do more harm than good? If you were to perform a cost-benefit analysis of the video game industry you would go about trying to quantify the economic benefits (job creation, research and development, etc) against the societal costs (addition, power consumption, etc).

From a qualitative perspective, I would image that the effect of the video game industry on societies would be somewhat similar to wars. Wars have a huge cost to society. They take up huge resources both in terms of labor and capital but more importantly is the destruction of human lives and the irreparable damage it can leave on its participants.

Wolfenstein 3D" Graphics Compared to "Wolfenstein: The New Order ...
Castle Wolfenstein (1981) vs Wolfenstein: New Order (2019)

At the same time, wars have been known to accelerate the advancement of certain technologies and scientific discovery. Often, these advancements will have applications far beyond than just some wartime utility.

In the same vain, there are undoubtedly victims of the video gaming industry. Games are hyper-optimized to reward the user of playing and video game addiction is well recorded academically. Countless hours are spent daily on video games, that could otherwise have been deployed to more productive uses.

Yet, the video game industry is also a hotbed for technological advancement. There are countless examples of technologies that were originally developed for the gaming industry, which subsequently found application elsewhere. Slack – a public company with a $16 billion market capitalization as I write this – was originally developed as an internal chap application for a gaming company.

Cost-Benefit Analysis of the South Korean Digital Game Industry

In this cost-benefit analysis of the South Korean Gaming Industry, the researchers attempted to estimate the economic costs and benefits of the digital game industry. Addiction to digital games induces economic costs such as increase in crime, facilities investments for curbing addiction, increase in counselling costs and other welfare losses. The digital game industry in South Korea which is known to have one of the highest rates of game addiction.

The annual cost of game addiction is estimated to be approximately $3.5B while the annual benefit is approximately $24.3B ($3.7B for addicted user market). The proportion of the total costs to total benefits from the game industry is an alarming 14% (95% for addicted user market).