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Think you can win the big one? You've gotta be dreamin'

Date: November 06 2012


Frank O'Shea

''How sweet is mortal Sovranty!'' - think some; Others - ''how blest the Paradise to come!'' 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 these super lottery draws; $100 million, and if that is not won, it becomes $150 million the next time. It is a scheme that delves into the deepest recesses of human greed, of unimaginable wealth, the world of ''what if''.

For the dreamer who pays his money, the mathematics is irrelevant, if only because the odds are beyond the human brain to comprehend. But for the spruikers of these schemes, it is easy: ''someone must win … if you're not in, you can't 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-full or harp-music-full or meeting-Don-Bradman-full paradise, but we allow advertisers to sell us a sordid, earthly version of the same thing.

The Italian courts are rightly condemned for sending vulcanologists to jail because they did not predict the 2009 earthquakes that claimed more than 300 lives. A technician at Italy's National Institute for Nuclear Physics had predicted such an earthquake on a named day at a specific place; the fact that he was out by some weeks and many kilometres and based his prediction on nonsense about radon gas and the perihelion of Venus was irrelevant - he had been right and the others were wrong.

In Britain, some tourism operators on the south coast intend to sue the Met Office for a string of pessimistic forecasts which, they claimed, kept visitors away. It is easy to dismiss this as little more than something to do on a slow day by a few underemployed lawyers, though Italy might suggest otherwise.

But while it is not possible for an individual to assure a profit in a world of 45-number lotteries, it is possible to organise one's affairs so that one is immune from the effects of changes in the ground beneath or the atmosphere above. It is called insurance.

And if you want to find out more about that blight on humanity, just turn on your news on any of the commercial television channels. There you will find a program of advertisements for insurance, interspersed with stories about Sydney traffic or Kings Cross bashings.

There is even a company which doesn't itself sell insurance but advertises as the place to go if you want to find out which insurance company is best for you. If you are over 55, we can look after you. If you have caravan, we are your friend. If your house catches fire, laugh at it. If you are afraid that you might fall and break your hand and be off work for a few weeks, come to us.

I can understand a retired footballer spruiking private health insurance - it is, after all, a standard piece of middle-class government subsidy not dissimilar to subsidies for sport. But I take exception to insurance companies that are so desperate that they use a medical doctor to flog income protection policies. I wonder whether the Hippocratic oath ever foresaw that. A doctor is not allowed to advertise the fact that he can help cure your migraine, but he is allowed to give you a headache when all you want to do is watch the news in peace.

Then there is funeral insurance, surely the ultimate sign of a failed life, of someone who is so bereft that they are unable to pay for their own funeral. Probability does not come into it here, because death is as sure as taxes paid by folk who are not billionaires; instead actuaries use their mathematics to work out a scheme for making money by betting on how long you will live, given that you reside in city A and don't smoke and have not been treated for B or C.

I agree that we need car insurance because the other person has it and if you don't you will be a plaything for lawyers: not a pleasant thought. Similarly with your house and its contents, but after that, you should remember that insurance companies are in the same business as those who sell lottery tickets. In either case, you would be better advised to put your money under the mattress because that way you may actually be able to get to use it one day.

Frank O'Shea is a Canberra writer.

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