« Doing It Your Way | Main | Custom Printing and Artistic Ownership »

Wednesday, 02 June 2010


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

State lotteries are a stupidity tax levied on the poor.

Bill Pearce

We've got The National Lottery here in the UK. I've always seen it as a tax on the poor, I'm not alone in that http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/5911581/National-Lottery-is-tax-on-the-poor.html

It's why don't do it so have no chance of winning it. I'll never be able to buy back the areas of my neighbourhood that have been gentrified and rent them below cost, or donate them to people who still have to live in substandard housing just a street away. Mind you, my wife buys the odd ticket. She might lend me the money

"Man who takes chance, has chance."

---Fortune cookie proverb I saved

"State lotteries are a stupidity tax levied on the poor."

Really, yes. And dreadfully regressive. And a poignant commentary on the insufficiency of the educational system.


Would you punch holes in Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange negatives? Would you let Louis Hine literally starve to death because you wouldn't help him?
I hope you wouldn't be like Roy Striker.

Surely you want to be Albert Kahn rather than Stryker? Then you don't have to persuade any boss that the project is worthwhile :-)

I've certainly called the lottery a "stupidity tax". I got the people at the convenience store two jobs ago trained to give me a Powerball ticket when I said I was there to pay my stupidity tax. I've also described it as buying "complaining rights"; can't complain about not winning if you didn't have ticket!

I thought "Powerball" was one multi-state lottery; but they seem to be advertising a $220 million jackpot here in Minnesota.

I've actually had people say to me "what would you do if you won 10 million dollars anyway? It's so much you couldn't spend it!" Some people have remarkably small imaginations. 10 million doesn't even drastically change my lifestyle (no apartment in London and New York and Tokyo, no private jet, no Rolls Royce). Some of my big ideas you can't begin to touch with lottery money at all (private space program).

Mike, your idea is one of the best I've heard for enjoying and doing something special with a lottery win. It seems to actually take account of your skillset, to, which some don't (if I somehow had the billions to start the private space program, I wouldn't really know how; I'm not a CEO).

As for probabilities -- can anybody convincingly demonstrate that the odds of winning if you buy a ticket are significantly larger than the odds of somebody sending you a check that big by mistake? :-)

As to lenses, I'd buy a 400/2.8 and a 200/2, and wait for the new 135/2 to show up. And a second body, but whether that would be a second D700, or a D3s, or a D3x, or a D300s, I'm not sure.

Mike - I've often had a similar daydream over the years; in the beginning it was to redo, in modern dress, Alfred Stieglitz's Camera Work (which someone in Rhode Island did, more or less, a few years ago). But that soon morphed into a project to gather a company of photographers and document America at the milleneum (which someone else did, more or less, about ten years ago). Now I would be content to just continue documenting my own peculiar vision of America for the rest of my life.

As some TOP readers may know, I am the author of Walker Evans' bibliography, which was published in 1995 (and goodness knows, now needs to be thoroughly updated). In my researches I came across, and eventually acquired, a copy of "American Economic Life," by Rexford Guy Tugwell, Thomas Munroe, and - you guessed it - Roy E. Stryker, published in 1925. It's a fascinating book, filled with documentary photos (small and poorly reproduced), and it served as both training and credentials for Stryker in getting his great position when Tugwell became a member of FDR's "Brains Trust." The book shows up at ABE occasionally, and I would recommend it as an interesting precursor to Stryker's FSA work.

And you are right, an occasional lottery ticket, or some variant thereof, is most useful in maintaining the optimism that sticking with a life-work in photography requires.

What a wonderful idea. Mine's just travelling the world and taking pictures; usual boring stuff, eh ...

Sod the naysayers ranting about the poor who buy lottery tickets; I pay taxes to the same government too but when I do my tax return there's no box I can tick in the hope of getting it back, so I buy the ticket for a little more.

I wrote similar things about lotteries several years ago: http://roberts-rants.blogspot.com/2005/07/lotteries.html

Albert Khan did the same thing in pre-Great War Europe an Asia. He hired photographers to travel and gather still images on Autochrome and motion pictures for his Archive Of The World.
Pretty amazing stuff:

"What you get for your buck is a few hours' worth of creative daydreaming."
This has often been my argument for playing the lottery. Really an excuse to waste an hour and daydream, as an adult, is like gold.

That's a wonderful dream.
It really would take something like a lottery jackpot to fund another FSA photography project. The original was run by Roy Stryker for a laudable but very explicitly political goal: to inform all Americans of the suffering of farm workers displaced by the 'Dust Bowl' collapse of agriculture. This was intended to undercut ferocious conservative resistance to government relief programs. You can just imagine the howls of outrage if the current administration tried something similar.

There's a fascinating new book (September 2009) on the subject of U.S. Government support for the arts during the Great Depression: "When Art Worked", by Roger G. Kennedy. It discusses the FSA photographic project at some length. It also looks into the philosophical and artistic issues involved when a democratically elected government—rather than the customary aristocratic patron—decides to fund and support the arts.

With a lottery ticket you can dream (for a week here in Finland) about all the things you will do when you win the money. That is cheap dreaming for me although I know all about the statistics. Of course you can imagine the same things without the ticket but it's not the same.

You can buy a lottery ticket and wander around daydreaming about what you would do with all that money or you could save the dough and spend your time planning out a better way to make what you already have work for you.
BTW, I'm in the news business and I have done stories with a couple of lottery winners who took home prizes in the four to eight million range.
The money is nice but they also complained about everyone putting the arm on them and the way their windfall alienated them from old friends.
After five years one even tried to get his old job back. Apparently he was ill suited to the rigors of indolence.
I figure I won the lottery when Mrs. Plews said yes.

I love your lottery dream, Mike. That would be some legacy to leave.

My lottery dream is not as honorable: Own less, travel endlessly, and make photographs while doing so.

Mike, you've just presented an eloquent and superb reason for buying an occasional ticket.

A wonderful dream as well.

I've bought one lottery ticket in my life. The jackpot was about a zillion dollars. All my co-workers decided they would pool some money to buy several tickets, and if one ticket was the winner, everyone would split the winnings. I decided to get in on it. I knew the chances of winning were slim, but if it did happen, they would all quit their jobs, leaving me unemployed. ;)

if i won the lottery, i would start my own camera company, but being roy stryker doesn't sound too bad either.

Libertarians, like Rand Paul, love lotteries: they raise revenue, without taxation.

I'm sure you realize what I think of Rand Paul.

"At only a buck, one ticket increases your chances of winning almost infinitely, because you make a binary switch—you go from having no chance to having a chance."

But, your expected winnings go from a respectable $0 to a relatively dismal -$0.9999999 (or thereabouts). Makes more sense to first daydream about buying a lottery ticket; only adds a moment to your daydream, and saves the buck.

Me, I wish I could've been one of the shooters on that project. One of the great moments in photography--and history. Hanging out with those shooters would've been like jamming with Beethoven and Mozart, if you were a musician...

Yeah, but which lens?

Those playing the lottery have keep one thing in mind. You do not get the whole winnings. The government gets their share first in income taxes. Then what's left is either taken as a lump sum payout which is considerable less than the remaining amount after taxes or payments over a period of time. A dollar today will be worth much less 20 years from now. So when dreaming about the 135 million you have to cut back your expectations to less than half that amount. If a business advertised like the lottery does they would be prosecuted for false advertising.

I'm of the opinion that one lottery ticket is a great product at a great price. At only a buck, one ticket increases your chances of winning almost infinitely, because you make a binary switch—you go from having no chance to having a chance.

Thanks for summarizing what I tell my rocket scientist friends for mocking me when I buy a ticket when we're out for drinks. For less than the price of their soda (I don't drink 'em, talk about a stupidity tax), I get to buy dream. Works for me. Or as the old joke goes, "Joe, help me out. Buy a ticket."

And for what it's worth, I don't hang out with the rocket scientists because they're stylishly clad - it's because I'm one too. I understand the maths. I usually only buy when the EV is positive, ignoring the chance of multiple winners.

Very good point on the lottery tickets, Mike. I've been of the opinion that tickets were a tax to the uneducated (which, unfortunately, correllates quite well with poverty, in Germany as in the US). Your words haven't changed my view about that, but have opened another aspect of them, another perspective on what they could be to me. I might just buy the odd ticket. Most of the proceeds go to charitable causes anyway, so it's sort of a good deed as a bonus.

Please excuse my grammar tonight, I'm having a bad english day.

I can't say I dreamt of being Roy Stryker since my childhood, but I think that the idea of photographic maecenatum has entered my mind. Alas – I haven’t won the lottery yet, and I don’t buy tickets. I think a more practical way to do it is to create a place where people that have disposable income can meet and sponsor photographers with the talent and drive. With all the social network sites around, why not one for photography admirers to post and sponsor worthy artistic (not commercial) photographic endeavors?

Mike, I'd like to see your numbers. I'm not so sure that $134 million is far more than you'd need.

Seriously, I'd like you to share your daydream's financials with us. Write out your 5-year business plan including taxes, interest earnings, salaries, etc.

For the record, I think it would be a wonderful way to spend lottery earnings. Myself? I always dreamed I'd be Bruce Wayne if I won the lottery :-)

Mike, why don't you pitch your project to a rich philanthropist?

Another wonderful story, thanks, Mike :)

It may be a tax on stupidity, but someone usually wins it, as demonstrated by a lady I work with who won £1.4 million on the National Lottery a couple of weeks ago.

This has led to an awful lot of creative daydreaming around the office. The funny thing was that every single person already had a complete plan of what they'd do with the cash, even those who had never played.

"Man who takes chance, has chance."

between the sheets!!!

I daydream about the exact same thing.

Yes its true lotteries are a tax on the poor/stupid,
it's a nice dream though........

Ah, yes, a chance. A very very very small chance, something like 195.2 million to one chance - realistically the same as not playing at all, but then there's no dream.

Given those odds, it's really not much of a dream either, but one does have to play to have any chance, as you note.

I rationalize my extremely limited playing to using the following rule. If the amount is less than 195 million, I don't play. Once it gets above 195 million I throw away one dollar on each drawing if I happen to need gas until someone else wins. :)

Good Luck Roy!

If you won the lottery and became the next Roy Stryker, I'd be elbowing people in line to work for you!
I've thought for a while that we need more philanthropists and non-profits to fund documentary activities (particularly photography). The non-profit model sounds like a great way for good journalism to survive. If I had the money, I'd be Roy Stryker, too (actually, I'd hire someone to do his job so that I could just shoot).

That $134m is the payout. Subtract 1/3 for taxes and it's still $90m give or take. And the nice thing about my daydream is that it's scalable. There's no requirement for the number of shooters I could hire, the duration of time the project would last, the number of books that would result. I figure 3-4 million to do it adequately, double that to do it well. With this jackpot, I'd still have way too much.


Hmmm... sounds like you want to be Albert Khan?

cut and paste the following URL: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Kahn_(banker)

Mike- It's this sort of post that makes you so readable and a cut above.
So repeat yourself- fine by me.

OK, if $134 million is far more than you'd need, how much would it take to be Roy Stryker in 2010?

Also, could I send you my resume now, just in case?

David Dyer-Bennet wrote:

As for probabilities -- can anybody convincingly demonstrate that the odds of winning if you buy a ticket are significantly larger than the odds of somebody sending you a check that big by mistake? :-)

I know you were joking, David, but I actually think it's pretty easily shown. Just tabulate the number of Powerball winners over the past decade, say, then do some research and find out how many people were sent comparably large, cashable checks over the same period (properly only in the US, of course, if you're looking at the Powerball, although I suspect it wouldn't matter...). I would imagine that a "mistake" check that large would actually be a news story, so it shouldn't be too hard to find.

I'm going to hazard a guess here: I predict you'll find a whole lot more Powerball winners. If you do, Q.E.D. However, I'll leave it to you or someone who can't stand the uncertainty to do the preliminary leg work.... :-)

Don't want to shatter anybody's dream, but I suspect most lottery winners are cursed and end up worse than they were. There was a good English film based on a true story, Spend, spend, spend. I did some research, quite difficult since the Lottery organisers do not give any info on winners, and found out a lot of sad stories: Most people had been forced to leave their city, etc. just to avoid the pressure: people--relatives, friends, friends of friends-- asking for money, business proposals, fear of being attacked, etc. And if you give them the money, you lose it, but if you do not, you lose your friend and anyway you gotta stop one day...

Others lived their dreams (buying the business that was employing them was quite common) and, not being prepared for it, failed.

Others moved immediately to plush places, like Monaco, but what is there to enjoy when you do not speak the language, have no friends, etc.?

There have been a couple of very secretive winners: nobody knows who they are, they kept their ordinary life and did not reveal themselves. Clever.

In Spain we are addicted to Lottery. Everybody buys tickets at least for the Chistmas draw, though the prices are not big. We have National, Regional, the Euromillion (European), the Red Cross organises a very popular one (the big prize is 110 kilos of pure gold), and a weekly one that finances a charity for the blind, that has become in this way a major financial institution. All prizes are tax-free, but the state keeps half the gross.

I do not play, so I will most certainly never win. Still some relatives offer me tickets for the Christmas draw, a common practice also... But I can't think of what I would do with the money. When I try, the image of Jacob Holdt traveling trough the US taking pictures of the other half always comes to mind. But he did it penniless, hitchhiking, living off his subjects or taking menial jobs and with a half frame Olympus... no lottery ticket needed...

I had no idea, Mike, that you had such a special interest in the subject, let alone having Stryker as your potential business model. You've inspired me to take a side trip on my next D.C. visit.

I consider two books, both out of print, essential on the FSA: 'Portrait of a Decade, Roy Stryker and the Development of Documentary Photography in the Thirties'; and 'A Vision Shared, A Classic Portrait of America and its People, 1935 -1943. The latter, especially, has many moving photographs in addition to some interesting biographical information.

I was fortunate to purchase these many years ago, and I wouldn't be surprised if both reside in your bookcase.

"I was fortunate to purchase these many years ago, and I wouldn't be surprised if both reside in your bookcase."

They do indeed, alongside several other good books on the FSA, including "In This Proud Land" by Stryker and Nancy Wood, and the book Rodger mentioned earlier in this thread. I was fortunate that my book dealer in Washington D.C. in the 1980s was knowledgeable about FSA books.


Mike - What is preventing you from starting a small version of that business now, and then proceed to grow into your vision? Life is to short to only dream.

With that money I would start an art foundation, buy an apartment complex and house starving students - the sexier and wilder the better -- and have an adjoining studio. The only rule would be my word is law and it follows the tastes of me and the people I appoint. The art foundation would sponsor artists, buy up billboard space, defend artists in court and the rest of it would go toward mind altering drugs.

It shouldn't need saying but I would need a comfortable living as permanent director.

Somehow that sounds like a utopia that could quickly turn dystopian. [g] We need a novelist here....


My favorite type of tax: voluntary. All taxes should be voluntary. If you feel like you're getting good value from the bureaucracy then keep paying, er playing.

Grand idea Mike. I do think it high time we hassle the government into re-documenting America. We call it Photocore and I am ready to start tonight!

Me, I wanted to be Bjorn Borg when I was little.

You take your $90mil, more or less, and make some photography books. Then wait 50 years to see if they became relevant. You've got more than one dream going on here.

I'm not really going to do it, Bob.


The point was made many posts back, that Stryker had an important job to do. Making displaced workers in the farm belt visible to counter the vociferous arguments of those who sought to preserve property and financial values by holding tight controls over spending and keeping the pain of unemployment high so that inflation would not return. That job is still here.


Well, one ticket per drawing is reasonable. Multiple tickets per drawing is a regressive tax on the math challenged.

That said, I have a CL and the 40mm Summicron-C. Sure, Leica has made better lenses, but why spend more until you find out you are Bill Gates' or Warren Buffet's love child...

Hi Mike, This is slightly off topic but if you won the lottery perhaps you would be interested in this item on Ebay 270280338499 the asking price took my breath away. Is it really that rare?


Buying a lottery ticket is good.My wife and I do occasionally on our way to have a coffee at our favourite coffee place.We sit
and exchange a few ideas on what we would do if we won.Then it's time to move with the shopping list for our weekly groceries.
I don't know if my wife is still dreaming but I am about a full frame SLR.She still won't let me buy one maybe if the winning ticket came up.Brian,South Australia.

For those of us who never saw the original wave of FSA books, there's a very substantial amount of material (like memos from Stryker to his photographers about the inadvisability of dressing like fashionable Easterners while photographing midwestern farmers) and the reproductions are excellent in "Folks Like Us," edited by Stu Cohen. It's published by David Godine, and I got it on Amazon a few months back, thanks to its "folks who bought what you are looking at also bought..." referral.


"All taxes should be voluntary."

I hope you're served well by your volunteer/private fireman, police and doctors via your voluntary/privatized roads, bridges and emergency equipment.


ditto the pentax 21mm lenscap, £35.00 + postage

The fact that you are able to manage such a great project, but need a lottery win first in order to realize it, also shows that there is something wrong here.

I mean, you are one, but how much potential is lying idle because of people not being able to realize it for the lack of financial means. Whereas others waste unimaginable amounts on unnecessary things or even worse.

If temporary hope is the reason people will buy a perfectly worthless lottery ticket (well, not perfectly worthless but very, very close) then here is a plan to raise revenue for the federal government.

Give everybody who pays taxes one lottery ticket for every dollar they pay in taxes. Then give the winner a billion dollars. Given the available evidence about state lottery ticket buying my guess is that taxpayers would rush to pay MORE taxes in the crushingly remote hope of becoming America's next billionaire.

Probably wouldn't get Warren Buffet to pony up any more lucre but I know guys down the street who would be looking for chump change in the sofa to send to Uncle Sam.

I'm heading over to Duff & Dell's to buy my ticket.

Derek: Right you are! (That was the argument I had in mind, too. Still kind of like the joke, though; I use it to counter "you can't win if you don't play".)

Maybe you don't need to win the lottery... Look what these folks accomplished on kickstarter:



Maybe not enough to do exactly what you're thinking, but an interesting documentary project nonetheless.

Dreaming is good, but better when it leads to action... And you know what? Through TOP, I'd be willing to bet that you could fulfill your documentary dream without ever buying a ticket. Your readers are some of the best photographers, printers, and editors in the world, many of whom document life either professionally or, more likely, in their free time. Think about it... I think you, of many people, are in a unique place to make something like this happen. Not exactly like the FSA... maybe even better.

I know someone who won $94 million in the California lottery three years ago. Her mother told her that, if she were to buy a ticket, to buy two. "You double your odds with just one dollar." The second ticket was the winner.

Roy Stryker is the subject of my master's thesis. The documentary I did is available from films.com

Stryker was the consummate bureaucrat. He knew how to work the system as well as he was great teacher and visionary.

I started a Facebook Fans page too.

Please visit and add your comments
Thank you.

Larry Levin

When you go to the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, you need to get a reader's card. It is an easy 10 minute registration done in the Madison Building.

Of the (several) countries I have lived in, ONLY the United States taxes lottery winnings.

To my certain knowledge, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Japan do not.

Probably the rest of Europe doesn't either, but I really don't know.

Interestingly, the US also has the highest per capita incarceration rate and still has the death penalty.

A pattern of “benevolent” government here??

Regardless, the lottery most certainly is a tax on stupidity – unless you win!!

Current "MAX" lottery here in Canada is CDN$50 million - tax free - draw this Friday - I HAVE a ticket - $5!!



I also participate in the endlessly fun "what will I do if I win the lottery" game, except that I don't actually purchase tickets. My reasoning is that I don't see my chances of a lottery win as the binary switch you describe: statistically, not purchasing a ticket only makes it less likely that I would win. It could still happen. The odds of finding or being given a winning lottery ticket may be remote, but when we're talking about the odds of winning the lottery at all what's another degree or two of improbability?

I have to admit that sometimes I don't even check the winning numbers against the tickets I buy. I know the statistical probability....

However one time back in D.C. in the '80s I bought six bucks worth of tickets and didn't hit a SINGLE ONE of the winning numbers! I think I should have gotten some kind of prize for that, personally....


I'm not sure how much Roy Stryker was involved but there is an interesting pair of documentary films produced by the Resettlement Authority/FSA: "The Plough That Broke the Plains" and "The River", directed by Pare Lorentz with music by Virgil Thompson. Paul Strand is credited BTW, but not Stryker.

The films are available on a Naxos DVD with newly recorded performances of the original score. See Naxos 2.110521.

Hey American friends. it's your history--we have our own--check it out.

Regards - Ross

I hope you win.

You don't have to check the tickets if nobody wins; you can tell that from the jackpot going up the next day.

(There are various minor prizes, of course, that you would miss out on perhaps. I've won as much as $4 on a Powerball ticket.)

Enjoyed the lottery musings and might just have to buy a ticket to justify a day or two of focused daydreaming.

Regarding the FSA collection.... Viewing the prints in the Prints room is the SECOND best way to view the works in the collection. The BEST way is to have the LOC make exhibition quality prints of your favorites (done for a song) and display them in your home whre you can enjoy them every day!

Hey Mike, you don't need to win the lottery to accomplish your dream... especially in this day and age. You already have the machine: your website.

Why not organize a 'Day in the Life' event for your readership. Pick a day (better yet, a week), pick a theme, and have everyone go out and shoot. We all put up pictures on Flickr, and you get to be the editor who produces a final portfolio from all of the submissions. Let those who are included submit a brief essay on their photos.

With enough photos, you could put together a nice book. Self-publish it with the POD folks, take half the proceeds and split the other half with the included photographers, and you've got a business.

Oh, and you can pay me 10% out of your percentage for the idea... :-)

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007