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Bidness As Unusual

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by Paul Flemming

Lots of folks are against taxes, myself among them. I am four-square against the Stupid Tax, otherwise known as the state-run lottery.

For the moment, Powerball frenzy has subsided. The idiocy will no doubt return soon with a new, higher jackpot than the $295.7 million up for grabs in the July 29 lottery drawing.

I vainly hope that this ridiculous round of media hullabaloo will not be repeated, that people will not go insane, that no one will ever again subject themselves to the voluntary Stupid Tax.

Fat chance.

Which is distinctly different from the chance a hapless citizen would have of actually winning the thing. Each ticket sold was a potential winner, at 80.1-million-to-one odds. That's roughly the same odds as you have of being struck by a falling three-toed tree sloth, being paralyzed, and then getting spontaneously pregnant while recovering in the hospital and that's for a man.

We are entering dangerous territory here. Among the chief attractions of journalism school for me was the dearth of mathematics classes required for matriculation. I tested out of Math 10, took a physics class that somehow counted as a math requirement and that was it, my math days at Mizzou were over, which was fine by me.

But apparently even my substandard math skills put me at the top of the class compared to every yahoo who shelled out a buck for a Powerball ticket.

What have I got against the Stupid Tax? Let me count the ways:

1. Innumeracy.

It seems a uniquely American malady that we completely fail to comprehend statistics. From the Alar scare to earthquake insurance to Powerball, Americans reveal on a regular basis that statistical analysis might as well be Urdu. None of us understand.

To buy a Powerball ticket is the near-ultimate absurdity, surpassed only by the hokum that passes for logic among those who buy and promote the tickets.

My earlier comparison of the odds of winning Powerball to another everyday event was clearly a joke, but in recent days I've heard news reports that faithfully announced comparable statistical analogies. Among them were that individuals were as likely to contract rabies, freeze to death or die falling out of bed as win the lottery.

Apart from the fact that you can take small precautions to reduce your chances of contracting rabies to a statistical impossibility (as if 80.1-million-to-one were not impossible enough) by not petting rabid dogs or hanging out with raccoons, I am struck by how these analogies so often refer to death.

If you are optimistic enough to buy a ticket, your standards of logic should keep you plenty paranoid ... you must therefore also think you'll be hit by a meteor at any moment.

And another thing (now the rant is really rolling): why do these lotteries only attract attention when the jackpots are gargantuan? Next week the Powerball jackpot will be $25 million or something, I don't know. Ticket sales will be miniscule compared to this week's. May we therefore conclude that a mere $25 million is not enough to sate most idiots' desires?

It reflects yet another failure to comprehend. Though each week a single ticket's chances of winning are the same, the aforementioned 80.1-million-to-one odds, the odds of someone else also hitting on that long-long-long shot along with you go up considerably when the feeding frenzy begins.

2. Stupid on stupid.

The last two Powerball frenzies have ended with winners who chose the bulk cash payout rather than the 25-year annuity payment. Good Lord, that's stupid. Winners thus immediately cut their winnings almost by half. The July 29 winner will get $161.5 million in a lump sum rather than the $295.7 million at an $11.8 million per annum clip.

Yes, I know about investment strategies and the degrading force of inflation and whatever else. But I figure if you're stupid enough to buy a ticket, and you're stupid enough to choose the cash payout, then you're in all likelihood plenty stupid enough to run through the whole $161.5 million in about 18 months. Then you're SOL, as we say in the Stupid Tax business.

3. Capital Punishment.

Oh, there's a connection between the lottery and capital punishment, and it has nothing to do with your odds of ending up in the electric chair.

In the same way that I cannot comprehend why, if I killed someone it would be called murder but if the state of Missouri, on my behalf as a citizen, kills someone it is called capital punishment, neither can I understand state-sponsored lotteries.

If I was running book out of my house, the police would arrest me for an illegal gambling operation. How can a government have legitimacy when it does things that it deems unsuitable for its individual citizens?

Bah! I say.

The ultimate salt in the wound is stupid reporting about the cut of the lotteries' proceeds that go to education. Goodness gracious, I hope it does some good. If our educational system is worth anything at all, it will impart to students enough mathematical knowledge, enough critical-thinking skills, enough sense, to put the lottery out of business.

If all this education investment pays off, we'll have a citizenry too smart to pay the Stupid Tax.

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