Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Idiot Tax

Every time I wait in line behind someone buying scratch-off lottery tickets, I think to myself, jeez, what an idiot. These folks are also quite annoying, as they will hem-and-haw over the exact nature of how to flush $10 down the toilet, debating between "Spin for the Millions" or "Pot o' Gold."

After loathing these mental defectives for a few minutes, I then wonder of the benefits of having a lotto in the first place. The state certainly makes money off of it, as lotto ad campaigns are quick to advertise. But from the standpoint of the commonwealth, is a lotto really a good thing?

I have two opposing thoughts on this. First, we should ban the lotto because it essentially amounts to a poor tax -- don't see a lot of executives mindlessly rubbing a quarter over a piece of cardboard and sending gray dust to the floor. Thus, we'd be better off as a society if these folks didn't have one more outlet on which to piss their money away. Sure, I'm sure that cash would be wasted on something equally as stupid, but at least it wouldn't be directly government sponsored.

But then I think that maybe the lotto is not so much a poor tax as it is an idiot tax. While it is regretable that some people waste their probably-much-needed dough on something so pointless, there are probably a lot of people wasting their discretionary funds on the lotto as well -- most people I see buying tickets aren't obvious hobos. Further, if the state is really using the funds from the lotto to hire firemen and pay teachers, then that's a win. I suppose part of the cost-benefit analysis comes down to some combination of:

a) how much overlap is there between lotto idiots and talking-on-phone-while-driving idiots, leaving-a-loaded-handgun-in-the-house-with-kids idiots, throwing-trash-on-the-streets idiots, etc. In other words, do lotto idiots inordinately contribute to various other societal maladies, or are types of idiocy independently segregating traits?

b) how much would banning the lotto encourage these idiots to leave the state and move to some other state where they could play the lotto?

Unfortunately, I think (b) has a very low probability, so from a public policy standpoint, I don't think that banning the lotto would turn the state into some sort of idiot-free utopia (not to mention the incredible political difficulty in eliminating such an 'institution').

But it does lead me to wonder if there are other potential government sponsored voluntary activities that could take money away from idiots and put it towards the greater good.