As rich get richer, rest left to play the odds

Of millionaires and macadamia nuts

February 02, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Please hold my shoes while I take a plunge in the stream of consciousness ... The other day, for the first time in years, I saw a Rolls-Royce with a chauffeur. It was a Rolls Phantom. It was black and dazzling, and parked with the motor running under the Orleans Street Viaduct, right near where the homeless guy used to sleep.

I was struck by the juxtaposition -- millionaire's motor car in the homeless man's lair. What a country.

A Congressional Budget Office analysis says that, thanks to President Bush and Congress cutting taxes on capital, the top 1 percent of households in 2003 owned 57.5 percent of all corporate wealth.

That's what we wanted, wasn't it? I mean, we're better off if about a dozen guys who get pedicures on a regular basis own all the stocks and all the banks. Soon every company will own every company. You won't be able to buy a ravioli without a percentage going to Bill Gates.

Unless you work for government, you've probably been downsized, bought out, laid off or outsourced. There's a good chance you work for a profitable company that has been squeezed to turn out greater profits, usually by cutting the work force.

Wages and benefits for the average working person fell behind the rate of inflation last year for the first time since 1996. But you knew that already, don't you? You already felt it.

A millionaire wouldn't have. A millionaire has cushions -- plush, suede cushions.

I mean, the cost of heating and air-conditioning a millionaire's McMansion goes through the roof, but it feels like the slightest little, teeny-tiny itch to these guys. The rest of us get agita and stare at the checkbook for hours, hoping we've made a mistake in our own favor.

Americans don't save?

There's a shock!

President Bush says we're addicted to oil.

And here I was thinking we were addicted to SUVs with lousy fuel-efficiency standards that Congress refuses to raise!

Wait, before I get off track completely:

I asked Jeeves this question: How many millionaires are there in America? (Jeeves, at ask.com, is about as close as I'll ever get to having a servant, and I rather enjoy it. It just stinks that he can't serve cocktails.)

Jeeves found a CNN story: A Merrill Lynch-Capgemini study estimating that one out of every 125 Americans is a millionaire.

That was a couple of years ago.

I assume there are more now.

By the way, a millionaire is a person who:

1. Has $1 million or more at his/her disposal.

2. Can buy macadamia nuts any time he/she likes.

3. Probably owns stock in Exxon Mobil. (A profit of $10.7 billion over the last three months of 2005, about $116 million per day, or $4.8 million per hour, or $80,000 per minute. I figure it takes the cashier at an Exxon station almost five years to make what the company made in one minute in December.)

Look, I'm not envious.

I'm grateful for little things -- health, good kids, a fairly dry basement and a beagle that barks when the religious people are about a block away and knocking on doors.

What more do I need?

Besides, being a millionaire is not what it used to be.

Why do you think yesterday's drawing was the last for Lotto?

The Maryland Lottery is doing away with Lotto because having a million dollars is like riding the MTA's No. 10 bus -- it doesn't go as far as it used to.

People lost interest in betting to win a mere million.

A reader of this column once presented the odds of winning the Lotto jackpot in unique fashion.

"I was sitting here dreaming of winning the Lotto jackpot and going to Hawaii and watching half-naked girls do the hula, grass skirts, beautiful beaches," wrote Charlie Alsruhe, then of Parkville. "I read that the odds were about 7 million-to-1 for winning. But I couldn't relate to such a large number so I did some calculating."

Charlie examined the Baltimore-area phone book -- the white pages. He found that each page had about 550 entries, and that the entire book held about 1 million.

"It would take a stack of seven telephone books to make about 7 million [entries]. Now, pick just one [entry] from the whole stack, and that's your odds of winning. Fat chance! No hula, no beach, no Hawaii. I'm going outside now to watch the grass grow."

I told Charlie to let the grass grow and make himself a skirt.

I never heard from him again.

I'm assuming he never won Lotto -- or never even bothered to play it after the thing with the phone books.

I think Charlie felt the way a lot of people around here felt: Why play Lotto, with such lousy odds, for a mere million?

Apparently, a lot of people would rather take a chance on a much bigger prize -- life-altering, mind-spinning sums in the hundreds of millions -- at even lousier odds. The multistate lotteries attract more suckers than the piddly Lotto did. So, Lotto is dead.

The good news, for those of us of modest monetary ambition, is that the Lottery will replace Lotto with a new game. It's called Multi-Match, and it sounds like a better match for my betting tastes. You get more of a chance to win the smaller prizes -- 1 in 8.5, according to officials, instead of the 1 in 27 for any prize in Lotto.

A grand here, five grand there ... If that happens to me, I'll no longer hide from the religious people who knock on my door. I'll greet them and treat them to macadamia nuts.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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