“Here’s why you should always buy into your office lottery pool”

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That’s the title of the news article. Not: “here’s what happened.” It’s a recommendation.

A bunch of employees down at the NY Homes and Community Renewal Agency play the lottery regularly. This time, they win– and get to split $300M.

That might seem like a non-story, and after March 29 it should have died. But the press goes for one more level– and find the guy who didn’t contribute to the office pool.

ABC News tracked Kosko down as he was walking to work and asked the “colossally unlucky guy” about his misfortunate decision. He insisted he’s “not upset” and that he feels “very happy for the seven who won. I’m very happy for them.”

First, I don’t know what misfortunate is. Second, this happens all the time. In any office pool that wins, there’s always the guy who didn’t have the cash, or was sick, or just bailed. And, in fact there were five people from the office who didn’t play that day. So why do we care about this now? Oh yeah, America’s broke.

The story’s appearance on Good Morning America and everywhere else are designed, of course, to get you to put on a uniform in the class war: should the winners give this guy some of the money? Perhaps it even reminds you of your favorite HuffPo article: look, here are a bunch of rich people, who got their money the way the rich do– through no real talent of their own– and withhold it from other, equally deserving people. Don’t you think so?

The lottery smiled on some guys– shouldn’t they extend the kindness?

But these are all distractions so you don’t ask the better question: where does that $300M jackpot come from? Answer: out of the pockets of poor people. MegaMillions sells about $2B in tickets a year, a good amount of which are losers. Rich people usually don’t play the lottery, the poor do, working class, the disabled and welfare recipients. Hence, the lottery can be viewed as a tax on the poor, which, in this case– in most cases– is redistributed to people who already have jobs. Who, by the way, will give half of that money back in the form of taxes.

That’s a racket, the media’s the barker, and we’re the rubes.
 

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12 Responses to “Here’s why you should always buy into your office lottery pool”

  1. vprime says:

    But isn’t there also the eternal American subtext that you could be the next millionaire too? This guy is being singled out because (somehow) he lost faith in the capitalist American dream. We have some inkling that we’re not dealing in meritocracy anymore, but we have to maintain the belief that through no extra special effort on our parts, fame and fortune could just fall into our laps at any moment. The entire narrative encourages the watcher to buy in to the dream of sudden undeserved fortune, which has become the true American dream in part because of our worship of celebrity and in part because we are starting to get the notion that to become a millionaire, it helps to be born into a family of millionaires.

    • octo says:

      to become a millionaire, it helps to be born into a family of millionaires.

      That’s true (by definition, even), but less so than it has been for a long time. We are more a meritocracy than we have been for hundreds of years (even if we’re less of one than we pretend). Not too all celebrity actors were born millionaires, and not all of their wealth is undeserved. Elite colleges are still expensive, but have for the most part need-blind admission policies, and growing financial aid programs. Connections are magic, it’s true, but no one’s going to shut down a kid with a 3.9 in a solid major, or a 1337 programmer.

      This isn’t even to say that we’re a fair society. We’re not. Birth into a shitty household severely dampens success rates; odds are that kid with the 3.9 had a nice family. And if you do enter into elite networks, there are hugely unfair safety nets (financial crisis?).

      The rich-poor gap continues to grow, but this doesn’t necessarily imply unfairness, perhaps only that prizes have become more winner-take-all. If anything it’s a consequence of the obsession with meritocratic advancement: many on top firmly believe (true or not) they deserve everything they’ve achieved, and so feel less obligated to pay lesser workers reasonable wages, etc.

      • operator says:

        Ironically, the only persons for whom this system is fair are those who are aware of its modus operandi – bilk the clueless.

        Should the singled-out office worker’s full reply have been published, it might have read more closely to:

        “I’m not upset about it, those guys eat nothing but ramen for lunch so they have more money to put into their pool – this is the first time they’ve won in the fifteen years since Bill started the pool, so I suppose I’m very happy for them… Bill and Alice, though, apparently the excitement of winning almost killed them – guess all that sodium they were eating wasn’t so good for their tickers.”

        … but, as TLP points out, that’s not the scoop for the media.

  2. Dan Dravot says:

    the lottery can be viewed as a tax on the poor, which, in this case– in most cases– is redistributed to people who already have jobs

    Hang on, wouldn’t the distribution of winners be likely to resemble pretty closely the distribution of people who buy tickets? For most of the winners to have jobs, most of the players would. I agree the lottery’s a stupidity tax, for the most part: For occasional lottery players, the pleasure they get from spending a dollar on a ticket is worth as much as the pleasure they’d get spending the same dollar on a small fraction of a movie ticket or a beer. But I’d guess — and I’d love to look at the numbers and see if I’m right — that there’s a hard core of poor people spending more money on lottery tickets than they can afford, and winning about as often as you’d expect ( never).

    Maybe weak people like that need smart people like us to protect themselves from their base urges. True, Prohibition didn’t civilize the poor drunken Irish immigrants, but surely we know enough now to do a better job?

    Of course, most all big lottery winners are destroyed by it in the end anyhow. But that’s another set of rhetorical questions entirely.

    • Pastabagel says:

      You cannot extrapolate from the winners to make generalizations about the population of players because the winners to players ratio is likely to be astronomicaly small. So while you can make predictions about the likely characteristics of a winner given the distribution of players, you can’t do the reverse. What we know about the demographics of lottery players we know from market research.

      Furthermore, even if hthe distribution of lottery players was the same as the population as a whole, it would still be akin to a regressive tax. The one dollar it costs for a ticket is worth more to a poor person than a middle class and certainly a rich one.

      Second, the pleasure they or anyone gets from playing the lottery is entirely dysfunctional. They pay for a fantasy, the ticket is a license to hope. But there’s no reason to pay for this-in all other transactions the fantasy is conjured for free. If poor people are playing it isn’t because they are weak, it’s because the people running the lottery (their government) are deliberately implying through marketing a higher probability of winning than what mathematics defines explicitly.

      Poor people are playing because they feel there is no path to wealth or financial security other than random dumb luck. Poor people play the lottery because wherever they are in life they feel stuck there. Take a guess why the office workers played it. Hint: it wasn’t to buy more shares in the company they love working for.

      The reason the state runs the lottery is not to generate revenue but rather to block organized crime from running it. People, and not just the poor, like to play the lottery. If the state didn’t run it, someone is going to supply that demand. Numbers rackets were the bread and butter of crime syndicates before drug trafficking.

      • Dan Dravot says:

        You cannot extrapolate from the winners to make generalizations about the population of players because the winners to players ratio is likely to be astronomicaly small.

        That seems orthogonal to what I meant to say, and reading back over what I actually wrote, I don’t think I expressed myself very clearly. So I’ll restate it:

        The post said, “the lottery can be viewed as a tax on the poor, which, in this case– in most cases– is redistributed to people who already have jobs”.

        “In most cases”. If the words he used accurately reflect his intent, he’s claiming that lottery winners are reliably more likely to have jobs than lottery players in general. That’s wrong. The sample of palyers who wub is unlikely to be perfectly representative of players overall, but it is no more likely to overrepresent people with jobs than people with red hair.

        If he was trying to say something else and phrased it poorly, I’m all ears.

        They pay for a fantasy…

        So does everybody who buys a movie ticket, or a copy of Under Milk Wood, or a sports car, or dinner for a date he doesn’t really have anything in common with. So does every woman who buys nice clothes or gets her hair done.

        Damn those humans, there they go again — enjoying things!

        the pleasure they or anyone gets from playing the lottery is entirely dysfunctional not at all to my personal taste, and therefore unhealthy or immoral in some way

        There, I fixed it for you.

        If poor people are playing it isn’t because they are weak

        I called them “weak” in a fit of very heavy-handed sarcasm. Anytime somebody explicitly suggests Prohibition as a model for social policy, sarcasm is a strong possibility. You don’t like the word “weak”, but you do enjoy regarding them as helpless putty in the hands of forces stronger than them. To me that distinction looks pretty damn subtle.

        Let me be perfectly clear: The poor are not a uniform mass of clones. No group is.

        If a person is spending so much on lottery tickets that they’re in trouble financially, there’s a problem there. If a person is getting the bills paid and not harming anybody, mind your own business about the forms of entertainment they choose to spend their money on.

        The poor aren’t as stupid as you think they are. They’re not machines or animals. They aren’t all robotically spending every dime they have on lottery tickets because the government told them all their friends won already. They’re adult human beings, who make varied choices for varied reasons. If they’re doing self-destructive stuff, they’re doing it for the exact same reason a roughly similar percentage of white middle-class professionals in the suburbs are secret embezzlers or gamblers or heroin addicts: Some adult human beings are fucked up. Some people are fucked up. In general. That applies to Nice Educated White Middle-Class People Like Us, too. Heck, some NEWMCPLU beat their wives. You’re not immune.

        But it feels good to project all dysfunction onto the Other and pose as an objective but compassionate observer, above and outside the whole thing.

        Do the poor get to objectively and compassionately observe us? They may think they can, but they’re too constrained by their limited environment and background to do it objectively or in an informed way. Naturally they’re not aware of those limitations, because nobody can see the back of his own head, so to speak. Besides, they’re just… you know… They’re likely to go and believe something silly that just makes them feel good about themselves, instead of the hard, tough, cold, unpleasant objective Truth that you, Pastabagel, are instinctively drawn to. Of course that Truth just happens to coincide precisely with what makes you feel good about yourself, but really, to be fair, that might be just a coincidence. Because a comfortable middle-class existence prepares you to face hard truths much better than poverty ever could.

        That was Heavy-Handed Sarcasm, but I guess you noticed that. If they can be trusted to vote, they can be trusted to notice that not a lot of people win the lottery. They’re not fucking retarded.

        Mind you, gambling and poor people gross me out just like they do you. Fortunately, I have a sense of proportion about the significance of my own personal aesthetic judgements. Hint: What did Harry Truman say about the vice presidency?

        The reason the state runs the lottery is not to generate revenue but rather to block organized crime from running it.

        Can you explain in more detail why the two are mutually exclusive, and link some sources for the latter assumption?

        TLP is entertaining because he regards all preconceptions as automatically suspect. He makes a point of appearing to question all ideologies and defend none. He disarms your ego defenses that way: When he kicks your ideology, well, hey, he just kicked the other guy’s, too, yesterday or a minute ago. It feels “fair”, so you listen to him. He may not actually be fair, but as long as he makes you feel almost as comfortable questioning your own assumptions as the other guy’s, he’s doing good work. Like Richard Feynman: “We’re trying to prove ourselves wrong as fast as we can”. Hint: HINT. HINT. HINT.

      • Dan Dravot says:

        I don’t know how the hell I typed “palyers who wub”, but it was supposed to be “players who win”.

      • cat says:

        Poor people play the lottery because wherever they are in life they feel stuck there. Take a guess why the office workers played it.

        Would you class the office workers as “poor”? OK, so they are definitely not the wealthy – I presume they are lower middle class (as much as I know about the American class system).

        I think I agree with a lot of what you’re saying – playing the lottery is playing a fantasy game, “you’ve got to be in it to win it”, buying the ticket is imagining yourself telling your boss to stuff his crummy job, it’s leaving your crappy neighbourhood, it’s joining the tanned, idle laughing thin people on the other side of the TV screen.

        I just feel uncomfortable about lumping together people as “the poor”. It’s too much of a generalization.

        • Pastabagel says:

          I never said the office works we’re poor, I suggested that the reason they play the lottery is that they also feel stuck in their place in life, regardless of their particular economic class.

  3. Vigil says:

    I know it’s just a function of height, but my mind can’t stop focusing on how all the men are holding their victory checks up, while the women are holding theirs down in front of them.

    I don’t think the media tracked down that guy to try and get us to take sides on whether they should give him money or not. They tracked him down because people identify with feeling like you’re surrounded by people who have all the good things you deserve, and a story that people identify with is going to be more successful. I think it’s getting harder to identify with being the winner, but it’s so easy to imagine you’re the guy who didn’t win, next to the people who did.

  4. boeotarch says:

    I had a Stats teacher in high school who explained the lottery as a tax on people who don’t know math. Always thought that was a pretty astute way of looking at it.

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