All Points

The Lottery Society

How to make it in America

By William Deresiewicz | April 28, 2013


The first annual Breakthrough Prizes were announced in February: 11 awards of $3 million each to researchers in the life sciences. The prize is funded by Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Sergey Brin of Google, and several other Internet zillionaires. In March came the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge, $9 million in awards to five cities selected in a national competition. Last year, when California announced that it was going to be closing 15 state parks (that is, for good), one of them, southeast of San Jose, won a temporary reprieve thanks to the generosity of a Silicon Valley businessman.

I think it’s great when rich people do good things with their money. I think it’s appalling that we need them to. To put it bluntly, the money that the Brins and Bloombergs have to shower down on a fortunate few—that money, and a great deal more besides—should be taxed away and allocated by democratic means. The cities wouldn’t be starving, the parks wouldn’t be closing, science funding wouldn’t be falling if the wealthy paid their share.

But the problem goes beyond taxation. Markets allocate resources, but governments structure markets. Never mind that the rich don’t pay enough in taxes. (And as we know, it isn’t even that they don’t pay more than the rest of us. In a lot of cases, they pay a great deal less.) They shouldn’t be in a position to make that kind of money in the first place. You want to tell me that they earned it? Earned is a moral term. How do you measure the share of the money that somebody gets that they actually “earn”? From 1978 to 2011, the average worker’s pay went up by 6 percent. The average compensation of a CEO went up by 727 percent. Do you really believe that executives earned a raise that’s 120 times greater than their workers did?

I don’t believe austerity is unavoidable. We’re still a very wealthy country in the aggregate. The problem is the way that wealth has come to be distributed. The share of national income that accrues to the top one percent, which had stayed at about 10 percent from 1954 to 1980, has risen to about 23 percent. In a $15 trillion economy, the difference represents a premium of almost $2 trillion a year, or more than twice the current annual federal budget deficit. As far as I’m concerned, that money belongs to the rest of us, especially the bottom 80 percent, whether in the form of increased pay or higher public spending. By manipulating the legislative and legal systems—which is to say, by buying them—the rich have simply stolen it.

The outcome is the lottery society that’s with us now. Social mobility has slowed to a crawl. If you work hard and play by the rules, it probably won’t make a damn bit of difference. The only other choice is to wait around for lightning to strike. I put those acts of philanthropic deus ex machina in the same category as Indian casinos, competitive reality shows, and the fantasy of going viral on the Internet. In the documentary Waiting for Superman, where a few kids are chosen at random, out of hundreds, for places in charter schools, the lottery is all too literal. Some lines from Leonard Cohen come to mind: “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded / Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.” The American Dream is dead. What’s left is American Idol.

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