“We already know what a big winner the government is when it comes to the lottery,” writes Graig Ponthier. “If someone wins $30 million, the government gets almost half. That’s almost $15 million to the government and they didn’t even buy a ticket.”

But Graig was writing in with a further observation — something he noticed at the checkout line at one of the largest grocery chains in Texas.

“In Texas,” he explains, “you have to be 18 to buy tobacco. This grocery store had all its tobacco items locked up in a glass cabinet. If you want to buy tobacco, the checker has to get the key from the Manager and unlock it to get your product.

“Well, it is also a law in Texas that you have to be 18 to play the lottery. The difference is that these ‘scratch-off’ lottery tickets are conveniently located in vending machines for any patron to purchase, right next to the Soda machines and even a baseball card vending machine. There is no age verification system built in to the machine. Anyway, I thought this was interesting, only the government could get away with that!!!”

We are becoming a nation of addicted gamblers, and lottery vending machines between the Pepsi and the baseball cards can’t be helping.

Neither can the huge expansion of legalized gambling. Remember when Las Vegas was the only game in town? Or should I say the only town in gaming? OK, and Tahoe. But when Atlantic City got casinos, it was a huge deal. Now everybody’s got them. Or we seem headed that way.

But today’s explosion in gambling has nothing to do with casino. Or race tracks or ballgames, for that matter. Even with a bookie you used to have to make a phone call, and then physically, face-to-face, settle up. (Well, I’ve never actually placed a bet with a bookie. Maybe some of them pay off with checks?) Until recently, you couldn’t actually place a slot machine in your den. Or, well, maybe you could (I had a Black Knight pinball machine for a long time — “THE . . . BLACK . . . KNIGHT . . . WILL . . . PLAY . . . YOU”) and I actually still do have a 1937 nickel one-armed bandit. But what kind of gambling is that? It’s your own nickels! Maybe, if you’re lucky, you get a couple of your dumbest children to play the slot machine with their spare change on the way home from school. Or even the occasional dinner guest. A nickel here, three nickels there. But this is not gambling.

No, effort-free in-home gambling arrived just a short while ago, and it is called, needless to say, Online Trading.

Click . . .

Click . . .

Click . . .

With a one-armed bandit you need to be able to reach your entire arm up a foot or two, grasp the handle firmly with your fist, and yank. With Ameritrade or E-Trade or any of the others it is just the slightest indentation of your index finger. Click . . . click . . . click.

Most of us haven’t gotten addicted to this and probably won’t — even with the much clamored-for advent of night-time trading. But an alarming number of people have and will.

Investing is a terrific habit everyone should acquire. We would all be better off, individually and as a group, if everyone did. Speculating also serves a useful economic function, but is best left to a relative few — sophisticated, disciplined players who understand the odds and can afford the risk. (The odds, because of the tax system and the transaction costs, are generally against you.) What an awful lot of people have developed a taste for is neither investing nor sophisticated speculation but gambling. This should be no surprise. We are a nation of gamblers. Indeed, a species of gamblers. The difference is that now the betting window is right there at our fingertips. The wait until “post time,” what with the seeming inevitability of “24/7” trading, will soon shrink to nothing.

We will survive this, of course. But it may not be pretty.

 

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