Reader Request Week 2014 #5: Hitting the Lottery
Dan Miller posits an event:
You just hit the lottery big time – say $200M after taxes. You can now write exactly what you want for the rest of your life. What will you write? What will you not write? How much time will you spend writing (vs. goofing off, vs. managing the charitable foundation I suspect you’d set up…)?
This is a fairly unrealistic scenario involving me, as I don’t play the lottery, for the simple reason that I understand statistics well enough to know that lotteries are an extraordinarily poor investment. I also find the idea of preying on people who don’t understand statistics as a way to compensate for a sensible taxation scheme a bad way to run things. So the chances of me buying a lottery ticket are small; I think in the history of my life I’ve bought one. I did not win.
(I don’t count the local fundraising sort of lottery here, where the prize is, like, a homemade cake. But I don’t count on winning those, either.)
But let’s say for the sake of argument that I was gifted with a lottery ticket, which turns out to be the winner, and my net after taxes is $200 million. What will this mean for John Scalzi, the writer?
In one sense, it won’t change much. Dan suggests that having that much money will allow me to write whatever I like, but the fact is, I already do that. I write science fiction because I like writing science fiction. I write the occasional non-fiction book and have never had a problem selling those. I write here on the blog because it’s fun (and without the intent of making money from it, although that will sometimes happen). I don’t need to win the lottery to write what I want.
To be clear, there are other things I think about writing up — I’ve noted before I’d like to try a non-sf-related mystery or YA novel — but the thing keeping me from doing those is not money (or, more broadly, economic pressure) but time. I’m already a full-time writer by profession; $200 million won’t free me from the shackles of a day job. It won’t buy me any more time. What it might do is allow me to shift priorities, so I put something on my schedule in a different place in terms of production. But it doesn’t change what I want to write, or my ability to write it. So, again, in that respect, $200 million doesn’t change much in my life as a writer.
But let’s not be stupid: $200 million would be a life-changing amount of money for everyone who is not already a billionaire, and I am not a billionaire. I write what I want now, but I also write because it’s how I make my living, and $200 million would mean I would never have to worry about making a living again, ever. So the real question would be: Would I still write as much, or at all, if I had the financial wherewithal to do whatever I want?
My first blush answer would be “probably,” because I like writing and I get antsy when I don’t, and it’s not like I’m writing six books a year at the moment anyway; I’ve published twenty(ish) books in fourteen years, which is a pretty manageable schedule of production, even if one has otherwise given one’s life over to idle luxury. But I also have to admit that I don’t know. I admit to being lazy. $200 million purchases quite a lot of laziness. I might give it all up for lazing by the pool whilst servants peel my grapes for me.
There is one way to find out: Quick, someone give me $200 million!
Actually (and here we go off mostly on a tangent to Dan’s question, but I can do that because I can write whatever I want, remember) I don’t think a sudden windfall of $200 million will do anyone, including me, much good. We all know the tales of people who have won the lottery who a few years later are dead broke and desperately unhappy, because they didn’t know how to handle the money and because they very quickly learned that money changes how people look at you and what they want from you, which makes it difficult to trust people, even those close to you. I would like to flatter myself by thinking that I could handle such a massive influx of money well, but alas, I am as susceptible to base human stupidity as anyone, so it’s entirely possible I would do something stupid. Again, the only way to tell is to get that money in my hands and see what I would do.
Since I don’t have that money, and I can therefore be fairly rational about it because it’s an entirely theoretical construct, here’s what I’d like to think I would do with $200 million if it dropped into my lap:
1. Take some portion of it and use it to set up a very comfortable annuity income. Off the top of my head, say, $1 million a year. If I and my family can’t live within a million dollars year, I suspect I am doing something very wrong with my life. I assume I will be crafty here and create the annuity so that it compensates for inflation, etc. But even if not, a million a year should go a long way likely for the rest of my lifetime.
2. Take another portion of it and set it up as a general trust fund for my extended family to encourage education and entrepreneurship, i.e., help pay for college and businesses they might create. No trust fund babies, but a leg up in getting a place in the world.
3. Take the largest portion of it — at least half — and use it to create a charitable organization to address issues that find important. Off the top of my head these would include local education and community infrastructure, arts, literacy and hunger.
There would be a point to doing things this way. One, to put that money to work on things I care about, right now. $200 million is more than I could use in one lifetime and no point waiting until I’m dead to make it useful. Two, to lock up the money so that anyone coming along to wheedle it out of me is going to be structurally stymied. It would be lovely to say “well, you could apply for a grant” to anyone who thinks I’m just going to pay for their new car because they imagine we’re pals or second cousins.
But — again — this is all theoretical. The chances I will see $200 million in this life are pretty slim, either from the lottery or by any other means. The good news is that even without that tidy little sum I’m still fortunate enough to write the things I want to write and to otherwise have a pretty decent life. That said, if someone does want to gift me with $200 million, post-tax, well. You know where you can find me.
(It’s not too late to get a request in for Reader Request Week — here’s how.)