The Idiot Tax




My family always called the lottery the "idiot tax." My life had been easy; we didn't have excessive money, but always had money enough. The odds against winning the lottery are staggeringly high -- to my family and I anyone who would risk a dollar on a chance that small was proving that P.T. Barnum was right. I thought people played the lottery because they expected to win. I was wrong.

It's hard to think of it as such, but this is "the turn of the century." This is the early 2000's. In some later time, there'll be a name for this period. People will talk about it as a time of financial hardship, but it will just be words. Like my mother's description of growing up in The Great Depression. History saves us from living it day-by-day with children to care for, a mortgage and bills to pay. This isn't like my mother's stories of the depression -- buying automobile-sized candy bars for a nickel,  this is what her parents went through.

I've been out of work for a year now. I'm a highly skilled software engineer, but there's no work. There are advertisements, but there is no work. The advertisements say things like, "Entry level programmer -- Master's degree required." or "Must speak fluent Mandarin." Sometimes they demand five years experience at a technology that's only been around for two years. These are cynical ads. Placed with no intent to hire. Placed so a company can say to its investors, "Yes, the economy is sour, but look, we're growing! We're advertising for people."

Things started going bad in 2000. There were lay-offs, but there had been lay-offs before. Starting in the early 1990's my jobs had all ended in lay-off.  It was a game. They'd give you a "package" -- money and benefits that lasted some number of months and during that time you found a new job and pocketed the difference. I took a summer off once, but had never been out of work without wanting to be for more than a couple of weeks.  In 2000, I started hearing stories of people getting laid off and not finding work for months. Then years. When it wasn't me, I assumed they must not be very good programmers. It was an industry shake-out. Of others. Not me.

Then in 2003 it was my turn. It was the day before I moved into my new house. My boss walked in on me at the end of the day and asked if I had a minute. And I knew. He said it in his usual tone of voice. But I knew. And we went into a conference room and he gave me the news. The package was two months. I wasn't scared. I could find a job in two months. I was one of the good ones. I was serious. I had a career.

When I first hit the streets, I was encouraged by all the job postings. "There are jobs out there," I told myself, "if you aren't working, you aren't trying." and I started sending off resumes. Every day more resumes and nothing in response. As the two months went by I started noticing a cycle to the job postings. The same jobs came up over and over. I found one that I was perfect for and pursued it following up aggressively and they stopped posting the job. But never an answer. Not from a human being.

There were innumerable automatic responses. The resume sites follow up with an e-mail, "We have sent your resume...." The companies generated an automatic response, "We have received your resume...." At one point I got a message from a company that didn't mention their name -- the message started, "Due to the enormous volume of resumes we receive, we cannot respond individually..." and I realized that due to the enormous volume of resumes I was submitting, I had no idea who they were.

With the two month package gone, I went on unemployment. I had never been on unemployment and it was the bitterest day of my life when I had to cash that first unemployment check. Yet how much sweeter was that day than the day 30 weeks later that I cashed my last unemployment check. And that day seems verdant compared to now when there are no checks coming in.

But one day, after the bitter pill of that first unemployment check, feeling the deep personal rejection of unanswered resumes, I was in a convenience store and saw a lottery board that predicted a 58 million dollar pay-out. And I put a buck down and bought a ticket. I thought to myself, "I'm a deserving fellow. This must be The Great Plan. I'll win the lottery and never have to work again." The drawing was in three days and for those three days I smiled as I went through the motions of sending out resumes and writing cover letters. I knew that I had my ace in the hole. I would win that 58 million and the kids and I would be set. I could start a small business of my own and never get laid off again.

In three days time the drawing happened. I didn't look at my ticket that night. I looked at the winning number and imagined the thrill when I took that ticket out of my wallet and matched the numbers one by one. It was my salvation coming. I savored it. The next morning I took the ticket out of my wallet and checked it against the winning number. I didn't win the jackpot. I didn't win the smaller prizes. I didn't even win my  buck back. I had nothing.

Of course, I felt pretty bad and sulked most of the day. But gradually it dawned on me that I had three days of hope and it only cost me a buck. It had been years since I felt that much hope. Then I realized that when you buy a lottery ticket, you're not buying a chance to win. You're buying hope. And at only a buck, it's a bargain.

And yet, a steady diet of false hope is as addicting as heroin. Months later I wandered into the same store on a Friday afternoon. I watched as people in line ahead of me bought their hope-fix. A quick-pick on the lottery, scratch tickets from three different games - $4. Tickets on two different lotteries and scratch tickets from two different games - $5. And I walked up and laid my dollar down. I made a remark to the clerk that it seemed to be lottery day. He told me it was like that every day at lunchtime. Everyone bought lottery tickets or game tickets. Most people bought several dollars worth. I realized I was seeing a giant B.F. Skinner experiment and the rats were pushing the little lever that was supposed to dispense a food pellet.

It made me a little sad, but I decided false hope is not better than no hope. If no hope is all there is, it's better to know it.

I think of it as "The Parakeet Syndrome." When I was a very young child in parochial school, I went to a carnival that had a coin-toss game. There were shallow glass plates placed on top of prizes and if you could pitch a nickel so it would stop on a plate, you'd get the prize under the plate.  Under one plate was a green parakeet, and I decided I had to have him. My mother had given me two dollars to spend at the fair and at first I broke a dollar into five nickels and three quarters. Then, one after another, I turned each quarter into five nickels. Then the next dollar went the same way. (These were the days when even school carnivals had no conscience about fleecing a child.) And suddenly I was out of money and still had no parakeet.

I was stunned. This was not the way it was supposed to happen. I was a deserving young man. I deserved that parakeet. God had a plan that included me having that parakeet. From the beginning of time, the parakeet and I were destined to be together. Somehow, something would happen to get us together. So I hung around looking sad, expecting someone to give me that parakeet to save my little heart from breaking. It didn't happen. I started to cry -- surely someone would see how deserving I was and they would give me the parakeet. That didn't happen either.

Eventually, my Mom came along and found me crying. I tried to explain how sad the bird was going to be if it didn't go home with me. She said I was over-tired and it was time to go. I screamed and cried and carried on, but Mom just picked me up and walked out of the carnival. I never saw that bird again.

It was inconceivable at that time that my deserving nature shouldn't have been rewarded. That there was not a God who would influence events so I would have this bird. And I recognize the flavor of that experience every time I buy a lottery ticket. God will make me win. I am deserving. And I suspect I'm not alone in feeling that way. Yet, buying that ticket bought me three days of hope at a time I needed hope, but it was false hope.




Copyright (c) 2004 - 2007 Patrick Taber, All rights reserved.
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