The Scourge of America: Using the power of government to change culture

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The government message is clear: Don’t save or invest. Go to the nearest casino, but buy some lottery tickets on the way.

It’s the television commercial that is difficult to escape, yet it is a disturbing reflection of how Americans are changing.

A seeming frivolous young man goes into a store and decides to buy a deck of cards and a rubber toy.

“Present You is being selfish and not thinking about the future,” explains an announcer. An elderly version of the young man looks back from 50 years or so in the future, where he is enjoying a secure retirement, and is alarmed. He wants his young self to buy a lottery ticket. With the ticket, he’ll have it made. Forget about spending money on cards or toys; go with the New York State Lottery. “Get the ticket,” Future You, you as an old man, urges.

Suddenly, the young man is seemingly knocked off the horse like the biblical Saul. He changes his mind. He returns the deck of cards. He buys a New York State lottery ticket. The logic of the commercial is that he is no longer being selfish. He is now thinking of the future. He is now smart.

Future You, according to the ad, is now reassured. The young man has made the right choice and will be able to live well in his old age because he played the lottery.

The government, using our tax dollars, is actually now trying to persuade us that buying lottery tickets is a form of retirement planning. Buy those lottery tickets and you’ll some day achieve financial independence. Unfortunately, many Americans are taken in every day by this bogus logic.

Government sponsored gambling is the soma—-the drug that kept everyone under the control of the government in Huxley’s brilliant and prescient novel “Brave New World”—-of our times. If fifty years ago, this kind of get rich quick government gambling commercial had run, advocating a kind of faux retirement planning, most Americans would have been contemptuous. Today, few hardly notice and even fewer object.

Indeed, most of our grandparents would have reacted this way: “My tax dollars are being spent by a government commission to try to get people to gamble on a lottery? It’s the same as numbers! Throw the bums out.”

(By the way, the ad with the young man never mentions the odds of winning a big prize. They are astronomical as I detailed years ago in a story called “The Lottery Racket” for Mises.com).

But today is very different from our grandparents’ time. That was a time when Americans had very high savings rates. Our grandparents saved and invested on a regular basis, achieving some of the highest savings rates in the world. That ensured things were better for the next generation.

That’s unlike Americans today, many of whom have little in retirement assets and almost no cash reserves. Still, many of these people buy lots of lottery tickets or go to casinos which are, for many hard pressed states, their idea of economic development.

I live in Kew Gardens, Queens, which is about eight miles away from the middle of Manhattan. We have a casino not three miles away at Aqueduct Racetrack. The state, ever hard up for money, says more casinos are coming. For many states, sports betting will likely be next. Then we’ll never watch a game again and care as much who wins. We’ll care about the spread. Last minute scores will inevitably trigger speculations that someone was on the take.

The savings and investments of our parents and grandparents made this a better world for us. The high standard of living we enjoy today is the result of the huge capital pool they built in the 1940s and 1950s. (And no, President Obama, the government didn’t build it for them. They built it for us through sacrifice).

It is a capital pool that created millions of jobs and allowed so many of us to enjoy a better standard of living than previous generations. For example, the savings of my parents allowed my sister Karen and I to become the first Bresigers to go to college.

Thanks to my parents’ hard work we also moved from a Bronx slum neighborhood to a better place. Eventually, my parents were able to buy their first house (Not in New York, naturally, but in tax friendlier Pennsylvania).

All those good things didn’t happen because they bought lottery tickets or had a good weekend in Vegas. They happened because they worked hard—-even though they had to pay outrageous taxes living here in a “tax hell “called New York—-and still managed to save, invest and gamble very little.

I am not a Puritan. I used to play football pools from time to time when I worked in offices. When my wife and I went to Las Vegas a few years ago, I gave her $100 as she headed for the slots and told her to have a good time. I considered the money gone. However, there is a difference between gambling for fun occasionally, with self-imposed limits, and gambling on a regular basis, with government expecting gambling profits to fund numerous state functions.

The latter is a flawed proposition. Here in New York City, the government failed as a bookmaker. Its famous Off Track Betting (OTB) operation actually lost money! Given the mathematics of horse racing, how can the house lose money on horse racing? It’s very easy for government to mismanage almost anything. Economist Milton Friedman once said that, if the government ran the Sahara Desert, there would soon be a sand shortage.

Buying lottery tickets and expecting that this will be the road to financial independence is madness. It is a madness governments today promote. Unless you’re a professional gambler, or a card counting mathematical genius, your chances of financial independence are nil and less than nil when you place big bets.

Yet, there has always been a certain degree of gambling in any society and there is no way to stop it nor would I propose to do so. However, one shouldn’t egg people on to do more of it. Still, that is what governments have been doing for a long time. In the process, they are undermining the spirit of self-improvement that motivated our grandparents.

Over the past half century or so a sea change has come across American society. Savings rates have declined as government policies tend to discourage production, tax savings and investments at every turn. Even the tax terms used to characterize them imply that savers and investors are somehow selfish. The distributions they earn from savings and investing are often called “unearned (sic) income.”

“Unearned?”

Excuse me?

Savers and investors certainly “earn” what they get in several ways and make our economy stronger: When one invests, there is never a guarantee that one will earn a lot, given low interest rates and the unpredictability of stock markets. You can and often lose principal or sometimes your principal increases at a slow rate. And that means, adjusted for inflation (which is always the result of central banks overproducing, or debasing, the money supply), the buying power of your money declines. It’s an anomaly: One has more nominal dollars, but they command fewer goods and services. One feels wealthier, but is actually poorer.

Secondly, savers and investors “earn” their gains through a policy of time preference: We impose a lower standard of living on ourselves today in the hope, not the guarantee, that tomorrow we will be rewarded with gains. The operative word in the last sentence was hope.

If you think we are guaranteed gains, talk to stock market investors who were in the 2008 market meltdown or savers today who get next to nothing for their thrift. Indeed, talk to my wife six years ago when I told her what was happening to our investments, which had been built up over twenty years.

My wife and I lost 25 percent on our investments in 2008 and we counted ourselves as lucky! The market as a whole was down much more. Today, I looked at our savings account. Last month, owing to central bank’s cheap money policies, we got 54 cents in interest, probably less than even Ralph Kramden of the fabled “Honeymooners” tv series got on his “$75 savings account.”

Oh, and thirdly, savings and investments increase the capital pool. That is how new jobs are generated. Where will the jobs of tomorrow come from if a class of people doesn’t, in effect, impose a lower standard of living on themselves today, consuming somewhat less than they could today and putting it aside in savings and investments?

Yet government polices communicated to us through the idiot box encourage gambling and celebrate consumption. This is a by-product, no doubt, of the work of the economist John Maynard Keynes. His economic and personal point of view demeaned savings. So gamble today, spend and enjoy yourself!

The government—-which once prosecuted the organized crime business of numbers, and what is the lottery but a modern form of numbers?—-now urges us to play lotteries a.k.a. numbers.

This cultural change encourages us to go to state sanctioned casinos. These casinos run commercials in which everyone is a jumping jack. Every woman looks like a super model. There is someone winning at every slot machine and craps table. Everyone seems to be taking home a fortune.

Funny, when I went to Vegas that wasn’t my experience. I never saw so many seemingly depressed people unless it was the last time I rode the wretched E-train from Manhattan with people coming home after a day of work. (And the state-run subways, like the state lotteries, are another government institution that damages all of us in countless ways).

In an age of bigger and bigger government, the ability to change behavior, to engage in wholesale social engineering, is frightening. Government can make life more and more difficult for savers and investors, while encouraging people to spend and gamble more.

Is getting us to gamble much more and save much less than normal what we want governments to do?

About The Author

Gregory Bresiger

Gregory Bresiger is an independent business journalist from Queens, New York. His Personal Finance articles have appeared in publications such as The New York Post & Financial Advisor Magazine. He is the author of the eBooks “Personal Finance For People Who Hate Personal Finance” and “MoneySense”.