The Nation's Pulse

Vice Economics

 Playing the lottery could use some perspective.

By 11.30.11

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Years of living in Wyoming deprived me of a vice that unlike all others I never gave up, playing the lottery. Wyoming --thanks to an anti-gambling faction in the state legislature and a regular thumbs down from voters in past statewide referendums -- does not participate in the national Powerball lottery (the proceeds of which are used to support "education," but that's another piece in itself). The casino operated by the Northern Arapahos on their Wind River Reservation is beyond state jurisdiction.

I knew people in Cody who drove forty miles north to Belfry, Montana to get their tickets. Now that I live in Salmon, Idaho, I simply pick them up at the nearest convenience store. Twice a week I invest in a Powerball Quick-Pick ticket. I say "invest" because the investment promises a possible return of $3 to multi-millions, and you have to -- as the saying goes -- be in it to win it. Last week somebody in Pennsylvania won $59 million. A couple of weeks before that a Connecticut ticket scored $254 million. Unlike other players I don't ritually use the same numbers week after week, but take the random Quick-Pick. But other rituals are familiar: signing the ticket and checking the numbers online, or via a phone recording or newspaper.

Of course, the odds of taking the grand prize are astronomical. The 195 million to one odds of hitting the jackpot has been compared to blindfolding yourself and then on your hands and knees locating a pea placed on a football field. At eleven million to one, one is more likely to be the victim of a shark attack tenfold. It's 5 million to one to hit the $200,000 prize (50 percent more likely than the shark attack), 723,000 to one to win $10,000. Throw in the lower tier prizes ($100, $7, $4, $3), and the player has a 35 to 1 chance to win something. I have hit two $4's and a $7 and these merely paid for the next few upcoming tickets.

The ticket costs a dollar, so my annual expenditure is $104. A friend tells me that this sum is a "tax on stupidity," but if that's the case then I'm not as stupid as I used to be. After all, gambling (or its modern euphemism "gaming") is the only vice that promises that aforementioned possible dividend.

I drank rather heartily for years and the only investment return I gained from that were hangovers. I'm guessing that I spent that $104 on a sometimes weekly basis during my bibulous career. Even just a six pack of beer in the pre-microbrew 1970s-'80s cost two or three times what I spend on one Quick-Pick today.

I was a cigarette smoker until about twenty years ago. At the time a pack of cigarettes -- depending on the brand -- cost approximately two dollars (it's twice that and more today). I smoked roughly a pack per day, so I'm guessing that I spent fifteen bucks per week (occasionally buying a full carton was more economical, of course). This adds up to $780 annually. The only thing I got from smoking was the chance (hopefully now diminished) to develop lung cancer or emphysema. Certainly no multi-million dollar payoff there. No high-end real estate transactions or international travel. No weekends at the Ritz in Paris. The two bucks per week I now devote to lottery tickets bought one pack of smokes in 1990.

Like many folks who came of age circa 1970, I dabbled in my share of drugs, especially marijuana. My current non-participatory research tells me that dope is more potent and pricey nowadays. Legal medical marijuana distribution seems to be yet another aspect of an insanely expensive healthcare system. Small amounts of weed so strong that it will not only get you high, but, well, maybe in touch with your ancestors.

In 1972, just graduated from high school, I had a job in a warehouse that netted me $90 per week. I devoted $20 of this paycheck to a weekly one ounce bag of pot, which back then was a good deal. It was rather tame stuff, commonly referred to as "commercial Mexican weed." The better "Acapulco Gold" and Colombian stuff were rare and went for $40 and more, and was mostly beyond my means. I don't think I spent the $20 every single week, but if I did the annual bill came to $1,040 -- over a grand, and ten times my current lottery ticket bill. For this investment I risked tangling with law enforcement and jail time. My dealer was a high school friend who displayed his wares in an elegant alligator-skin briefcase. Always entrepreneurial-minded, we planned to invest our share of George McGovern's promised $1,000 tax credit for low income Americans (McGovern dropped this scheme from his platform before election day, but I was probably too stoned to notice) in a projected retail marijuana business. So I cast my first vote in a presidential election accordingly. Fortunately, the majority of the American electorate was wiser than I.

The libertarian in me says "What the hell?" but I do wish I'd never spent all that money -- so long ago -- on dope, booze, and cigarettes. So, today, my motto can be found printed at the bottom of every Powerball ticket I buy: "Please play responsibly."

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.