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The lottery mentality


MANY YEARS AGO, my late mother believed that one of the biggest reasons Mexico was in sad financial shape was that country's long-running national lottery. She said, "People in Mexico believe the only way they can get ahead is to win the lottery, so instead of working hard, they buy lottery tickets."

Mom didn't blame the workers for this behavior. An old socialist, she saw the lottery as a way for the ruling classes to control workers. "As long as the Mexican workers dream of getting rich through the lottery and don't believe their own efforts make a difference," she said, "Mexico will be a country where almost everyone is poor, run by a ruling class that is wealthy beyond belief."

The American dream, of working hard and getting ahead, is starting to succumb to that same lottery mentality my mother saw hurting Mexico's economy. Obviously, we now have state lotteries which are heavily patronized by people who have little other hope of raising themselves from poverty. But we also have other, less obvious "lotteries" that may be worse for us, in the long run, than the games whose results we see on TV every night.

One lottery in which we are all entered is the "pick a job" game. This one, which is played by all levels of society, gives us a chance to either earn promotions or get laid off, not because we are good or bad workers, but as the results of financial manipulations on the other side of the continent or the world.

A company's finest salesman can be told, one afternoon, that his job has been eliminated by "financial restructuring" necessitated by a fluctuation in junk-bond markets in Tokyo. Conversely, a mediocre salesman for a company that has just "consolidated the work force" in the town where he lives may receive a promotion and a boost to his paycheck.

The pension game

The "pension game" is another one we seem to be playing with increased fervor. Social Security, if Congress is to be believed, will go bankrupt at the exact time most of us need it, in part because so many of us will need it at the same time. Private pensions, once regarded as secure, are not to be counted on, either. Instead of being paid out at a fixed rate, they are increasingly tied to the performance of a mixed bag of investments presided over by the same people who perform the financial manipulations that decide who will work where and how much they will get paid.

A third lottery is the "vote and hope" game. We elect officials who say they will make our cities, counties and states "attractive to business" through "increased incentives and tax breaks for industry" in exchange for promises "to bring jobs to our area." But not all of these efforts work. For every successful "enterprise zone" or "business incubator," there are a dozen that are either empty or produced only a few factories or research facilities.

A few of us hope to earn a decent living by working for ourselves. We don't get any tax breaks, since we can't possibly employ enough people for politicians to boast about. We can't hope for pensions, and we pay twice as much for the Social Security benefits we may never get as do workers who cast their fortunes with others.

Statistics show that self-employment is a bad bet. Most small businesses go broke within five years. But in a business climate where corporate CEOs earn an average of 135 times as much as hourly workers, what other choice do we have -- except to buy lottery tickets?

In the middle of this betting frenzy, the amazing thing is that any of us do our jobs at all. Since sweeping floors, making cars, designing electronic circuits, writing articles and teaching school are all subject to the job lottery, and how well we do these things has so little impact on what we can expect out of life, we should not be surprised when we notice that fewer Americans seem to care about how well they perform at work.

Once, we had to travel to Mexico or other Third World countries to see how the lottery mentality killed the work ethic. Now, if we want to see a society where most people believe the only way they can get ahead is to win a lottery of one sort or another, all we need to do is stay home -- and look at the growing lines in front of the lottery terminals in our own neighborhoods.

Robin Miller is a Baltimore taxi driver.

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