WHEN Horatio Alger was writing his famous 19th-century rags-to-riches stories about Tattered Tom and Ragged Dick, he preached hard work and cheerful perseverance as the keys to success. Today the formula has changed. If Alger were writing in the age of instant riches, he might need to broaden his plot lines by adding a quick-and-easy option for financial success: a winning lottery ticket.
Two such Alger success stories, 1990s-style, are making headlines this month. Last Friday Edward Sherwin, a 70-year-old retired carpenter in Lombard, Ill., claimed a $42 million lottery prize - the third-largest Lotto jackpot in Illinois history. That same day in Hingham, Mass., Barry Newton, a 46-year-old ironworker on medical disability, won $20 million in his state's second-largest jackpot.
Yet what would Horatio say about these new heroes? The lottery, after all, represents the ultimate abandonment of the work ethic, elevating the luck of the draw to new heights of respectability.
And what, Alger might ask, can one person, or even one family, possibly do with such windfalls?
As a partial answer, he could read an article headlined ``How Lottery Winners Spend Their Millions'' in the current issue of Woman's Day. Here, 10 women across the country go public with their megabucks spending sprees. Purchases range from the predictable - Cadillacs, fur coats, diamond rings, Caribbean cruises, new homes - to the more personal: a deck with a hot tub ($7,000); 400 dolls ($15,000); a ``dream'' dining room set ($3,000); a Shih Tzu dog named Dusty ($250); and a 25-foot fishing boat ($42,000).
For megabucks winners like these, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow has become a reality. It still remains only a fantasy for millions of other players who weekly place fervent hope in slogans like New York Lotto's slick come-on: ``All you need is a dollar and a dream.''
It is the dream of the gold rush without a pick and shovel. This something-for-nothing mentality doesn't stop with lotteries. ``Picture yourself very rich,'' teases a current sweepstakes promotion for Money magazine. ``You are about to receive ONE MILLION DOLLARS, if you return the grand-prize winning entry. ... It's the kind of MILLION DOLLARS that dreamers and schemers have been dreaming and scheming about since the first day someone started collecting taxes. But, as the grand-prize winner ... you'll simply have to decide how you'll handle what will effectively be [a] MILLION DOLLAR FORTUNE FREE & CLEAR OF TAXES!''
Who says the Age of Greed is over?
More than 30 states and the District of Columbia now operate lotteries. Revenues nationwide are expected to exceed $20 billion this year, making ``lottomania'' the second largest form of gambling, after casinos. In Wisconsin alone, residents spend $1 million a day on tickets. So phenomenal has been the growth of state lotteries - revenue has quadrupled since 1982 - that some members of Congress are now suggesting a national lottery.
Supporters say that lottery revenue offers an painless alternative to higher taxes. Even Thomas Jefferson, they note, favored a lottery on the grounds that ``it lays taxation only on the willing.''
But lotteries are a regressive tax, extracting the most money from those least able to afford it - the poor and uneducated. And at a time when Americans are increasingly aware of the dangers of addiction - tobacco, alcohol, drugs - for government to sanction gambling represents a contradiction.
Even if, as lottery fans insist, numbers games are merely harmless fun for the players, there is something ultimately sad, even tawdry about a wealthy nation trying to balance its books by the roll of the dice and a Wheel-of-Fortune mentality. When state politicians double as dream-peddlers, with fistfuls of long-shot tickets, their constituents are being hustled rather than served.
The fundamental message of Horatio Alger is that an individual - a country - depends on moral capital as well as dollars and cents. Whatever the financial temptation for the ticket-buying citizen or for the United States Treasury, Alger's bottom line would be: No gambling.
Read his lips - or even better, read his books.