That zinger was included in a list of one-liners in one of the ubiquitous e-mail “forwards” I received shortly after the World Wide Web became a common phenomenon. Those were comparatively innocent times for junk e-mail, before we even knew to call it spam. In those halcyon days of yore, the missives were sent by overzealous friends, family and coworkers flush with the “gee whiz” factor of it all, and who would feel remiss if they didn’t just pass along a motley assortment of jokes, Oprah-wisdom, electronic prayers and chain letters to brighten our day, several times a day. Nowadays, much of our unsolicited electronic reading material is of a more sinister nature, sent by armies of evil robots ruled by a secret society bent on worldwide penile enlargement, the abolition of the concept of prescription medication, and the widespread mating of barely legal individuals with barnyard fauna. Still, of all the spam I’ve waded through over these years, that one line sticks out and makes me chuckle to this day. The lottery is a tax on people who are bad at math. As the comedians say (while trying to milk an additional snicker from a mildly amusing observation, I might add), “It’s only funny ’cause it’s true.”
Americans are certainly bad at math. Annually, some think tank or association or nerd consortium rolls out the depressing statistics of how our children rank in mathematics and other sciences compared with their peers in other prosperous, industrialized nations. If the annual observation makes the news, it’s for a scant, strobe-like mention, sandwiched in between random pictures of “FIRE!” and coverage of other weighty matters, like the anniversaries of beloved snack foods. The doe-eyed anchorpeople look especially vapid when mentioning math scores–it’s like a new gear of blankness above and beyond that of their normal botoxed countenance. Collectively, we take the news with a shrug, perhaps eyeing our kids and thinking to ourselves “Boy, y’all are stupid,” oblivious to the fact that we’d probably do worse because we’ve forgotten the stuff that we halfway learned in the first place.
Statistics? Probability? Yeah, right. People are petrified to get on airplanes and paranoid about talking on the phone during a thunderstorm, but when it comes to lotto, these same folks swear up and down that they are going to WIN! I mean, who doesn’t know people who have hardly any concrete plans in life, yet have elaborate contingencies all worked out for what they will do when they hit the number. They know what they are gonna say to their boss, what kind of cars they are gonna get, which long lost relatives they might give some cash to, what the color of their new house will be.
Why all this lottery stuff is rattling around in my head now should be obvious. It’s hard to describe exactly how I feel regarding Gov. Mike Easley’s push for establishment of a statewide lottery. The best I can put it would be a mixture of amusement and distaste, kinda like I get on those rare occasions when I watch Fox News.
If lottery odds (for the big payoff, the one where you get to cuss out your supervisor) are on the order of one in 12 million or so (that’s what I remember from the many billboards I see while passing through Virginia), that makes getting struck and killed by lightning in a given year about four times more likely to occur to you. These folks who just know they’re gonna hit the lotto should also be walking down the street in zigzag patterns, ducking the evidently inevitable strike from on high. Sure, buying a few more tickets can improve your odds, somewhat, but not as much as, say, golfing during a severe thunderstorm in an aluminum foil sweatsuit. To be colloquial, You finna get lit UP! Comparatively, the lottery is still a crapshoot.
What’s the big deal with a crapshoot? Eh. Nothing, in principle, I s’pose. But mounting a major campaign to implement educational funding via crapshoot in this state is where the morality gets, shall we say, dicey.
I submit to you the Jennings Corollary to the “… tax on people who are bad at math” statement. The lottery is a tax implemented by people too cowardly to enact a real tax. Let’s be real. As a state we’re staring down the barrel of a potentially $1 billion budgetary shortfall. To make up the gap, we’ll either have to raise revenue or eviscerate existing programs. It seems that not only do we suck at math, our history leaves a lot to be desired, as well. Why are we facing budgetary shortfalls now? Because when the economy was booming, and we were experiencing that fiscal rarity called a “surplus,” some knuckleheads decided to slash the tax rates and put the choke on future generations. The same idiots (and yes, I’ll be as pejorative as I damn well please, considering that I wrote several warnings while it was all underfoot) who rode the wave of the ’94 Republican Revolution, leaving federal, state and local politics awash in their ideological flotsam, jetsam and detritus, cut taxes everywhere they could during times of plenty. And then made the word “tax” into the deadly sin which dare not speak its name, creating the climate for financial emergencies on every level of government. None of those levels of government, including those led by these fiscal geniuses, significantly cut spending, so when the level of the economy dipped to normal or below normal levels of growth, we were left with a bunch of bills and nothing to pay them with.
Minus the additional revenue, our counties cannot build enough schools to deal with the tremendous population growth, and rob Peter (operational budgets) to pay Paul (expansion needs). In one year after his big, big, big tax giveaway, our beloved president turned a budget surplus into our biggest ever budget deficit. And on the state level, well, that brings us back to the $1B and this lottery mess.
In their defense, I will say that the state House of Representatives has tried to make this a nice lottery, as lotteries go. Tastes great. Less exploitative. The House version of the bill has some built-in provisions limiting the amount and nature of advertising and even calls for a study on gambling addiction. That’s a sure sign that at least some of our elected officials recognize that this is a turd of an idea and want to try and polish it and place it in a decorative box with a pretty bow around it. And I appreciate that. While living in the Maryland/D.C. metropolitan area, I remember a commercial for the D.C. lottery in which a very well dressed, distinguished looking brother–he looked sharp enough to be an anchorman, corporate lawyer or Jet magazine hair products model–extolled the virtues of that civic gambling operation in smooth baritone, finishing with the tagline, “D.C. Lotto. It’s a good return on your investment.” I was incensed every time I saw that commercial, and if I were to see that dude in the street, I’d probably backhand him (yeah, I know he’s just an actor, but that’s lower than Billy Dee’s malt liquor commercials). To me the implications of this successful black archetype of a pitchman insinuating that the lottery was a legitimate “investment” was just way too much.
Do I think that the lottery should be banned on strictly moral grounds? Not particularly. But if this were about people’s freedom to be stupid with their own money, why don’t we take it back to the days of numbers runners and let people get their mom and pop hustle on like they used to? The active sponsorship of the government, especially when used to specifically make up for their own fiscal shortcomings and mismanagement, just makes the entire affair altogether unseemly. Institution of a lottery to replace revenues lost due to an ill-considered tax cut seems to me a very craven way to go about doing things, if we really and truly value education in this state.
This sends a real nice message to our youth, or at least that relative few who become educated enough to figure out the number that we’ll have run on them. “We cared about you so much that we literally gambled on your future.” Sounds great to me. Put it on a bumper sticker. We shouldn’t stop here. If we’ll do this to avoid telling people the hard truth that taxes are what supports society and our communal institutions, then there’s a lot of other stuff we can tap for the greater good. How ’bout “Hoes for Healthcare,” with 67 percent of prostitution proceeds earmarked toward universal coverage for all of the states’ citizens? Even better, with all the talk of Social Security privatization occurring as the stock market continues to show signs of mortality, how about we steer our retirement accounts to a proven profitable investment? Instead of all that cocaine that the CIA allows to come in going through a series of criminal bosses and middlemen, why don’t we tap the huge profit margins for the economic stability of the country? That’s right, I’m talking about the “Crack IRA.” Each citizen should be able to earmark up to $5,000 per year of their earnings to JoJo on the corner, who will purchase pure cocaine, baking soda and other fine ingredients in bulk from the government, while guaranteeing a 300 percent return on our investment by the first of the following month.