Economists say that a lottery is a tax on people who can’t do math. At a talk about five years ago, psychologist Dan Gilbert said you might as well flush the money down the toilet, because the odds of winning are almost identical to the odds that you’ll flush money down the toilet and millions of dollars will come back up. And the advantage of the toilet is that you’re saved a visit to the 7-Eleven to buy the tickets.
Now that the jackpot in the Mega Millions lottery has hit more than half a billion dollars, I’ve been surprised at the number of people I know who talk about heading across the Georgia line to buy some tickets. (There’s no state lottery in Alabama.) When I point out that it’s throwing money away, the excuse is that they’re “buying hope” with a few dollars.
What’s the worst thing that could happen? Based on the history of other big winners, the worst thing that could happen would be to win the money.
Take Jack Whittaker, for instance. In 2002, this West Virginia businessman won $315 million. In interviews after winning, he talked of giving some of the money to his church and he talked about the people he was going to help. Instead, his life turned out to be a nightmare. He started drinking heavily from the stress. He was robbed of more than half a million dollars at a strip club. His daughter and granddaughter were murdered. And a casino had to sue him over a $1.5 million check he wrote to cover gambling losses.
In 2007, Whittaker told ABC News that he wished he had never won the money.
“Since I won the lottery, I think there is no control for greed,” he said. “I think if you have something, there’s always someone else that wants it. I wish I’d torn that ticket up.”
Whittaker isn’t an isolated example. There are plenty of others — people who had little and suddenly had the money of their dreams, only to lose everything because of winning what they thought they wanted. Some of the stories are very sad, such as the preacher in Texas who killed himself less than two years after winning $31 million or the NYC man whose wife divorced him and took half the money as soon as she could.
I like to think that things would be very different for me if I suddenly had that much unearned money handed to me. You probably think things would be different for you, too. But human nature tends to kick in and people start allowing bad things to happen to themselves. And then they realize the money was a curse, not a blessing.
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that winning lotteries doesn’t bring good things, but I have a more theoretical reason that’s ultimately more compelling to me. I don’t believe you can really get something for nothing. I believe that if you get unearned wealth or some other good thing, there’s going to be a compensating price to be paid somewhere else.
In his essay called “Compensation” — which you read here — Ralph Waldo Emerson laid out the case that the universe keeps score, so to speak. He argues that it’s ultimately impossible to cheat the world or for you to be cheated. It’s not a standard materialist argument that would appeal to most modern people, but what would you expect of a 19th century Transcendentalist philosopher? You don’t have to agree with someone on all points — and I certainly don’t agree with Emerson about everything — to think he’s hit upon a kernel of a universal truth.
I hope to be a wealthy man one of these days, but I don’t want to get there through a lottery or any other kind of unearned wealth. I’d like to do things that enough people find worthwhile that they want to give me money to compensate me for the value I’ve given to them. I suspect that’s the only way to feel satisfied with wealth, but I could be wrong. I just know that I don’t want the money from a lottery.
I also know that I’m not going to be flushing money down the toilet as some people are. I can do the math reasonably well.