Lileks: The lottery, and other state acts of good faith

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 29, 2012 - 7:39 PM

This is my last column.

I expect to win the Mega Millions jackpot tonight and will vanish from the public eye.

You can't live among normal people if you win the lottery, let alone write columns complaining about those shuddering wheels on grocery-store carts that make you think the cart's been possessed by a Chihuahua that died from eating a pound of espresso beans. In the old days they could identify these carts and fix them quickly, but now they send out a kid to wrangle 50 at a time, and they can't tell when the carts have bum wheels that make you veer into end-caps and knock over the pasta sauce. ...

But I can't complain about that anymore, because I now have $540 million.

Everything's changed.

So I have to go away forever to a private island where Lottery Winners go, so they don't have to worry about bumping into a friend who makes awkward conversation until he works up the nerve to mention his kid's college costs. Even if he doesn't, you expect it.

Eventually, you start every conversation by pressing a wad of hundreds into someone's hand and saying "AND THAT'S ALL YOU'LL GET."

But even on the island, it's hell. You're out to dinner with some people you just met; one won $30 million, the other won $75 mil. The check comes; it's $150. You say, "So, $50 apiece?" and they all stare daggers at you. Because you took the immediate payout of $389 million and you ordered the calamari, which no one else wanted, and you ate most of it.

This is what happens, but people play the lottery anyway, thinking it'll make them happy.

The Mega Millions website asks "What's Your Dream?" and the first one that pops up is "Saving for Retirement." The odds of winning the jackpot are 1 in 175 million. Buying lottery tickets to prepare for retirement is like burning a bushel of dollar bills to reduce your winter heating bills.

But, hey, it could happen!

Question: If this is such a worthwhile pursuit, and with so much money at stake, why doesn't the state government play its own lottery?

You can't tell me that there isn't 10 bucks somewhere in the general fund to buy some tickets.

Collectively, we could probably avoid the sad, tragic end that befalls many winners -- i.e., "The State of Minnesota was found dead in a trailer in Boca Raton by its live-in companion, a pole dancer who goes by the professional name of Brandy Sparkle." Not a story you're likely to see.

If things got really bad, though -- say we went broke and offered to sell Canada that little thumb-part that sticks up into Ontario's backside -- we could count on our neighbor states, Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas, to get together and stage an intervention.

Here's another idea: Maybe the state could come up with a game that offers half a billion dollars, and then make the odds really preposterous. Say you have to pick eight numbers, plus a MegaPowerUltra Win Number, plus a color, plus an element.

Announcer: "The winning sequence is 1, 87, 126, 256, 301, 546, 681, 722. The Mega Number is .00326. The color is Puce" -- and there's a guy in Pipestone staring at his ticket, thinking, My God, my God, that's me so far, PLEASE BE CADMIUM -- "and Polonium."

That guy would play for the rest of his life, because he was soooooo close.

Then after the government's raked in $10 billion or so ... just stop! Keep the money. There's no rule that says these things have to go on until someone wins, is there? If there is, rescind it! We make up the contest, we make up the rules!

I know what you're thinking: You make excellent sense here, Mister Columnist. So why doesn't the state do these things? Because actually, our leaders have even more surefire ways of getting money.

I asked a tree-trimming company recently for an estimate, and at the bottom was an interesting notation: TWINS TAX: .15%.

What does tree-trimming have to do with the Twins ballpark? Absolutely nothing. It's like seeing VIKINGS TAX on an invoice for cello rental.

I'm just saying: When you have the power to raise the cost of having someone chainsaw a dead limb to pay for a place where guys swing baseball bats, and justify it with the notion that, "Well, in both cases you're talking about wood," then things like a lottery, where people have to volunteer their money, start to look like child's play.

Of course, government is already involved in lotteries. It's such easy money, why not? And, hey, the money could go for education. (Obviously not for statistics classes, though.)

Anyway, as I said, I'm sure I won. So goodbye.

At this moment, I'm probably doing something reckless -- like spending my newfound riches on something whose odds of winning are even worse than 1 in 175 million.

"Vikings tickets" come to mind.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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