Monday, May 03, 2004

Tsk, Tsk

Economists smile when people try to understand public finances in terms of the family budget. Running up a huge debt may be inadvisable for a government, but a government cannot go bankrupt so long as the printing presses are working. But the distinction between the public and the private is more widely recognized in matters of money than in matters of policy, even though trying to understand politics in terms of private morality is no less fatuous. Nothing so defines the smallness of the small timers, the commonness of the common man, than thinking of great affairs as the soapbox opera of everyday life writ big. Petit bourgeois moralizing makes bad politics.

An application. In many parts of the United States, the use of lottery money to support public education is defended on the grounds that it only taxes those weak and stupid enough to play. Considered from a policy point of view, however, lotteries are simply regressive taxes that shift the burden of paying for necessary services on the shoulders of those least able to bear it while siphoning off a good cut for the operators of the games, the tax farmers of the new improved ancien regime. One blames a problem on the individual moral failings of the victims and then exacts a public punishment that enriches a small minority. Promoting gambling among the poor is especially cruel because it is precisely the drastic and growing difference between poverty and wealth in this country makes the appeal of long odds and huge payoffs irresistible. As it becomes more and more difficult to live a self-respecting and decent life by hard work and playing by the rules, it actually gets more rational to take wild chances. Besides, it is worth something to be able to identify with the lucky winners even though the chances of actually becoming one are essentially zero.

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