07 August 2011

Gambling Away Their Future

In the basement of the building where my office is located, there is a small convenience store.  I go down there at least once a week for a mid-afternoon snack if the day seems to be dragging on too long.  Without fail, every single time I am in the shop, at least one other person in the shop is buying a Texas state lottery ticket.  From what I can tell, there appear to be about 20 "games" or variations on the lottery going on in this state at any given time, as the store has a counter to ceiling display of the various tickets, scratch-offs, etc.

I have always lived in places, and associated with people a majority of whom find the idea of a lottery (and by extension, gambling) morally objectionable.  Though I am certain that there is some individual variation, the most common explanation for this opinion is that gambling or a lottery is trying to get something ($) for no honest labor.  I follow that reasoning, and I can understand why it makes sense to some people as a principle on which to object to gambling.  On the other hand, it goes too far.  You could use the same criterion to reject a great many other things that these same people find totally unobjectionable, including: the stock market* (explained below), multi-level marketing, and large estate-tax-free inheritances.

The lottery, and the numerous participants that I see on an almost daily basis, bother me for another reason-- lotteries exploit the poor.  My observations, which I am reasonably certain could be backed up by more rigorous statistical evidence, are that the people I see buying into the lottery are not the other well-compensated professionals that inhabit my building.  Rather, they are the secretaries, the other support staff, security guards, etc.  The existence of lotteries are evidence that the broader economic system is broken, that so-called "honest" labor is not deemed to pay well enough, and that resort to other, less-certain means is desirable.  Lotteries naturally prey on the human inability to appropriately account for risk, reward and probability.  We are born optimists.  But worse, they prey on desperation, status/class anxiety resulting from inequality, and greed born of deprivation.

*Except for people who are granted stock options in their employer, most investors hold equity positions in companies that they do not work for.  In addition, some employees who are granted stock options are not in any personal position to affect the performance of those investments.  To those two groups, a stock's price would fluctuate, and generate gains or losses, solely on chance and the efforts of other people.  Thus, there is arguably no moral difference (there is certainly an economic difference) between gambling and investing.  One could argue that investment gains, like interest on a bond, are the price investors charge for the use of their money as capital in an enterprise, but that same logic would purify lotteries and gambling that are directed towards education or other socially salutary purposes (e.g. NC and TX)