DRIVE around the streets of the Metro and once you see a line, you immediately know it’s people queuing for lotto tickets. And with some 2,000 said to have joined the Lotto Millionaires Club, with winnings ranging from P3 million to P249 million, the number of hopeful lotto buyers will continue to grow.
Do the thriving lotto sales reflect a Filipino tendency to look for an easy way to wealth? Only partially, and I’d say this happens all over the world. People do have a weakness for lotteries, and governments have cashed in, setting up sweepstakes and lottos, with the proceeds purportedly going to charity to calm down people who see this as a form of gambling.
Dreams of instant wealth are shared across cultures, hich is why, besides the lotteries, we have all kinds of swindlers and scam artists offering untold riches from magic boxes (“Put money in this box and I will multiply it for you.”) to pyramid schemes. What does vary is the intensity of these aspirations, and the kind of scams peddled.
In the Philippines, we have a tendency to think of the poor as the most gullible, and attribute this to indolence. But look hard enough and you’ll realize that there really isn’t that much for con artists to take from the poor in the first place. Smart swindlers target the gullible among the middle and upper classes.
If Filipinos often talk about hopes for easy money and instant wealth, it’s because people do have to work so hard in the Philippines, and get so very little. Yet Filipinos also see others who get rich quickly with relatively little effort, so they begin to ask, “Why can’t I do that too?”
Foremost reason for the instant wealth, of course, is corruption. Ask young men from lower or even middle-class families what their dream job is, and they’d most likely answer, “police” or “customs inspector.” Probe a bit more and they will be quite candid in saying “that’s where the easy money is.”
Talk with business people handling government contracts and you’ll encounter two extremes. The honest ones will be talking about how exasperating it can be to chase after government payments, with very small profit margins. Talk with the “smart” ones and they’ll tell you all it takes is one major contract to make money enough to last you a lifetime, as long as you play the game right with commissions—your own as well as the host politicians. And these commissions—as we have been seeing in recent exposés in the Senate—make the lotto multi-million peso winnings look like loose change.
Easy money? Only for those on top of these syndicates. Profits trickle down. Just look at the well-documented jueteng (numbers game) industry showing how huge election spending can be funded by jueteng, while the kubrador or small collectors live in poverty.
Let’s move out of the area of graft and corruption and look at the private sector where get-rich activities thrive as well, often legally. The other day I was driving in one of the side streets of Quezon Boulevard and saw a large sign in front of one of the clubs, offering “up to P100,000 a month” to “attractive ladies.” Some overseas recruitment agencies also lure applicants with these amazing salary offers.
But most promises of instant money involve marketing. There are so many pyramid marketing schemes offering people a chance to earn lots of money selling everything from cosmetics to water purifiers. Initially, the schemes work because you’re able to sell to relatives, friends and neighbors, until you realize there’s a limit to the people in your network. The quick profits evaporate, eventually eating into the capital and people end up the poorer for it, sometimes with over-priced merchandise no one wants to buy.
The last five years or so have also featured another kind of easy money made available to the upper class: giant financial investment schemes in stocks and government bonds, brokered by banks. People were raking in up to 60 percent of their investment within a year, not doing anything except investing in the funds. Word spread and even little old grandmothers eventually began to play the game.
There were some warning signs about two or three years ago when investments began to falter, but the markets recovered… until this year. It turns out now that there was much speculation going on, foreign investors playing with our stock markets and our financial institutions, then withdrawing when the going got bad. The global financial crisis, we know now, came about in part because of all this speculation.
If anything good is going to come out of this global crisis, it might be a sobering of our aspirations, and a return to the old adage about easy money being suspicious money. Radical changes are going to come around the next year, as governments try to clean up capitalism. Meanwhile, lotto sales will remain brisk, maybe even picking up, with buyers taking things philosophically. Because in a way, they shrug, you always win. If you lose, well, the loss can still be seen as a donation to charity.