Friday, February 22, 2008


The multi-state Mega Millions lottery jackpot is up to $270 million for the drawing tonight, which means media outlets have poked their heads up and run their usual lottery stories. There's usually some quick interviews with the guys running the green machine and with gamblers (preferably delusional, or able to be spun as delusional). In print, you also see the requisite call to the local university, so some economists can explain how irrational buying lottery tickets is.

Now, I have seen an article or two with a smarter-than-usual economist, who points out that people must be getting something worth what they pay for the lottery tickets -- if they didn't, they wouldn't keep doing it. But, in general, there's a strong whiff of "only poor and stupid people do this."

I won't deny that spending money on the lottery can be stupid -- it should only be money that you can afford to burn -- but it's not necessarily so. And I think those economists aren't thinking about what people actually get out of lotteries.

The first, obvious thing is a shot at a large pile of money. It's a very small shot (about one in 175 million, in this case) at, right now, a very large pile, but someone is going to win that money (soon, if not tonight), and any ticket has about the same odds. Unlike many chances available to Americans, nobody else has a better shot at it; anybody who buys a ticket is equal.

The second thing a lottery ticket buys is pretty obvious, as well: it's the chance to daydream, to build some imaginary castles, to think about what you'd do with all that money. I used to try to buy my lottery tickets as early as possible (when I decided to waste the money, and remembered to do so -- which turned out to not be very often), so I'd have a couple of days of "wouldn't it be great if..." to look forward to. I'm busier now, so that rarely happens, but I still generally don't check my numbers for a day or three. Until you know that you lost -- and, let's be honest, you are going to lose -- you can go on dreaming.

But there's something else a lottery ticket buys, though you might have to be a cynical bastard like me to think of it. A lottery ticket is an insurance policy against the creeping "what-ifs" when some other idiot wins. If there's an umpty-gazillion-dollar jackpot, and you don't play, but your idiot brother-in-law does and he're gonna be pissed. You might be only slightly less pissed if you did play, and he still won, but at least you did what you could.

That's how I see it, at least. It's a cheap way to say "well, I did what I could." And when this jackpot is split between thirty-seven co-workers in Oshkosh, two elderly sisters in Springfield, and an unemployed welder in Kalamazoo, I'll be saying it again.


Paul Weimer said...

Because of the mathematical improbabilities of buying lottery tickets, I generally don't do so.

Except, and only if the jackpot exceeds the odds of winning. If the odds of winning a lottery are 175 million to one, I will buy a ticket if the jackpot is greater than 175 million dollars.

The rationale is that if I bought up every combination and were the only winner, I'd make money on the deal. So I can justify to myself buying a ticket since its a "more than even" bet.

JPR said...

I too play the lotto occasionally for the same reason as you: day dreaming. I have always heard it said that only people who are bad at math buy tickets, but I disagree. To take Paul's reasoning a step further: If there are 100 drawings a year, the jackpot is always over 100 million, and the odds are only 1 in 100 million, and you plan to live to be 1 million years old, then buying one ticket for every drawing is a good idea. I am not bad at math, I am just optimistic about my life span!

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