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Winning the super lottery not the dream it's made out to be

"How sweet is mortal Sovranty!" – think some;

Others – "how blest the Paradise to come!"

Lotteries show the human race in one of its less edifying aspects.
Lotteries show the human race in one of its less edifying aspects.  

Ah, take the Cash in hand and waive the Rest;

Oh, the brave Music of a distant Drum!

(Khayyam/Fitzgerald)

There is something witlessly vulgar about super lottery draws: $100 million, and if that is not won, it becomes $120 million the next time. Two days ago, Americans stopped buying tickets in a draw that shunted those numbers into the second division: a first prize of $1.6 billion in their money.

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Lotteries show the human race in one of its less edifying aspects. They are schemes that delve into the deepest recesses of human greed, of unimaginable wealth. The ultimate 'what if'.

And with this week's manifestation, perhaps also the ultimate "Only in America." After all, this is a country in which almost half the population believe that everything we have learned about the origin of life on this planet must give priority to what they read in a book of folk tales of desert nomads. More than one third believe that their President is a Muslim while there is a chance that the next holder of that office will be a former reality television star who has been involved in four corporate bankruptcies. So it is little wonder that they would not understand the swindle perpetrated on them by the lottery caper.

In America, the government takes a 30 per cent cut of the winnings. You have to admire it: why bother taxing the wealthy when you can instead tax the stupid.

For the dreamer who queues for his ticket in any of these super lotteries, no matter the country, the mathematics is irrelevant, if only because the odds of winning are beyond the human brain to comprehend. But the spruikers of these schemes don't worry about the mathematics: "If you're not in, you can't win … someone must win."

Forget the chaos that would take over someone's life if she won this kind of money – there is research that indicates that the person or family in question suffers for their good fortune.

Ask instead about the values that encourage people to imagine such wealth and to dream of a life they think they would have for such a small initial outlay. We criticise religions for their stories about a virgin-replete or a harp-music-playing or a meeting-Don-Bradman paradise, but we allow advertisers to sell us a sordid, earthly version of the same thing.

Then there is the belief that the lottery cannot be cheated, that it is always fair and above board – they even televise the drawing of the numbers, for goodness sake. These days, a bright 16-year old could suggest ways in which the process might be interfered with.

There are court cases going ahead in the US right now in which people working on the lottery have been accused of interfering with the draw or with the algorithm that selects the numbers. In a European country recently, there was an outcry when the numbers called were different from those on the screen, something that was variously excused as either a "technical fault" or a "coincidence."

And the mention of coincidence reminds us that a small number of people have won the lottery more than once – seven times in one example. They were mostly lesser amounts, but accumulating into millions in aggregate. It happens that at least two of these lucky people are university mathematicians. Shouldn't the ordinary punter be told that a knowledge of statistics can be a help in winning the lottery and that they are in opposition to people who know and understand statistics very well indeed.

But when the prize reaches figures like Utah's $1.6 billion, there is another consideration. It is the spectre of organised crime. We are not talking about a few tattooed bikies or South American drug entrepreneurs; if that kind of money is out there, then there will be clever people or people who know clever people and who can somehow manipulate the system. How they do it is irrelevant: if history tells us anything, it is that no system is above manipulation or corruption, provided the reward is big enough. And $1.6 billion is seriously big.

One final thought about the American lottery. The names of the three winners have not been published. Suppose one of them is a member of an ethnic/religious group currently under suspicion of being less than enthusiastic patriots, perhaps one of those groups being targeted by the political establishment. Will that person be allowed to keep the money? Or will the whole thing descend, as so much does these days, into a profitable cash cow for the legal profession?

Recent advertisements urge us to 'gamble responsibly'. If cigarette companies were allowed to advertise, they would end their spiels with 'smoke responsibly'. Same thing.