A few days ago I reported that chain letters were proliferating again, and I made fun of their claim that if only we'd cooperate, we could all become millionaires.
Reaction has been interesting, if not entirely amusing. Several readers responded by sending me new chain letters I hadn't seen yet. Three letter writers suggested that I mind my own business and stop interfering with their opportunity to strike it rich. "It's people like you," said one, "who spoil things for everybody."
Several mathematicians offered precise numbers in support of my generalization that it is nonsense to think that a chain letter can benefit everybody who participates. What their figures boil down to is this: If every American kept a chain unbroken and sent every other American $1, each of us would receive more than $200 million - but only if each of us had sent more than 200 million $1 bills. However, it may have to your notice that some people do not have that many $1 bills to distribute. In fact, some of us can't even afford the postage on 200 million letters.
Lois S. Boyd of Fairfax told me the get-rich-quick claims in chain letters remind her of an occasion back in Prestonsburg, Ky., many years ago when some old-timers were discussing the Depression and what should be done to end it.
"If the president would just collect all the money and divide it equally," said one man, "the whole problem would be solved. There'd be enough for everybody."
"That wouldn't do any good, John," another man said. "The smart guys would have it all back by the end of the week."
The first man thought about that for a few moments, then his face brightened. "Not necessarily," he said. "The president could wait until Saturday night before he divided it."
I am also reminded of a story. Some years ago there was a small town in which everybody was reasonably well off except a man named Joe who had been a loser all his life. Several times he had been at the point of acquiring a modest nest egg, but each time he had encountered bad luck and lost out. Now poor Joe was getting on in years, his relatives were all gone, and so was his money.
So the city council decided that Joe had to be helped. But to avoid wounding his pride, he wasn't given charity. Instead, he was hired to polish the Civil War cannon that stood in front of the courthouse.
Joe was delighted with his assignment, and for two years he reported for work at 8 every morning and polished that cannon until it shone. But then one day he walked into the mayor's office and said, "I don't want you to think I'm ungrateful, but I'm resigning my job."
"Why, for heaven's sake?" the mayor asked.
"Well, I've worked hard," Joe said, "and I've saved my money. Now I finally have enough in the bank to buy a cannon of my own and go into business for myself."
Perhaps that's the way to make chain letters pay off, too. Don't work for somebody else. Start your own chain and go into business for yourself.