Fri, 18 Aug 2000

Do not bet on it!

By Robin Rhee

SEOUL: "There's a sucker born every minute," said showman and circus owner P.T. Barnum. There seems to be a lot of homespun wisdom in those words because the allure of "pie in the sky," striking it lucky or rich and riding the "gravy train" without the investment of any sweat equity makes an amazing number of people take some mighty stupid risks.

Have you ever bought a pig in a poke -- a pig in a sack, sight unseen? Probably not literally, but if you have ever invested in something you know little or nothing about, you have bought a pig in a poke in the vernacular.

Some examples of such "get rich quick" schemes which dangle the bait that they can make your "ship come in," and lead you to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, are junk bonds, penny stocks, mining and oil speculation, bogus fly-by-night investment and real estate companies and pyramid schemes.

Because people want to believe that easy street is just around the corner, slick brochures, smooth talking charlatans and extravagant office suites can provide the desired aura of assurance that everything is above board and on the up and up.

They fork over their hard earned money without any reservations, in total disregard of the absurd, outrageous and obviously fraudulent returns promised on their "investments." By the time that their suspicions are aroused, or they simply have second thoughts about what they have done, the posh offices are empty and the doors are locked.

There is the heart of a gambler in most of us. How many times do we answer a question by saying, "You want to bet?" Or we may say, "I'd bet my life on it;" "It's an odds on favorite." For the most part, these are simply trite replies, yet we do buy lotto, sweepstake and raffle tickets, bet on horse races, join office pools when team championships are imminent, feed money into slot machines, visit gambling casinos (Korean high rollers choose Las Vegas) or just play cards for money with our friends to make the game more "interesting." The game of choice in Korea, for both friendly bets and serious gambling is "Go-Stop."

The danger is always present that when we think we've hit a lucky streak, or feel that Lady Luck is finally in our corner, we'll put all of our eggs in one basket, throw discretion and good sense to the wind and "bet the farm" -- or the apartment, car, kids' college fund or the retirement fund. It's a fast, certain way to go broke while trying to get rich.

Some would counter that life is a gamble, and they would be right. Couples take a huge gamble when they decide to get married. Entrepreneurs borrow up to their necks to launch businesses that may fail. But at least these are fairly reasonable gambles -- nothing ventured, nothing gained -- with the chances of success, based on hard work and commitment, tilted heavily in their favor.

The reckless gambler though will chance passing a car on a two lane highway while rounding a blind curve, or take up day trading on the internet -- only investing in high risk stocks -- in hopes he'll never have to do a real day's work again.

Korean college students learned a hard lesson recently when they risked their tuition money and took out bank loans to invest in the stock market just before it took a nose dive.

The practice of spreading money envelopes around in Korea is another form of gambling; donors are banking that when they call in these "markers" in the future they will receive political support, special favors, preferential treatment or prestigious appointments.

Perhaps the riskiest gamble of all is co-signing substantial loans for friends, family members and even passing acquaintances -- a practice which most Koreans say they can't refuse. If an individual absconds with the money, loses his job or for other reasons cannot or will not repay the loan, the co-signer is left holding the bag. All of society's crooks gamble that they will never be caught and held responsible for their crimes.

Society gives out mixed advice, however. On the one hand it advises never to bet more than you can afford to lose, a middle of the road, sensible caveat and that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Some newspapers condemn gambling on their editorial pages, but print racing tips on the sports pages. Some religious groups consider gambling in any form to be a sin, while other religions raise money by hosting Bingo games and selling raffle tickets for expensive prizes.

Even department stores, especially during sales season, encourage patrons to spend more than they ordinarily would, or can reasonably afford, to receive the bonus entry coupons for their grand prize drawings. After all, someone has to win and the greater the number of coupons that bear your name the better the odds it could be you.

Gambling is in fact stealing -- by mutual consent. If a deal, an opportunity, or an investment seems too good to be true, it probably is. Horses are the smart ones. They don't bet on humans.

The writer is a member of the Kim Dae-jung Peace Foundation.

-- The Korea Herald/Asia News Network