Monday, March 12, 2007


We've all heard the jape: "The lottery is a tax on doing poorly in high school math class;" or Annie Libowitz's line, "Your odds of winning the lottery are almost the same whether or not you buy a ticket."

Benedict Carey has a smart essay over at the New York Times about why people play the lottery. Here's the line that gave me the "Aha!" moment:

“The people who denigrate lottery players are like 10-year-olds who are disgusted by the idea of sex: they are numb to its pleasures, so they say it’s not rational,” said Lloyd Cohen, a professor of law at George Mason University and author of an economic analysis, “Lotteries, Liberty and Legislatures,” who is himself a gambler and a card counter.

Dr. Cohen argues that lottery tickets are not an investment but a disposable consumer purchase, which changes the equation radically. Like a throwaway lifestyle magazine, lottery tickets engage transforming fantasies: a wine cellar, a pool, a vision of tropical blues and white sand. The difference is that the ticket can deliver.

And as long as the fantasy is possible, even a negligible probability of winning becomes paradoxically reinforcing, Dr. Cohen said. “One is willing to pay hard cash that it be so real, so objective, that it is actually calculable — by someone, even if not oneself,” he said.

Exactly! A ticket in the $390 million lottery is not about an expectation of winning (not to a rational player), it's just a ticket to a daydream about what you would | could | should do if you won. It's a tenth the cost of a ticket to the movies and it plays behind my eyelids as I wait in the ferry line.

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