There is a Difference Between the Lottery and Wall Street

Yesterday, I wrote an article about a deceptive shift of language from “income inequality” to “income inequity.” In it, I quoted Barack Obama, who recently claimed that hedge fund investors were the “nation’s lottery winners.” I think his dismissive assessment deserves another look, since it represents the attitude so many Americans have toward the wealthy.

So how is the lottery different from Wall Street?

First, success at the lottery is a matter of pure chance. Success investing in Wall Street is also a matter of chance, yes, but it involves a great deal of skill as well. “Success” in the lottery, unless you have figured out how to game the system, is entirely accidental. Wall Street is more like poker than craps. Knowing when and what to buy and sell on Wall Street takes a fairly high degree of insight. Picking your numbers for the lottery or scratching off a ticket requires no skill.

Calling investors “lottery winners” as if they did nothing that required skill is a merely a way to justify taking their money. Incidentally, taking money someone won in a lottery is also theft. But taking money that required skill and labor to accrue is even worse in my book.

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And not just because you are stealing from the investor. You’re stealing from the companies in whom the investments would have been made.

Because there’s a much more important difference between the lottery and Wall Street than just the skill involved in “winning the game.” The lottery system is an autonomous, mostly circular money system. Aside from a few indirect outlets for lottery money (like education), the money that goes into the lottery either stays in the lottery system or goes out of the lottery to lottery winners. The lottery is not an investment into anything. You’re merely buying an opportunity to win the money other similar buyers have contributed.

Sometimes people view Wall Street as a similar setup. You put money in the kitty for a chance to get more money back. It’s all about the return on investment. But whether or not that’s why people actually invest, the money that’s invested benefits more than just the system of exchange or the investors. The money that goes into Wall Street investments doesn’t actually stay in Wall Street per se.

Businesses opt to become publicly traded in order to obtain money to operate and grow. The money that is invested in Wall Street is actually not even invested in Wall Street. It’s invested in a particular company or set of companies. Without that investment, those companies would shrink or cease to exist. The only thing that would shrink or cease to exist without “investments” in the lottery is … the lottery.

lotteryThe lottery benefits basically no one. It’s questionable that even the winner actually benefits. Some could argue that the endowments to education are publicly beneficial, but those benefits are deceptive. More and more reports are surfacing that state legislatures use the so-called extra money lotteries pay out to schools in order to justify cuts to education—resulting in a zero net gain to schools:

. . . In state after state, where lotteries send millions of dollars to public education, schools are still starved. Why?

Because instead of using the money as additional funding, legislatures have used the lottery money to pay for the education budget and spent the money that would have been used had there been no lottery cash on other things. Public school budgets, as a result, haven’t gotten a boost because of the lottery funding.

In other words, lotteries have become another way to tax people, especially the poorer people who don’t pay much in taxes otherwise and are, generally speaking, the only people who buy lottery tickets.

But investing in Wall Street boosts the economy by giving companies access to capital necessary for job creation, innovation, and development. This doesn’t just benefit public corporations. Or the investor. It actually benefits the entire economic environment which benefits even the poorest members of the nation. By discouraging investment or acting like successful investors deserve to lose some of the capital they would be using for more investments, you aren’t taking merely from investors. You are taking from the businesses relying on that investment capital. And by hurting businesses, you are hurting the people those businesses serve and employ. You’re hurting the economy, in other words.

Obama thinks he needs to take money from investors in order to “invest” in public pre-school education—a questionable “service” with huge costs and dubious benefits. I’m sorry, but that’s not a good investment.


from Last Resistance

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