Saturday, December 1, 2012

Don't Tell Me the Odds

This morning I got into an extended twitter conversation about lotteries. Why?  Well, because the big powerball lottery led to a NYT oped that asserted that lotteries are bad for the winners, too. The timing was pretty funny since I just saw the author, Joe Nocera, on the 30 for 30 ESPN documentary, Broke,* which focused on athletes blowing their windfalls. 

*  I couldn't sleep last night, not due to the stress my daughter was feeling on the eve of her first SAT exam but because of a backache.  Oy.  So, I watched the doc we had on the DVR.
So, I tweeted a link to the piece thusly:

For the entire conversation, go to this storified account. The main contention that Steven Metz was making was that the very slim hope offered by the lotteries provides psychic benefits that I cannot understand since I have never felt the despair of being so poor and helpless.  True, I have not.  However, I have a relative or two that has been, and I wouldn't want them to be putting money on a con.

Yes, a con.  Steven argued that my labeling lotteries a con was elitist essentially, but what I have read over the years has only convinced me that lotteries are cons.  That they advertise that winning is quite possible and even probably, they play to the innumerate and the desperate, and when people do well, the odds are changed to reduce the probability of winning.  Getting to a jackpot of $500 million is not an accident, but a result of reducing the payoffs of getting some but not all of the numbers. 

I am not a scholar in this area, so I don't know of studies that show how innumerate people are (although the performance of the pollsters inside the GOP and support for the anti-Nate Silvers are suggestive) or how much psychic benefit there is from the very slenderest of hopes.  I did watch an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (first ep of season three), where the demons suggest that their strange factory (not explained) was close enough to hell since without hope, all there is is despair. 

But my basic take is that governments should not be peddling false hope, but actually real hope by engaging in policies that reach out to those in the worst situations, to provide some ways out of their conditions or at least provide material comfort.  My aforementioned relative or two got some assistance from governments (food stamps, housing assistance, subsidized day-care and the like) which made it possible to endure the challenges.  It did not guarantee a way out, but it provided some hope that they could do well enough to survive and climb out a bit of the desperate straights of their lives.

The only argument that I found at all convincing is that if governments get out of lotteries, then organized crime will get back into the numbers racket. This led to folks chiming in on the differences between government run cons and private but legal cons.  I would rather have legalized gambling, including lotteries, than have government spend money raised by lotteries and by taxes convincing people to engage in bad gambles.

I am not a libertarian, but I am gambler.  My game is poker, and I would rather the governments of the US allow poker than lotteries, because the odds are better.  Sure, skill allows those who are better to prey upon the less skilled, but at least there is a potential to learn and improve one's game.  There is no way to learn and improve one's play in lotteries except not to play.  Yet governments hypocritically argue that online gambling can breed addictive behavior.  Um, yes, it can and does, but lotteries do that as well. 

Others in the conversation distinguished between governments doing something, prohibiting something and staying away from something (legalizing but not running).  I am not a moral theorist, and no one should take me seriously when I make moral claims.  But this is my blog and I can do what I want with it, including arguing that state-run lotteries are pretty abhorrent, that there are better ways for governments to alleviate despair and that gambling (including lotteries) should be legal but not state-run.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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