THE most popular parlor game in Boston this week centers around an intriguing question: If you found a lottery ticket worth $10,000, then learned the identity of the person who owned it, what would you do?
The issue is far from hypothetical. Last week an eight-year-old girl in Winchendon, Mass., Traci Ruschioni, found two instant lottery tickets in a video-store parking lot. When the family scratched them, they discovered that one was worth $4, the other $10,000.
Before you could say "instant winner," Traci and her mother were driving to the Massachusetts Lottery Commission to collect their windfall. Traci quickly became a minor celebrity as reporters and photographers converged on the family's home.
Meanwhile, before you could say "instant loser," a sadder drama was unfolding. The purchaser of the tickets, Dudley Haney, discovered almost immediately that he had dropped them. He retraced his steps, obtained the serial numbers from the clerk who had sold him the tickets, and frantically searched the parking lot.
When Traci's identity became public, Mr. Haney appealed to her parents to "set an example for the community and for their kids" by returning the money, which he said he would share. "That's what should happen morally," he added.
Many locals agreed. "Morally and spiritually, you have to give it back," one man told the Boston Globe, echoing the comments of others. "What you do always comes back to you in other ways." But another contingent sided with Traci's father, whose position is: Tough luck - finders keepers. He insists the money is rightfully theirs. Haney, left with an unfortunate case of losers weepers, is considering taking the case to court.
Hitting the jackpot without even buying a ticket may represent the latest bizarre entry in the annals of lottery history. At the same time, the to-keep-or-not-to-keep debate signals how broadly accepted - and acceptable - lotteries have become. The old question - What are the ethics of lotteries? - has been replaced by a new one, far less morally vexing, that asks simply: What are the ethics of keeping a lottery ticket?
Gambling has been called the "nice vice." Rather than viewing it as a sin - the stuffy old attitude - supposedly enlightened modernists make legalized gambling, now sanctioned by some churches and all but two states, seem like a virtue. Think of all the millions of lottery dollars going for education, they say. Think of all the Indian tribes gaining much-needed revenue from casinos, and all the parishes being kept afloat by bingo. What could be "cleaner" than money won helping to fund a worthy cause? Do your patriotic duty and play your number today.
Even the word gambling is considered outdated by some casino operators, who prefer to call it "gaming" and "family entertainment." No wonder Americans spent $304 billion on "gaming" during 1991, a recession year. And no wonder teenagers have reported to researchers that they feel like outsiders if they don't gamble. Preteen Traci is getting a head start.
The same day that the girl's unexpected winnings made headlines, gambling was making local news in other ways. Massachusetts Gov. William Weld (R) is considering a plan to legalize floating casinos in Boston Harbor. Revenue would finance a convention center and a domed stadium. He sees legalized gambling as a better way to increase public revenue than raising taxes.
To his credit, state Attorney General Scott Harshbarger (D) opposes the move. Speaking for gambling foes everywhere, he calls these efforts a "short-term fix to get revenues." He warns that "as a cure in every state that has tried it, gambling is worse than the disease."
The Ruschionis have spoken of using their winnings for a family visit to Disney World. What could be more innocent? The plot could come straight out of a Disney movie.
All the more reason to value Harshbarger's courageous dissent from the prevailing view that gambling is as American as apple pie. When will more public figures stand up to make the distinction between a gambler's dream and the American dream? For every family that gets to Disney World on a winning ticket, there may be five families impoverished or broken up by gambling losses. Those are odds you can bet on.