Issue: 6/01

People from all walks of life were buzzing about it when the seven-state "Big Game" lottery jackpot shot up to a record $363 million last year. Virtually every TV station dispatched a news truck to a convenience store to show long lines of people waiting to buy tickets. Joy born of anticipation poured from the mouths of those who had a mike stuck in their face. Everyone had plans for the money.

A revealing sidebar occurred during that outbreak of lottery fever when the Illinois State Lottery began broadcasting TV and radio ads telling people not to get carried away buying lottery tickets. This after previously flooding the airwaves with clever ads egging them on to do exactly that. It was like dousing the audience with cold water after showing a porn flick.

Lottery officials felt uncharacteristic pangs of social responsibility because whenever publicity kicks in about a big jackpot, those who can least afford it tend to spend way too many dollars on lottery tickets. The odds against winning the $363 million Big Game were calculated at around 76 million to one. By digging a little into the rent money, folks could reduce the odds by a factor of 10. Adventuresome souls could dig even deeper and reduce it by a factor of 100, coming ever so close to a sure thing at just 760,000 to one.

Someone calculated that if you bought 50 tickets every week, you'd win the jackpot about once every 30,000 years. To do so within a reasonable human time span of 30 years would require 50,000 tickets a week. At a buck a ticket, that's $2.6 million a year for 30 years.

Lotteries thrive because the vast majority of people who play haven't a clue to such arithmetic. If any politician dared propose a special tax on the mathematically challenged, it would spell the end of his career. A lottery is a safer way to do so.

I hang around with mostly educated, sensible folks; yet, even within my circle of friends, almost everyone joins the action when the jackpot goes sky-high. Except me. I'm about the only person I know who has never bought a lottery ticket. Sometimes that makes me feel like I'm the only one around who understands math.

Granted the odds are tiny, say all my friends, but it's still a slim chance, and by not buying a ticket, I have absolutely no chance to win. They're right, of course. It's comforting to know my friends have at least that much mathematical acumen.

In response, I always confess that I, too, occasionally fantasize about becoming filthy rich through sheer dumb luck. It's just that I'm counting on it happening through inheritance from a rich long-lost uncle. The odds of this occurring have to be at least equal to that of my winning the Big Game, and it doesn't cost me a buck.

Lottery fever is a symptom of the social phenomenon explained in the classic 1988 book by John Allen Paulos, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences. It ought to be required reading in every high school in the country. Were it so, state-sponsored lotteries might shrivel away, and wiser public policies come about through an electorate that would understand, for instance, that odds of 76 million to one is just about the same as saying something will not happen.

Then again, from a purely selfish perspective, a wiser electorate is not in my best interest. My already aggravating tax burden would be even more onerous without all those suckers spending their rent money on lottery tickets.

Thank you, innumerate masses. Who would have thought it possible to live in a society where the have-nots so enthusiastically subsidize the haves.