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Gurus, Pundits, and the Lottery

By: on April 11, 2009

Once confined to the mystic spirituality of India, terms such as guru and pundit are now chic designations all over the world. Consider this headline from the UK news source Telegraph.co.uk published during last year’s U.S. presidential campaign, “The 50 Most Influential US Political Pundits.” The article begins, “Among those who help Americans decide are the ubiquitous political pundits who help drive the national conversation and shape public opinion.” Now, if you visit this website, www.financial–gurus.com, you’ll find a greeting that claims, “Financial Gurus brings together a wealth of finance and investment knowledge from the world’s top financial experts.”

Admittedly, as a follower of Vedic culture, I find it gratifying to see this linguistic influence spreading to other cultures. But, more gratifying is seeing how such influence is not limited simply to the derivation of words. One similarity I see between the actual function of a guru or pundit in the Vedic culture of old and modern culture today is involvement with and working for the welfare of society.

Chanakya Pandit (c. 350-283 BCE) was an adviser and a prime minister of the
first Maurya Emperor Chandragupta (c. 340-293 BCE), and is credited as being the architect of his rise to power. Srila Prabhupada notes that the lasting contributions of Chanakya Pandit in both politics an economics is reflected today in the Indian capital of New Delhi where a section of the city known for being the location of many foreign government missions, Chanakya Puri, is named after this great guru and pundit.

Of course, there are some differences as well. Chanakya Pandit alone is credited with unprecedented influence in the government of his time. Today, as evidenced by the news sources referenced above, there seems to be endless numbers of financial gurus and political pundits. I don’t have a problem with the numbers. After all, we certainly have enough political or economic problems to occupy the best concerned minds. My problem is sorting through all the differing opinions about what is best for the welfare of society. And, sometimes the difference between the traditional Vedic values advocated by gurus and pundits and modern gurus and pundits can be quite striking.

Here’s an example. The State of California’s budget crisis has served as a harbinger of bad economic times. Months before the financial crisis started to surface globally, last September Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had been trying just about everything to resolve the California’s financial woes, including gambling!

The San Francisco Chronicle covered the story, “Annual lottery sales have hovered around $3 billion and the governor has said the state would need to double that to repay the bond debt over three decades. Schwarzenegger has labeled the state lottery an underperforming asset that needs to be revitalized.”

As you might imagine, the bloggers went nuts. One Los Angeles Times blogger wrote in response to this news, “So the plan is to balance the budget by doubling people’s gambling losses?”

Who advised the governor to tap gambling as a source of income? A financial guru, that’s who. Reporting on a July 17, 2008 meeting of top officials in the California State Government during which the governor’s lottery proposals were discussed, John Myers of “The California Report” writes, “A phalanx of financial advisers, along with the governor’s economic guru, David Crane, were seen exiting the meeting just after noontime.”

What happened to working for the welfare of the people? OK, perhaps some of the mysticism is absent in today’s financial gurus and political pundits and they don’t have the power to see into the future, but at least they should be able to learn from the past or at least they could read Reader’s Digest. This monthly journal reports the following: historically, a little over one hundred years ago lotteries were banned throughout the United States due to rampant corruption. In terms of family welfare, Bill Brooks, president of the North Carolina Family Policy Council says, “Lotteries are being billed as a way to get wealth without saving and investing. It creates compulsive gamblers.” The experience of individual lottery winners isn’t any more encouraging, “2002, West Virginia contractor Jack Whittaker wins the biggest single-winner jackpot ever, $315 million, in the Powerball game. His win is followed by a run of back luck, including arrests, lawsuits, and other tribulations.”

Political pundit David Brooks (named among the top 50 political pundits by the Telegraph) seems to have learned this lesson. In his June 10, 2008 OP-ED column in the New York Times, while lamenting about how the wisdom of frugality preached by the US Founding Fathers is being undermined, he writes, “The agents of destruction are many. State governments have played a role. They aggressively hawk their lottery products, which some people call a tax on stupidity. Twenty percent of Americans are frequent players, spending about $60 billion a year. The spending is starkly regressive. A household with income under $13,000 spends, on average, $645 a year on lottery tickets, about 9 percent of all income. Aside from the financial toll, the moral toll is comprehensive. Here is a government, the guardian of order, telling people that they don’t have to work to build for the future. They can strike it rich for nothing.”

Yeah, but quite honestly, Mr. Brooks’ statistical analysis leaves me a little cold. Not only is his analysis subject to numerical contradiction, its also just not compellingly human enough.

I’d say that the quality of the advice coming from modern gurus and pundits needs some realignment with the traditional teachings of Vedic gurus and pundits. These gurus and pundits of old had the power to see the welfare of society and to express the essence of such welfare in simple aphorisms which transcended time with a warm earthy touch. Contemplate this saying from the Hitopadesa: The man who does not leave home and who is not a debtor is happy.

Srila Prabhupada quotes Chanakya Pandit on debt, “Chanakya Pandit has given this example: fire, debt and disease – never think of them as big or small. They are always dangerous...never neglect these things.”

Such simple yet profound statements are the wealth of the Vedic culture. As a follower of that culture I dream of the day when the wisdom of the gurus and pundits of old completely blend with the words and actions of the gurus and pundits of today. That I think everyone would find gratifying.

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