Wednesday, February 11, 2015

You are not going to win the lottery



     So much of what's left of media criticism consists of slagging various competitors when they make a perceived misstep, I thought I'd pause for a moment to praise a colleague who did something today we see too little of, and is appreciated, at least by me.
WBBM reporter Bernie Tafoya
     Coverage of the Powerball Lottery is generally a relentless ballyhoo,  where the media, for some unfathomable reason—tradition, I suppose—falls over itself to promote this tax on desperation, focusing on the jackpot and the long lines, interviewing people about how they'll spend the millions they're not going to get.
    Rarely does anyone mention the infinitesimal odds. Rarely are the majority of people, who shun the lottery, given their due. We're all gripped in a fever! Every. Single. Time.
    Thus I was impressed to hear two reports on WBBM 780 AM Wednesday by veteran newsman Bernie Tafoya, that offered perspective, talking of people who weren't playing Powerball, either because they didn't gamble or they knew they wouldn't win, and highlighting the just about impossible odds.
        That's refreshing. The truth is, the majority of people never play the lottery, and of those who do, almost all never win anything of significance. It's a sucker's game, and the media does its audience no favors by downplaying that. The odds of winning Powerball are minuscule: worse than the odds of picking one person randomly from among the 315 million living in the United States and having that person turn out to be Barack Obama or his wife Michelle. When the lottery rolls over, the media emphasizes that the jackpot has grown even larger. The excitement builds! It never points out that the rollover means you could have purchased every single ticket sold and you'd still lose. I once figured out that the odds of winning the Powerball lottery is the same as hovering in space above the continental United States, flipping a quarter toward the entire country, where odds were even it could land anywhere on the US landmass, and having the quarter come down inside Wrigley Field.
    If the lottery is news—and I can see the argument—then it is bad news, or at least depressing news: people spending being charged to dream when dreaming of course is actually free, plus government becoming addicted to vice taxes to prop up what's left of its operation. Good for Bernie for telling it like it is. 

29 comments:

  1. i bought a lottery ticket the first week of the Illinois Lottery. must have been 1974 or so.
    i didn't win and said, "the hell with it."

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  2. Bingo! Publicly sponsored gambling is not only a suckers game but a way for governments to raise money equivalent to the most regressive kind of taxation. Most of the suckers are people who would be much better off sticking with the free dream.

    That said, governments, for their own purposes, have always offered the plebes entertainments: gladiatorial contests in Roman times, public executions in succeeding centuries; so I guess there are worse things. And Francis Bacon once observed that hope makes a fine breakfast but a poor dinner. If the price of a lottery ticket helps get you through the day and you can handle the inevitable disappointment, maybe there is some good to be had.

    Nice to see you giving a nod to a fellow pro.

    Tom Evans

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    1. We get it, Tom. You know your history and literature. Stop trying to have to show off all the time.

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    2. Yes, I suppose it's a terrible failing, but you will have to indulge me. I enjoy making use of things I've encountered in a lifetime of working and reading. And it keeps me from more destructive habits.

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    3. Tom Evans,

      Just don't think that Anonymous here speaks for all us anonymice. Many of us enjoy your erudite contributions to the EGD threads. I still don't get why some folks would prefer blank space or a succession of anonymous one-liners to more substantial comments, such as yours. : )

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    4. Gosh! A fan. Thanks. I'm reasonably sure Neil will let me know if he thinks I'm hijacking his blog.

      Tom

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  3. But one thing in your argument is not valid--eventually, someone does win, and it could be me, today, getting half a billion for the $1 I spent. Tell you what, if I do win, I'll buy you the Sun Times, which I see is firing yet more people. But if this happens, I at least expect a thank you in your column, which will run right next to mine.

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  4. I have an M.S. in statistics. I have a feeling statisticians are statistically less likely to play the lottery than the general public.

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  5. Well said, Neil. And the shame is many people should be using that lottery money for more important things.

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    1. their argument is someone has to win....

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  6. I occasionally buy a ticket, realizing full well what the odds are nigh impossible. But for two bucks I buy the right to dream a little about wealth that I know there is no other way I could enjoy. It feels like good value to me

    By the way, the nbc news did list the far more likely odds of dying in a plane crash, getting eaten by a shark, and being struck by lightning.

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  8. The rival newspaper reported today that sales of lottery tickets has been down this year which means less tax money for all the programs supported by this tax. Maybe they should report how much actually is given back to the community, I interpreted the article as if I should feel bad that sales are down.

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  9. I believe the IL lottery was concieved and passed back in the day with the promise that all funds would go towards education in our wonderful state. They didn't lie when they said this. The funds were directed there....and all the money they had previously spent on schools was sent to someone else pockets. It was a zero sum wash.

    RC

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    1. Exactly right. I'd like to see more reporting about that. John Oliver's "Last Week Tonight" had an excellent segment on state lotteries that made this point.

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    2. Scribe,

      John Oliver's "Last Week Tonight" maintains a robust presence on YouTube for HBO-less minions, such as myself. The segment referred to, from November:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9PK-netuhHA

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    3. Yes. That segment also addressed the point of Ira0905 above, as to how states try to make you feel like buying lottery tickets is some sort of patriotic duty.

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  10. Yes, odds of winnings are really incredible, but we are adults and we have our own head on shoulders, so it's personal choice to play or not to play. Anyway, I think it's possible to win something. Also I believe, if you decide to play, waste as much as you don't afraid to loose, play only for pleasure and don't hope for "big money". So, that's my rule to not get disappointed. For example, yesterday I have won almost 14 dollars in Australian Lotto. And I'm happy not much because of money, but because of victory)

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  12. Hello guys, this is interesting. I want to know more

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  13. I see the point. The media frenzy is a kind of to promote the bluff even more. There is no winner then there is no news. Still they trumpet about the astonishing money you can possibly (I would better say impossibly) win next time. Why don't they say about the number of those who lost?

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  15. Hello Guys. That is interesting. I have no idea about that. Now I know more

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  17. You can easily imagine the number of losers, just look at the growth rate of the jackpot! None of the lottery will not operate at a loss, and even to zero will not operate.

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  18. Who is this Miriam, with little seniority at the ST, that she gets the plum assignment over you?

    Only Hedy W. should be able to do that with arts columns.

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