The Sublime Beauty of Powerball

Playing the lottery is foolish, but it affords the public a communal encounter with the weird majesty of mathematics.

As the Powerball jackpot rose late last week, so did the Powerball backlash. The contemporary citizen might revel in devotion to the latest comic-book film adaptation, but the lottery is still considered the lowest of low culture. No intelligent person, many opined in advance of Saturday’s (winnerless) drawing, would buy a Powerball ticket.

The dismissal is part of a general decline in lottery play, especially among younger people. Players are bored with draw games and desensitized to giant jackpots. Among 18-to-34-year-olds, lottery sales have either sunk to new lows or never got started in the first place. Millennials may never have had a relationship with lottery games, either because they opt out of gambling, or because they prefer Texas Hold ‘Em or virtual micropayments in apps and games, or just because they’re not accustomed to going inside the gas station and paying cash for a ticket. And players of all ages are finally cluing in to the lottery’s tendency to act as a regressive tax that puts an undue burden on the poor, who spend more of their income on tickets and have fewer options for long-term financial planning.

But beyond social context, it’s the idea that the lottery is just plain dumb that drives the backlash. Some have called Powerball a stupidity tax instead of a regressive tax, even if there’s an implicit connection between poverty and educational opportunity. The Powerball jackpot, which has grown to $1.3 billion in its annuitized form in advance of Wednesday’s drawing, boasts a 1 in 292.2 million chance of winning. Anyone who fails to understand these incredibly terrible odds, the argument goes, is just throwing money away. And those who throw money away, the argument continues, are just failing to apply reason to a straightforward math problem.

Appeals to pure reason play well today, given the common belief that science can answer all questions with clarity and certainty. There’s even a Powerball Simulator you can run to see just how unlikely you are to win. But in their supposedly enlightened rush to scorn Powerball and to condemn or rescue the stupid, the slightly less stupid miss the point. To complain that the lottery is a bad bet and a waste of money is like complaining that Luke Skywalker isn’t a real person. Don’t play the lottery because you are likely to win. Play the lottery for a shared communion with the sublimity of extreme contingency.

The odds of any one draw winning are around one in 292.2 million. But the odds of some draw winning are (at least) one in three. And they increase as more tickets are sold. Given the unprecedented $1.3 billion payout for Wednesday’s drawing, that figure will rise even higher.

To play Powerball is to participate in a collective ritual that pays homage to the enormously improbable things that nevertheless happen all the time. Very large numbers can be tamed when millions of people work together, reducing the odds from one in 292.2 million down to one in three. And while it’s possible to appreciate that spectacle from the sidelines while still scorning the lottery for duping people, there is an experience that comes from not just observation but participation. When someone attends a concert or a sports match, they do so partly to participate in a spectacle together. When you buy a lottery ticket you do something similar. You say, I want to be a part of this sublime but preposterous run at the improbable. Two dollars is, after all, not a whole lot of money for that.