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Column: The lottery has been good, so Powerball must be better

To raise money, the state ought to start sending out its own "Nigerian prince" e-mails to potential suckers.

You've heard of that scam, right? The e-mail claims to be from some guy in Nigeria who is trying to smuggle millions of dollars into the U.S.

All he needs is your bank account number, and you can split the dough with him …

What kind of moron would fall for that, you ask? Yet some do, as it turns out.

So it works — why not, then, use it as a way to raise money for the state?

After all, we've already established the moral principle that it's all right for the government to con people.

We do it with the Florida Lottery. The odds of winning a Lotto jackpot are 1 in 23-million.

And for precisely the SAME ODDS, we get people to pay $2 a pop, or $3, to collect a bigger jackpot "when you win."

Let's put this in perspective.

There is a 1 in 45,000 chance that in the year 2036, the Earth is gonna get smacked by an asteroid called 99942 Apophis. Look it up.

There's a 1 in 730,429 chance that you will drown in a bathtub this year.

Both events are far, far more likely than winning the lottery. But have you dug your asteroid shelter yet? Have you bought one of those little rubber bathtub mats?

Heck, some people smoke cigarettes and drive around without a seat belt, ignoring the extremely high odds that it will kill them — on their way to buying a lottery ticket.

"Everybody knows that it's just for fun," the lottery folks like to say.

No, everybody doesn't — and the state doesn't really want them to, either. Consider all the ad slogans over the years — "You Could Win Millions! You Never Know!"

I just read a report from an outfit called the Commission on Thrift. It says that 20 percent of players surveyed described lottery tickets as their most practical retirement strategy. The less money people make, the more they spend on tickets.

This brings us to Powerball, the granddaddy of all lotteries, an interstate racket that Florida has decided to join starting in January.

Here are the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot:

One in 146-million.

I wonder whether future historians and anthropologists will be amazed that this was ever an actual practice of American democratic government, employed to extract money from its citizens.

But, you know, the heck with the suckers. Forget 'em. Worry, instead, about the cheap, demoralizing effect that lotteries have on citizens as stakeholders in their own government. The lottery, we tell ourselves, is "free money" coming from willing victims — God forbid we should be paying for the schools instead!

Always the easy way out. Last week, Florida agreed to pay the billionaire Warren Buffett the sum of $224-million. Do you know why? So that Buffett will agree to loan us money if a big hurricane hits us this year. See, we don't have that dough — God forbid we should pay for that, either.

So Florida must hedge its bets. The odds of such a hurricane are estimated at 3 percent, about 1 in 33 — roughly 700,000 times more likely than buying a winning Lotto ticket, and 4.4-million times more likely than winning at Powerball.

Mr. Buffett, of course, makes money either way, even if the 1-in-33 shot comes true. The man clearly did not make his fortune by buying lottery tickets.

Column: The lottery has been good, so Powerball must be better 07/05/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 7, 2008 6:42pm]
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