The Weekender: That Stupid Lottery

Powerball

I’ve never understood cross-border shopping. Sure, when you live in Windsor or Niagara Falls, it makes some kind of sense, but living here in Guelph, doing the five-hour round trip, waiting in line at the border, the cost of gas, and basic losing a day to base commerce, the math has never seemed to add up. I had a similar feeling this week watching Powerball madness grip not just those in the U.S., but those Canadians that got in their cars and headed south to play along in the 1 in 292 million chance that they might become billionaires. 

As you’ve heard by now, three winning tickets will split the $1.5 billion jackpot from Wednesday night, and it looks like no one from Canada that tried to horn in on the American’s biggest lottery prize managed to beat the odds. Why would they? Forbes compiled a list of things you have greater odd of doing than winning Powerball, including a 1-in-215 chance that would date a millionaire. It’s actually substantively easier for you to marry into money than winning money, so one’s time last week would have been better spent on Tinder than in line at some Buffalo Quick Stop.

Still, like the proverbial carrot and stick, people chased something they know they’ll never get, like some poor Long Island woman that bought 6,000 tickets for a pool she had with other moms. Too bad for her that we literally crunched the numbers as an exercise in OAC Finite Math, and discovered that one has to buy about 10,000 lottery tickets in order to substantially increase your odds of winning by a singular percentage point. In other words, $10,000 takes your chances of winning from a fraction of one per cent to a little more than one whole per cent.

That’s always been in the back of my mind when I’ve played the lottery here on rare occasion, the Super Max or Lotto 649 or whatever. Our old associate Oliver Rockside has a simple piece of advice concerning casino gambling, treat any money you walk into a casino with as lost money. You’re not “investing” it, you’re not banking on walking out a millionaire, you’re paying for the experience. The fun. Playing for money just adds an incentive to keep your attention. When I play the lotto, I play for fun, and to flirt with the daydream of a life of leisure. If you’re banking on turning fantasy in reality, you’re going to have a bad time.

Still, some lottery-winning master strategist on Fox News had some simple advice for those wanting to win Powerball: buy more tickets! Duh. The rational explanation for this is cognitive bias, meaning that the numbers in play are just too damn big for the average person to understand. Think of it another way, in 2001 more people died of cirrhosis of the liver than from terrorism, but ask the average American what their number one concern is, and it’s not cirrhosis.

But cognitive bias is only one small problem with all the lottery hoopla. You will have noted in all the tips on wining and the naval gazing of those lining up for hours to play, there was not one article or TV spot about the growing opinion that playing the lottery has become a tax on the poor. A website called Metrocosm, which does lot of data and stastical based reporting, showed that according to their research, Americans spent over $70 billion in lottery tickets in 2014, that’s more than the amount spent on movie, concert and sports tickets combined. And it was disproportionately the poorest Americans buying them. All told, three out of five of lottery players were amongst the poorest 20 per cent of Americans.

But is it unfair to call the lottery a “stupidity tax”? In a Guardian column in 2014, back when the Powerball was worth a measly $330 million, writer Chris Arnade wrote of Powerball players that, “They were playing the lotto because it is one of the only legal opportunities available to them to become rich. When you are poor, you make what others view as irrational decisions not because of ‘stupidity’ but because of limited options. Rationality has to be viewed in the context of the situation.”

True. As demonstrated in the recently Oscar-nominated film The Big Short, Wall Street bankers, real estate brokers, and everyone on down through the chain treated the markets like a lottery leading up to the 2008 crash, they kept buying “tickets”, the “pot” kept getting bigger, and they whole thing fell down like a house of cards on a gusty day. People were reckless, they kept throwing money at the situation in an attempt to cash in, and the stakes got higher and higher until a couple of people won, and whole lot of people lost. Still, the goal of both playing the lottery and playing the stock market is the same: greed.

Greed may be a bit strong, so let’s just call it the beautiful dream of wealth, but what gets mostly lost in the narrative of chasing that dream is that it often turns out to be a nightmare. One CNN report highlighted some horror stories of past mega lottery winners, and those kinds of stories aren’t too hard to find. Janite Lee had to file bankruptcy 10 years after she won $18 million, William Post’s brother took a contract out on Post and his wife after they won $16 million, and Billie Harrell Jr. shot himself 20 months after winning $31 million after a series of bad investments. Like the man said, mo’ money, mo’ problems.

Yes, the dream, or is that delusion, of winning the lottery is fun, but there’s a much bigger context that the media missed in the mad scramble to cover the mad scramble. In Toronto, a bakery giving away free Powerball tickets with each $20 purchase had its window broken Wednesday by a man using a sandwich board. He didn’t say, but we can infer that the pressure of waiting in line to buy several dozen buns and pastries to get a shot at $1.5 billion got to him. Unfortunately for this man, and his now very real criminal record, never has so much time been wasted on so little chance of getting anything out of it. At least when you cross-border shop you come back with a car full of stuff.

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