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Luck and the Trifecta of Politics

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Message Lynne Glasner
"A Dollar and a Dream." "Play Today, Cash Tonight." Innocuous? Hardly, but what was once considered fodder for third-world countries where hawkers preyed on the poor to part with scarce pesos in exchange for lucky bootstraps, is now an accepted part of our own economic and cultural landscape.

We know from studies from a range of organizations that the poor spend disproportionately more on lottery tickets than the non-poor in both absolute terms and as a portion of their income, and that blacks and Hispanics generally play the lottery more frequently than whites. A rising rate of poverty under the Bush presidency correlates with the increase in popularity of the state lotteries.

The growing popularity of the lottery is at least partially attributable to how we perceive our own lives. In his new book, Happiness: A History, author Darrin McMahon explains that the less control people have over their lives, the more they attribute to luck and fate. So as people's ability to control their lives decreases, they are more likely to increase their spending on the lottery. It is not uncommon to quickly descend into a cycle of addiction, helped along by lottery ads that play to these themes. As more and more people recognize that they can't work their way out of poverty, the lottery begins to feel like a rational option. It's hardly rational, however. The odds are terrible: If you bought 50 Powerball tickets per week, the odds of winning the jackpot would be once every 30,000 years. But the ads don't have to disclose that little fact; lotteries are exempt from FTC advertising standards.

Gambling and its language have become so much a part of our culture that when, almost four years ago, Bush joked about hitting the trifecta, no one blinked. Of course the trifecta for Bush is not exactly what others might call their lucky day: In one fell swoop, the Bush Administration began to raid the U.S. treasury in the name of recession, abandon civil liberties in the name of national emergency, and plan an unprecedented pre-emptive war in Iraq in the name of terror. Giving Bush tacit support, the public has offered him another trifecta: distraction (people are too absorbed in taking care of their own survival to pay attention); irrational fear of a terror attack (the odds of dying because of a terrorist attack in the U.S. are 1 in 88,000 over a lifetime; the odds of dying from an assault from a firearm are 1 in 299); and a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness about the odds of making changes in the government. I guess if you feel that the odds of changing the government or any of its policies are as long as the odds of winning the lottery, you will choose to spend your bottom dollar on the Powerball rather than expend your thoughts on the powers that be.

For the possibility of positive gain, we are willing to take long shots, even if it means going for broke; but for shorter odds, we are willing to give up almost everything if the gamble plays to our fears. In fact people tend to underestimate the probability of the occurrence of a common event but they overestimate the probability of a rare event. Although the odds of dying in an automobile accident each year are about 1 in 7,000, most people aren't afraid to drive. These odds are more than 12 times greater than the odds of dying in a terror attack, yet we continue to allow ourselves to be driven by the irrational fear. Bush & Co. prey on this fear in the same insidious way that lottery companies prey on consumers' irrational hope, using the spin and lure of hitting 'the big one.' The FTC doesn't regulate presidential disclosure either.

Bush ran on a ticket of trust. He asked Americans to trust him and then used that political capital to bet the bank on his own lottery, taking big risks at the expense of the public. His bold plans won broad support because of 911, but he has been betting ever since that no one will notice what else he does so long as he invokes 911 and/or anti-terror as a reason for doing it. All of the current tragedies that he claims "no one could have predicted" had very long odds for turning out positively, though that didn't ever stop him. Nor did it make him look back and reform his addictive behavior. Eventually the public trust in government was traded for trust that Bush would get lucky.

People at the highest level of the executive branch said that the odds were good that an al Qaeda attack would occur. But Bush & Co. claimed "no one could have predicted it." Many reliable experts in various government agencies said that the odds were very slim that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and that even if he did, he couldn't use them. But Bush & Co. said it was a sure bet and even now, contrary to fact, he claims that no one predicted otherwise. Bush was so certain that the odds were with him that he refused to give up the ghost way after it was obvious that he had lost this bet. Bush & Co. continued to push the myth that the odds favored an association between Saddam and Osama, but what the President was trying to increase were the odds of garnering support for the Iraq War. This was a bet he won; Americans continued to back the Powerball rather than look at the real odds.

Although the public couldn't know of the secret existence of the U.S. gulags, the type of unseemly behavior finally exposed in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere is entirely predictable given the environment and circumstances. These are known knowns and it is hard to imagine that Rumsfeld didn't know the odds. But Bush & Co. claim they couldn't have predicted such behavior. Although lots of people, from military leaders and government policy experts to think tank gurus and Middle East mentors, predicted chaos and civil war in Iraq post U.S. invasion, somehow the Bush Administration thought the odds were against that scenario; they predicted flowers.

Anyone familiar with the actual contents of the Medicare prescription drug plan could have predicted the problems and the real costs, and in fact, some did, like Rick Foster, their own administrator of Medicare. But Bush predicted that his plan would "improve service, expand coverage " and give seniors the health care they deserve." Only now are we beginning to see the results of the winners and losers in that lottery. And of course we all know that there were plenty of people publicly predicting the consequences of Katrina. Everyone except W, apparently, who kept betting it wouldn't be 'the big one.'

The first step toward recovery for an addict is admitting powerlessness over the addiction. But Bush continues to feel powerful because the public enables his addictive behavior by not insisting that he take responsibility for it. The President keeps on gambling with our future because he is convinced that history will prove him right. No one who is alive today can refute that statement, though the odds don't look good.

All addictive behavior gets worse as the addict gets more deeply entrenched. Are we willing to go along with more Bush long shots that "no one could have predicted"? What other cataclysmic events have to occur before we are willing to go cold turkey and put an end to the Bush Powerball lottery? In spite of the odds, in spite of the false advertising, and yes, in spite of the lies, we keep buying more lottery tickets, throwing in our own luck with that of Bush and hoping that the next one will hit the jackpot. Bush has taken the country on the biggest junket in our history. How much more risk are we willing to accept? The only thing that seems like a safe bet is that there will be more breach of the public trust.
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Lynne Glasner is a freelance writer/editor based in New York City. She has edited numerous books, fiction and nonfiction, many on political subjects. Her essays have appeared in Commondreams,, and Huffington Post as well as OpEd (more...)
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