Why do huge Wall Street bonuses provoke so much more public indignation than similarly gigantic lottery jackpots?
At least financial tycoons can try to argue that their payoffs stem from their own wise decisions or productive hard work. But Powerball winners get rewarded for patently stupid behavior: wasting a few dollars (usually on a regular basis) on addictive games of chance with only the remotest possibility of success.
Moreover, when some lucky bozo collects on a swollen jackpot that’s accumulated in a state-sponsored lottery, it means that this particular treasure won’t be available to anyone else; when somebody wins, the other players all lose. But if a stock broker or investment banker gets a big bonus, that doesn’t mean that others won’t be similarly rewarded or that his clients or even his competitors will suffer. In fact, such rewards generally come in clusters, rather than in singular or exceptional instances.
Of course, much of the public outrage against Wall Street pay-offs stems from the idea that financial manipulators have stolen bailout money that rightly belongs to the taxpayers. But this argument ignores the fact that the most recent round of controversial bonuses involved firms that had already repaid their TARP funds with interest (like the notorious Goldman-Sachs),or else never took government dough in the first place.
By contrast, every big time lottery winner takes money directly from government coffers, so that the bigger prize packages mean even bigger losses for cash-strapped states. Of course, Powerball apologists will justify these payoffs as periodically necessary, in order to encourage the public to keep buying tickets. But by the same token, Wall Streets defenders can argue that monstrous bonuses help encourage bright, eager and talented young hotshots to keep toiling tirelessly in the hopes of securing their own big score.
Whether or not the aspiring Gordon Gekkos ever reach their greed is good goals, it is tough to feel much sympathy for these privileged people. Financial industry tycoons usually boast the formidable advantages of Ivy League educations or family connections, while state jackpot winners often identify themselves as janitors or factory workers or even day laborers. America loves underdogs, so we rejoice at lottery triumphs while seething with resentment when pampered plutocrats collect even more money.
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