The Sublime Beauty of Powerball, Cont'd

The jackpot is so big that billboards can't show billions. (Seth Wenig / AP) ( )
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A passionate dissent from a reader over my latest piece:

Anyone playing the lottery is a frigging moron. It’s a scam perpetrated on the poorest and most gullible. We give poor people no numerical skills in school, and then we turn around and fleece them with a crooked game to support social services that the rich in this country choose not to. Plow that money into inner-city schools and welfare programs and see how quickly we all find our morals and ban the lottery as “gambling” again.

At least when bookies ran the numbers, the odds among those in the neighborhood were low enough that most people won once in a while. The mob couldn’t have gotten away with a numbers drawing where they just took all the money week after week and no one won, but now we advertise the fact to lure in more suckers. As though anyone is “better off” with a billion dollars than 100 million. And let’s just leave aside the number of sharks who come out of the woodwork to part the proverbial fool and his money when anyone actually wins.

And personally I’d rather be “douchey” to someone about to throw money they probably can’t spare down the pisser, and maybe peer pressure them into not doing it, than cheer them on with some feel-good nonsense.

A number of other commenters and Twitter responders took a similar perspective, despite the fact that I tried to acknowledge many of the downsides of the lottery. The thing about lotteries (and gambling, and drinking, and sex, and other activities of “sin”) is that they are never clear-cut. They weave terrible and destructive forces together with creative and magical ones. The drive to determine whether something as strange as the lottery is definitively “good” or “bad” isn’t terribly interesting to me, nor does it teach us much about what it is and how it functions in our culture.

The same reader also disputed my take on spectacle:

The very idea of comparing a lottery drawing to a concert or sports event is just ... pure horse-shit. I don’t pay money to go to a concert so that I can experience it with other people. I do it because the artist I’m paying money to is going to give me value for it. I’m going to hear music I like to listen to. Whether or not anyone else enjoys it with me is beside the point. Same for a sports event, same for anything other than gambling.

On concert or sporting events: our reader may not attend them to hang out with others, but the experience had thereat is also impossible without those others. The crowd is a part of the spectacle, and the emotions and sensations and sounds help construct the experience. This is even more true for Powerball, since the outcome is created by the sum total of the participants effort.

This reader couldn’t disagree more with the first one:

The odds of winning the Powerball are of course ridiculously low; everybody knows that. However, the odds of winning are infinitely higher if you buy a ticket than if you don’t buy one. Powerball haters are just snobby killjoys.

There’s an aphorism that many have been sharing over the last week that goes something like this: if I don’t buy a ticket, my chances of winning are the same as if I do. It makes a good tweet, but of course, it’s a terrible way to exercise an argument in support of rational thinking about probability, given that it’s false.

But really big numbers, and very low probabilities, are hard for us to understand. The truth is, seemingly infinitely unlikely things happen all the time. It’s just very hard to predict them. Consider a more mundane example than a billion dollar jackpot. If you shuffle an ordinary deck of cards and lay each card out in order in front of you, the sequence that results is incontrovertible, staring back at you with the nonchalance of an ebb tide or a granite batholith. But the probability of that particular sequence of cards having been dealt turns out to be far more unlikely than matching the 5+Powerball numbers: 1:80.7 × 1066, or 1 in 80.7 unvigintillion. A far more improbable result than the Powerball’s 1 in 292 million. And yet, there it is, right in front of you.

As for the snobby killjoys (yes), let me just leave this here:

A Powerball lover makes an analogy:

I see playing the lottery as akin to voting. Sure, rationally speaking, your probability of winning the lottery or making the difference in a significant election are zero. But, it’s fun to fantasize about what-if, and the cost of doing so is minimal.

Another comparison from a reader:

How about tipping? These actions cost money and yield you personally no benefit other than the emotions that attend the experience.

Another reader takes a step back:

In the pre-mobile days, and before the huge cable packages, when the three major networks were far more popular as entertainment sources, you’d get the “shared experience” phenomenon. For example, in ‘77 or so, I can remember waiting in line to see a play in San Francisco and someone in the crowd had brought a small TV that they had plugged into an outlet in the theatre’s lobby. They tuned in All in the Family, and EVERYBODY, and I do mean everybody, gather to watch it. The show was a cultural talisman. Very little of this exists now, except, oddly, with these potential megabux lottery payouts. Weird.

An interesting point! Other examples might include Presidential election returns in the U.S. and Eurovision in Europe.

Another reader is on the same page:

Internet has turned everything into subcultures upon subcultures. On the bright side, you can immerse yourself and become an expert like never before. But the communal culture is dead. When I win a billion on Wednesday, I’ll fix this by purchasing all of the subcultures.

I am rooting for this reader’s Powerball picks tomorrow...