I buy lottery tickets now and then, on a whim. And somewhat furtively, I confess, like I should feel ashamed of buying them. I slink into the market on the edge of town where no one I know ever goes and whisper my request over the counter to the clerk, who boredly hands them to me in exchange for my grubby bills.
I’ve probably bought $50 worth of lottery tickets over the course of my life, and I’ve won precisely $15. So far, I’m not really the lottery’s ideal customer because I don’t make it a weekly (or even monthly...or yearly...) habit, but I do illustrate how the lottery works: People spend a lot of money, and they rarely see very much in return.
Before the Mega Millions draw on Saturday, I picked up a lottery ticket and a candy bar1 at the market. It was pouring rain and I had to scurry through it to get to the door. The floor was slick and I almost took a header in front of the cash register.
“Is this it?” said the clerk.
“And five quick picks2, please,” I said.
I stuffed the ticket into my wallet and came home to write this piece, which I was determined to write before the draw, when my skin is still tingling with anticipation. I wouldn’t win, but there’s that possibility that I could win, and the Mega Millions is at 60 million right now, which is a lot of millions, if you know what I mean. I would lie awake in for a night thinking about what I could do with 60 million dollars, even though I wouldn’t get 60 million dollars.
This is part of my superstition, that only by telling myself I am not going to win, and convincing myself that I am not going to win, will I win. Unfortunately, by admitting this, I have blown the whole thing. And thus, the followup story to this is not going to be “It Happened To Me: I Won the Lottery.”
The bootstrapping myth is strong in the United States. We are told over and over again that we can achieve whatever we want by working, and many of us buy into it. I’ve been working since the age of 12, and I’ve been busting my humps since I was 16, searching for that eternal brass ring. I suspect many of you share this experience.
It never stops, the bootstrapping, because my position is actually very precarious, like that of many freelancers. And thus even as I struggle to put money in the bank, to achieve the things that I am supposed to desire as well as the things I want3, I’m aware that there’s a certain amount of futility here. I am unlikely to bootstrap myself into the upper middle class, let alone the upper class, economically.
I am likely to spend the foreseeable future circling the drain, just like I am right now.
Class mobility is extremely low in the United States right now, unless you mean downward mobility. And yet, we continue to be sold the bootstrapping myth, that someday, if you buckle down with your nose to the grindstone, you, too, will be rewarded for your hard work.
It doesn’t just come up in the sense of class. It’s also present in narratives about disability, gender, health, and race, the idea that people who are disadvantaged are there because they’re not working hard enough. The elevation of people who “made it” as evidence that it is possible if you really work at it. Anyone can do it.
The selling of the bootstrapping myth is sometimes so complete that people who struggled and did manage to beat the odds look down on the people they left behind with disdain. Those people are lazy and should have worked harder, you know. They managed to do it, so anyone could if they cared enough. The cycle continues, endlessly.
You’re wondering what my lottery habits have to do with bootstrapping, I know.
The lottery is the 1% dream, the thing that appeases the bootstrappers as they become disillusioned. It’s that one in a million (actually, one in 175,711,536 million) odds that you might be able to short-circuit this whole system, throw your bootstraps away, and live the high life. The thing that keeps you on the path you're on so you don't rebel.
When you start to realize that the whole deck is stacked against you, it’s tempting to give up. Why bother to go to work when your entire paycheck will go to living expenses and you will never put money away? Why bother to solicit more work if the extra income will all be eaten up by taxes?
And then there’s the lottery. If you bootstrap just a little longer, maybe your 1% dreams will become reality.
1. This week in entertaining conversations with my accountant: “Hey Accountant, if I buy a lottery ticket and a candy bar for work-related purposes, can I write them off?” “...” “Okay, just checking.” Return
2. I am actually a highly superstitious person, and my superstition about the lottery has reached a strangely baroque level. I have become convinced that I have better chances with the random number picker than with me picking the numbers, because, well, it’s a long story. Return
3. Like paying off my student loans, and buying a house. Return