Friday, November 30, 2012

Thoughts on the Lottery

Wednesday night the folks at Powerball drew for a jackpot worth, at most recent estimate, some $588 million.  And as always happens when a lottery jackpot gets really big, the media made sure to give it lots of coverage, all the while chiding folks for buying lottery tickets.  But that hypocrisy can be discussed at some other time.  For this essay, I would like to address the common claim that a lottery is, quote, .a tax for people bad at math’, unquote.  I submit that many rational people would take a different view of eth lottery.
To start, though, let’s discuss taxes.  While most folks speak of taxes in a derogatory manner, most os us recognize that taxes are not always bad.  Consider, for example, taxes used to support fire and police departments, maintain roads and bridges, and keep schools open.  It’s understood by pretty much all rational adults that some taxes are necessary and good.  So, from the start we should reject the idea that calling the lottery a ‘tax’ is automatically a bad thing.  It would only be bad, if we could show that the lottery was a bad tax.

OK, so what would make a tax bad?  To my mind, there are three ways a tax can be bad.   First, the tax could be a heavy burden, hard for the taxpayer to be able to pay and still make a decent living.  Second, the tax could be collected for an immoral purpose, like the taxes raised by nobles in the past for no better reason than to build palaces and provide luxury for themselves.  And third, a tax could be imposed without the consent of the governed, and as such would be punitive.  A lottery is none of those things.  First, no one is compelled to purchase even a single lottery ticket, so the last argument about consent of the taxpayer falls quickly – the lottery is the most fair tax in existence, since only those who approve ever pay it.  Also, the price of a lottery ticket is as little as one dollar, the price depending depending on the game.  But more than that, no one has to spend money they can’t afford on lottery tickets, and there’s even a toll-free number on the back of the scratch-off tickets for those who may be concerned about gambling addiction.  I don’t recall my 1040 form ever offering counseling on how to pay less income tax.

So what is the lottery money used for?  In some cases, education, though admittedly that claim by states has run hard against facts at times.  But where lottery money is not used for education, it goes into the general fund, which at least avoids the stigma of being directly associated with some of government’s more irresponsible ventures. 

Taken as a whole then, lotteries may not seem like good wholesome activities to some people, but you can’t really make an effective argument that lotteries are immoral or wrong.  That leaves skeptics pointing out obvious facts such as the high odds against winning the jackpot, while they ignore the obvious fact that we already know those facts.  We are well aware that in all likelihood buying lottery tickets means we are giving away money that we might otherwise use to productive purpose.

Here’s the way I see it:  I know that in any realistic sense, I am throwing away a few bucks a week playing the lottery.  But I don’t waste money on Starbucks, bottled water, or ‘organic’ anything, so anyone telling me I’m wasting money is a hypocrite in need of a slap in the face.  The thing is, if someone wants to spend five bucks on a cup of coffee, or a loaf of bread, or so on, they get their return in the immediate enjoyment of their product.  So do I, in the anticipation that maybe, just maybe, I will suddenly have enough money that financial considerations will no longer be necessary,  Even the ‘small’ jackpots would be enough to set me up for life, and more to the point, take care of my family and give my daughter a financial foundation – heck, give HER kids a solid financial foundation.  It’s worth a buck or two to imagine that could happen.  And let’s be clear, if you spend your money on a coffee, that’s it – the enjoyment maxes out at however you enjoy what you bought.  I accept that my lottery tickets will probably be worthless paper, but I also know that every so often someone really does win the big money, and if I buy a ticket that might- just might – be me.   Skeptics like to point out that the odds of getting hit by lightning are better than the odds of winning Powerball, but they forget that when the weather gets stormy, you can protect yourself by taking shelter. And if there’s a chance that spending a buck or two might bring in more money than I could make in a hundred salaried jobs, well, a smart man sees the opportunity there.

Play on.