Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Hurray for the Lottery?

(published in the Johnson City Press, February 24, 2008)

I am one of those people who dabble in the Tennessee state lottery, maybe because, as I age, my economic situation doesn’t seem to keep up with my perception of my standard of living. Also, I’m one of those people who benefits from the lottery.

However, the lottery as a revenue generator is of questionable ethics.

There have been numerous studies showing lottery players are generally from poorer incomes, lower educated, or in more need of the ticket money. The lottery, some writers suggest, is an abdication of the government’s responsibility to care for the less fortunate. Hopes for a financially more secure future should not rest with luck, these writers say, but with responsible care by those who are in charge. Not thinking in terms of government subsidy, these writers suggest is that good education, good health, and good environment are key ingredients that allows prosperity to be more widely distributed across a state. Good education, as opposed to “educated” is a requirement for a strong and powerful democratic country. That the absolute poorest of persons bet is also an indication that this class of Tennesseans has given up on the so-called values that the middle strive for and the upper class own.

Not surprisingly, taxpayers say they are very happy to have the lottery replaces taxes. This is just fine with those who are not paying much (percentage-wise) in taxes in the first place. (This group is also accused of being the most able to buy votes.) Also happy with the lottery is the middle class, the class that most values education and bootstrap pulling. Does this appear as if the upper and middle classes are conspiring against the lower class? Funny thing, this movement of money, it goes from the neediest class to the most needy of the middle class.

The real winners in the lottery are those very citizens whose duty it is to invest in the growth of the State of Tennessee, but avoid that duty like the plague. Somewhere along the way, earlier taxpayers paid for the buildings and infrastructure that, while currently crumbling, got our education system started and through the tough times. Why the current generation seems so tightfisted is beyond me. There is a saying (I think perhaps by C.S. Lewis) that good Christians care about the future by taking care of the present. Make me believe that’s happening in Tennessee.

We seem to want our education, as well as our gasoline, insurance, and water partly on the cheap, and, mostly, paid by someone else. We give lip service to the adage, “You get what you pay for.” until that cheapness bloodies our noses. We treat our education like shopping: pick one from list A, double size it, double coupons Tuesdays.

Talk’s cheap.

The non-tax-let-‘em-gamble group says the players are not required to play the lottery. Well, yes, they are. Without a safety net. The middle class buys ticky-tack houses, on margin, on a wing and prayer, and when the market drops get aid from the banking system to help support the lenders and builders. The upper class buys stocks and when that market crashes they buy legislation to help relieve their burden. The lower class does not have that net. Maybe with the current surplus in the lottery bank, the lottery ought to revisit all the past winners and pay them a bonus, perhaps in relation to their winnings. Perhaps because the taxpayers do not play the game they do not deserve nor get anything in return.

But the accusation (about not having to play) is true. They don’t have to play. Where does that get us? Who is going to foot the bill for the future of Tennessee? Unlike the lottery winnings, taxes are required to be spent in the state: for construction, for payroll, for debt relief. Unlike lottery winnings the state is mandated to spend its surplus in dignified fashion and not lining up at the Exchequer’s window.

Once in a while I’ve bet on the horses, humming, as my nag finishes last, “I got the horse right here. The name is Paul Revere.” A guy’s got to keep hoping. Winning the lottery seems like a good problem to have, and I’ll play it too once in a while. After all, it is a sure thing, isn’t it? And we’ll have smarter kids because of it?


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