For the week of November 11 thru November 17, 1998  

Something for nothing

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS


It has become a sort of post modern American dream to win the $23 million civil suit, the $108 million lottery jackpot, or even to sign the $78 million Nike/NBA deal.

The big windfall is a dream, bordering on obsession, that unlike anything else, can captivate this entire nation. Even the prurient interest in a president's sex life is trivial compared to the fever that grips this country when the lottery gets to its tipping point. This is when the enormity of the jackpot becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The pot gets bigger so more people are drawn in so the pot gets bigger so more people get drawn in.

It is hard to resist. There is something magical about pulling out a crumpled dollar bill and trading it for a chance at massive wealth. Of course, some know-it-all news anchor invariably points out that the probability against winning is equally massive. What those know-it-alls don't know is that the odds of winning really don't matter to us. It could almost be considered a trick of the human psyche that as the payoff grows, the relevant issues such as the amount invested and probability of return seem to diminish.

It is a chance, and that is all that matters.

Something-for-nothing industries like the lotteries are thriving just now. Gambling as a whole, whether on Native American reservations or in Las Vegas, is enjoying phenomenal growth. Witness the Las Vegas skyline where four new mega-hotels (3,000-5,000 rooms each) are popping up. These hotels cost in the range of a billion dollars a piece.

Someone is obviously making a lot of money off of a lot of hopeful souls.

Then consider the proliferation of civil liability suits, the widespread speculation in the stock market, professional sports, even Silicon Valley. They are all lotteries in one form or an other.

People flock to these industries because the potential for economic windfall is real. They are in search of the big payoff.

It wasn't always this way.

The American Dream used to be quite a bit more modest. It had something to do with having the opportunity to work for a fair wage, prospering enough to buy a home and provide for a family.

People had lofty dreams, but they had more to do with healing people, fighting for justice, or building something useful than they did with great wealth.

One interpretation of this new attitude is that it is just another manifestation of the perennial optimism of Americans. After all, ours is a country founded on hope. It is just that the focus of our hope has shifted from concepts of government and rights of individuals to personal wealth.

I tend to take the somewhat dimmer view, however, that this new obsession signals a growing cynicism in America. It is a cynicism born of disenchantment with our work and station in life.

I don't think most people are as engaged in their work as they would like to be. For some it is just a case of their careers getting old, or more tied up in regulation and bureaucracy. For others, it seems that their lives are increasingly circumscribed by the struggle to satisfy basic needs like food and shelter.

Rosemary Bray, who spoke here recently, put it this way: "We are just too tired. Passion has been worked out of us."

By contrast, winning a big jackpot of any kind provides unfettered freedom. It obviates the struggle. It allows the winner to play outside of the rules and be free of the system altogether. If he doesn't like the way things are going, he can just walk away.

It is akin to an angry child deciding to take his football home, leaving the other players standing there on the field dumbfounded.

I have a friend who trades bonds for a living. The other day he said about his job, "There is way too much pressure, and I really don't like it that much, but it allows me to take the vacations I want to take. And pretty soon I'll be done with it and just play golf." (He is in his mid thirties.)

So is this to be the new credo: to play for the longshot, to risk health and happiness for the windfall, to file the big liability suit? And if you are so lucky as to make the big killing, then do you just check out of the system, go on vacation for the rest of your life?

I've never been much of a religious zealot, but one thing I do credit formal religion with is its ability to instill in its followers the belief that life really is a zero-sum game.

You have to give something to get something. And what you give and what you get are often one and the same.

A popular bumper sticker reads, "He who dies with the most toys wins."

Not only is it glib and somewhat obnoxious, but it’s not really true to life.

Most people who are coming to the end of their time realize that what they want from their lives is some shred of immortality. To have created a piece of art, to have built a house that will be a home for many, to have saved a life, to have won some justice for those less able; these are things and acts that can survive the flesh.

The more cynical will say that accumulating a big pile of money in a trust is a way of being remembered after death. Maybe so, but it is a kind of immortality that doesn't really resonate.

Perhaps you can get something for nothing, or virtually nothing, but it is a temporary triumph. What we have to remember is that it doesn't make us whole, just rich for a while.

One of the more striking aspects of the natural world is the principle of conservation.

Every quantity that scientists have ever chosen to study, such as mass, energy, charge, momentum, nuclear spin, is always, always conserved. That is to say, in a closed system, you can not get something from nothing, nor can nothing result from something. In all of the experiments in the history of science, this principle of conservation has never been shown to be otherwise.

Why should human endeavors be any different?

Our good will, our efforts, our kindness to others are not simply lost to the ether. They come around again, infuse our lives with meaning, form the threads of our immortality. So winning the lottery might free us from the everyday burden of feeding ourselves, but it shouldn't lead us to believe that we can disengage from everything else.

We still have to earn a little piece of mind before we are done.

 

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