The other day my friend Bud and I stopped at a convenience store to get some coffee. When I asked the clerk for two State lottery tickets, Bud taunted, "Double your bet, double your loss."
"What do you mean? My cousin's neighbor's dentist's sister won $350 last week," I recounted.
"Yeah, right," Bud replied. "But how much did she lose before and after that windfall? Don't forget, it's the State that's making the money."
"Maybe, but in the Lotto game, you can win some really big bucks." I said.
"I'm betting you'll die first," Bud offered. "I figured it out once. There's one chance in 14 million that your six numbers will be drawn for a grand prize of, say, $5 million. So if you bought 50 tickets a day every day of the year for the next 1000 years, you might hit the jackpot once – maybe. After 50 years of trying you'd have spent almost a million dollars. If, instead, you'd have stuck that money in the bank at an annual average interest of 4%, you'd be a millionaire. And that's not maybe. This is why they say the lottery is a tax on those who are lousy at math."
"Okay, but somebody is going to win!" I contested.
"Yeah, but it won't be you," Bud said. "It wasn't you who died in an airplane crash, and it wasn't you who got struck by lightning. Those horrible and shocking things don't happen to most of 'us,' and if you don't mind being one of 'us,' accept the fact you won't win the big lottery either."
"I hadn't thought about it that way," I mumbled.
"And why should you? What did you do to deserve it?"
"Okay, okay," I said. "But buying lottery tickets is good for education."
"You might think so. But what the lottery fund doesn't cover, the legislators makes up with money from other funds."
I pointed a finger at Bud. "You're telling me that if I don't buy lottery tickets, the State puts the bucks in for me… from the taxes I paid on my income?"
"And for the cigarettes you don't smoke."
I thought a moment, then ventured, "All right, let's just say I'm buying some dreams."
"Yes, I've done that," Bud fancied. "Bought a ticket, thought about how I'd divide my riches with my family, go on a vacation, stuff like that. Then I discovered a bargain. I don't buy a lottery ticket, then think about how I'd divide my riches with my family, go on a vacation, stuff like that. Same dreams, only now they're free."
"You got a point. But there's more to it. People think gambling is fun."
"Well, if losing money entertains you, fine," Bud conceded. "You can binge on bingo at the church, or perfect a system at the track, or get blackjacked at the casinos. Or you can join a friendly football pool, which, even though it's the fairest game around, is illegal since the State doesn't get a share. With all these choices why should the State be in the gaming business? Wouldn't it be better to privatize this 'Bureau of Public Amusement?'"
"All right, but if the State didn't sell lottery tickets, the gangsters would fill the vacuum with their numbers racket."
"Maybe," Bud allowed. "And maybe if the State had a 'Bureau of Prostitution' the School Aid Fund wouldn't need any subsidy from the General Fund. The question is, should our government be coaxing us through enticing ads to make unfair bets? Should it be teasing us with implausible visions of unearned wealth? Should it be taxing those lousy at math?"
What else could I say? I pushed the lottery tickets back at the store clerk and shrugged. "Make that two bran muffins instead."