Monday, August 13, 2012

Winning the Lottery

The Powerball jackpot is growing again - something over $300M the other day. Like a lot of people I spent a few minutes thinking about what that kind of money would mean for my life. I could pay off my debts and those of my family, but I'd be most excited about the amount I could give away. There's a lot of great organizations I've worked for of volunteered with doing wonderful work; I'd love to set up administrative endowments so they could focus on doing good things and think less about fundraising.

In the end I went back to the old cliche, one I believe to be true: that this sort of windfall generally does more harm than good.

I can imagine it would be difficult to draw a line between setting yourself up well and indulgence. Do we need new cars (since ours are prone to breakdowns and inefficiencies) If so, do we get Hyundais or BMWs? We could use an extra room in our house - of course, if we had five extra rooms we could provide space for people who need it. There's just a lot of questions and probably more power than I trust myself to deal with.

In the end, even if I'm being as altruistic as possible, I'm still trying to make my life a bit easier - to get something (even if it's purportedly for someone else) without having to work hard (or at all) for it.

Then I ran across another infamous internet meme - one with some less-than-famous economist or politician saying something like, "So it's greedy to want to keep the money I make, but not greedy to want to take someone else's money?"

I suppose it's a decent question. Of course, it also assumes a radical individualism, completely denying the existence, let alone validity, of any societal or corporate communal identity (if I want you taxed, I am greedy for your money, even if I never see a dime of it directly or through benefits).

The logic makes no sense and the practicality is moot without a completely independent every-man-for-himself system. The point, however, it pretty valid.

There's a lot of people out there who want something for nothing. We've raised an entire generation (probably two or three) who expect to have electricity 24 hours a day and running water that's safe to drink, and roads with a reasonable enough maintenance to prevent your car from being torn up just driving - along with schools and police and fire protection, not to mention unemployment insurance, food and housing assistance, and other basic services. Very few people know where the money for those things comes from beyond some generic communal pot.

The other problem, as I see it, is that people with money have pretty similar expectations. Sure, they're not generally in need of basic services, but they certainly don't want to see beggars and invalids camped out on street corners or in front of their homes. They do similarly expect electricity and water and transportation and education to be available, if not for themselves, at least for the people who buy their goods and use their services.

The President got lambasted for his "you didn't build that" line, but his main point is true. Business owners have a distinct benefit from infrastructure largely funded by the government. In the earliest days of the US, business owners had to build their own roads, construct their own ports, and set up transportation companies to ship their goods, and generate their own power for operation. The fact that those duties are done for them today is a decided benefit.

Ultimately it's two sides of the same coin. We're all seeking to reap where we haven't sown. I want to win the lottery so I can give without worrying about my own needs. I want my responsibilities taken care, so I'm completely free to spend my money how I want. The stereotypical poor moocher (who exists in some form, even if the generalization isn't accurate in most cases) wants to have a big tv and a satellite dish and stylish clothes - and it's easier to do so if someone else is subsidizing their house and food.

The stereotypical selfish richy (who exists in some form, even if the generalization isn't always accurate) wants to maximize profits by any means necessary - and it's much easier to do if the only needs I have to pay for are my own.

I can understand the ideological political differences between having a public institution and a private one serving as our communal voice. No arguments here; I'm much more concerned about what we do than how it gets done in that respect.

At the same time we have to acknowledge that there's no life lottery. Even for those people born rich who will always be rich, there's pressure and expectation. Even for those people born poor who will always be poor, there exists a strong work ethic and a sense of personal responsibility.

The world in which we want to live won't magically happen just because we stumble on the right combination of political or economic policies. Those dreams are a lie.

The kind of world we want to see - the lottery world, if you will - doesn't happen when we try to grasp and grab for all that we can. It happens when we stop taking such an individual view of the world and expand our horizons. Some things on earth are limited commodities, but life and love and happiness and satisfaction are not among them.

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