Looking at numbers games and the lottery,
past and present, it's easy to get sanctimonious. After all, people
make choices about how to spend their money and they should be more
responsible. Just exercise a little self-control. A sucker might be
born every minute, but it's your fault if you are still a sucker at age
20 or 40 or 60.
But those who gamble, in their own way,
acknowledge one of the grim sociological realities of modern American
life. Despite the fact that we talk a good game about "merit" and
discipline and hard work, the rich are mostly rich because they were
born that way and the poor mostly poor because they were born that way.
There are a lot of smart, hardworking people who, because of the luck
of their birth, will never be professors at Penn or corporate
executives or Atlantic columnists or hold jobs that are at all
commensurate with their abilities. Yes, there are folks who beat the
odds (see Coates, T.) But so many well-connected, but relatively
unqualified folks make it to high places (see, Bush, George W.,,
Quayle, Ben, et al.) Over the years, I've taught a lot of kids who
believe that they are "middle class" even though they grew up in
Chappaqua or Radnor or Lake Forest in a family making a half million a
year, who went to the best suburban, de facto private schools, took
expensive SAT prep courses, got their first car and apartment and
BlackBerry from mom and dad, and are now raking in big bonuses as
investment bankers or corporate lawyers, and who believe that it's all
because of their hard work and merit. We Americans are congenitally
allergic to the "c word" but I'll use it anyway. Class. It matters.
gamble, play the numbers, or buy lottery tickets for all sorts of
reasons, some emotional, some chemical, some idiosyncratic. Some might
actually just be doing it for fun. But at root, playing the Lotto grows
out of the sorry recognition that there just aren't many other avenues
for upward mobility, despite the ubiquity of "up-by-the-bootstraps"
rhetoric. A whole school of social historians like Stephan Thernstrom
(before he became a conservative pundit), Clyde Griffen, and my
colleague Michael Katz, produced a genre of quantitative "social
mobility" studies, now mostly unread, that showed that even in the
midst of the extraordinary years of industrialization and massive
aggregate economic growth in the 19th century, rags to riches was a
myth. In the past and present, people born into wealth--with social and
economic capital--are more likely to end up at the top; people born
with little are likely to end up just where they started. Tough luck.
the sanctimonious among you might say: well, isn't people's own fault
if they choose to gamble away their meager earnings? After all, I'm a
parsimonious guy. I hate to gamble. I save rather than spending
profligately (well, at least most of the time). Why shouldn't every
sensible person share my rationality? Well, maybe in an ideal world,
where everyone has the education and information to realize that
gambling is a losing proposition.