Such are the subtle joys of playing Powerball: a supposedly stupid game for stupid people who like a few moments of stupid fun. It’s ridiculous to equate a lottery drawing with a historic moment of national unity: V-E Day or the day that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon or … well, have there been many days of national unity since then that didn’t involve enduring or remembering a tragedy? When the alternative to a silly game is divisive election-year politics or gut-wrenching headlines about the Islamic State, we might be advised to spend $2 in the name of shared experience, even if spending that $2 demonstrates we are fools.
“So, why do people ever play the lottery?” Trent Hamm wrote in the Christian Science Monitor in 2012. “They play it for hopes and dreams, that’s why. If you see someone playing the lottery, it’s because they’re dreaming of a situation where they get rich very quickly and thus are able to turn around their current situation in some fashion.”
Advising a reader who fretted about the sawbucks her mother blew on twice-weekly drawings, Hamm added: “Your mother isn’t playing the lottery because of the investment potential. It’s pretty easy to see that it’s a terrible investment. She’s playing it for emotional and psychological reasons.”
As Wednesday’s record $1.5 billion jackpot approached, this remarkably unremarkable observation seemed to get lost amid tens of thousands of words devoted to explaining, debunking or otherwise dissecting Powerball.
There was the fact that the lottery was altered to decrease the odds of winning, increase the jackpots and “make the game an even bigger ripoff,” as the Los Angeles Times put it. There was serious statistical advice about how to choose numbers, or how to spend winnings, or whether to take a lump sum payout or an annuity — much of which recognized that, by the way, it was impossible to win Powerball. And there was the meme that, quite wrongly, said splitting the jackpot among 300 million Americans would give every American about $4 million each — an observation based on flawed math that, nonetheless, sparked conversation about income inequality.
But who needs all that noise? As one unpublished, but still fascinating, Harvard University thesis put it in 2002: “State-run lotteries are actually providing utility to consumers and concerns about exploitation are therefore less important.”
This is not to say that Powerball, and lotteries writ large, don’t present significant societal problems. Yes, they are a tax on the poor. Yes, they allow state and local governments dependent on lottery revenue to burden the masses — the same masses who often resist the taxes needed for society to survive in the first place. And yes, like all games of chance, they rely on players to make an irrational choice.
But Powerball also can contribute to what economists might call social utility: the grease that makes the world go.
“The lottery quickly becomes a commonly shared experience; like sports and the weather, the lottery is something that almost everybody knows something about,” Charles T. Clotfelter and Philip J. Cook wrote in “Selling Hope: State Lotteries in America” — a book that does not go soft on such games — in 1991. “… Especially in the midst of the frenzy created by the occasional giant lotto jackpot, players reportedly indulge in fantasies about what could be done with the prize money. Like a snowstorm or a World Series, a multimillion-dollar jackpot creates excitement that spills over to become a social event.”
In other words, like many other forms of entertainment that cost money — sometimes a lot of money when you consider the cost of attending, say, an NFL game — playing Powerball can be fun. Fun unmarred by time-wasting, gas-guzzling traffic backups, exorbitant parking fees or drunken fans with painted faces sitting next to you, cursing and bellowing.
The lottery will not make many rich. Quite the opposite. But Powerball may bring people together.
“Seen in this light, the lottery embodies communal good feeling, the wholesome instinct to take a chance, and innocent fantasies of wealth,” Clotfelter and Cook wrote.
Consider one popular Powerball ritual: the office pool. No, contributing to one is not a wise financial choice.
“Business Insider, like many offices across the country, is holding an office pool for tonight’s drawing,” Andy Kiersz wrote in a worthy discussion of lottery utility in that publication. “I have decided not to participate, mainly based on our expected-value analysis.”
That’s all well and good, but might this reporter’s colleagues not be wondering: Hey, why didn’t that cheapskate Kiersz chip in $2 for Powerball? Like other questionable work-related activities — happy hours, holiday parties and weekend retreats — office pools at least offer some sense that everyone is on the same team.
Even if they work through peer pressure.
“Being able to visualize the agony of not winning, but not the joy of winning, must be a form of loss aversion,” Greg Ip wrote in the Wall Street Journal, in a piece called “Why an Economist Plays Powerball.” “Peer effects are clearly at work. If the choice were whether to buy a ticket by myself, I would have said no. If someone I knew won, I’d endure my penury in blissful anonymity. But to do so with the full knowledge of all my colleagues? To avoid that shame, $2 sounds like a bargain.”
So if, for whatever reason, you were dumb enough to buy a Powerball ticket, tune out the haters as 11 p.m. approaches. They may have not squandered their money, but they may have squandered fellow-feeling, and bliss, and brotherly love. They are not part of something. You are.
At the very least, you can tell yourself that when you lose.