Tuesday, April 09, 2002

Chances of Getting Struck by Lightning: 1 in 709,260

The Post has a features piece today on the region's impending "Big Game" lottery drawing, currently valued at around $155 million. There's always something desperately sad about the stories newspapers and local news shows do right before a big jackpot is awarded. The minimum wage convenience store clerks, the blue collar lottery addicts, and the ill-concealed self-loathing of players who have no better strategy for improving their lives than playing 76,000,000-to-1 odds. Even the stoic souls who refuse to be seduced by vain dreams of unearned wealth seem unhappy. They aren't even allowing themselves to dream.

Take 64-year-old tour bus driver Jesse Johnson, who spends $20 a day on lottery tickets. Even if he only bought them on weekdays, that's still over $5,200 a year, with no jackpot to show for it thus far. Of course it's not as though players like Mr. Johnson get nothing out of the transaction. I've spent enough time daydreaming about the possibilities of windfall wealth with lottery-playing friends and relations to know that there are pleasures to be had just from holding the ticket in your hand.

What continues to surprise me, however, is the consistently modest scale of people's lottery fantasies. A new dream house seems to be the biggest ambition most lottery players have for their future wealth. Even with jackpots like this week's that would allow the winner to take an immediate lump sum payment of over $80 million. None of the man-on-the-street interview subjects plan to start their own foundation, build a charter school, or assemble a harem of nubile young pleasure servants. They want to buy a new truck, go on a tropical vacation, or help a friend with medical bills. Things that many of them could actually do if they saved and invested the money they spend, year after year, on the lottery. I wonder what would happen if they all eventually realized that.

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