Thursday, September 23, 2010


I almost never “play” the lottery, although I admit that the prospect of a $50 million win, a few weeks back, was too much to resist. In a moment of weakness, I slapped down five bucks figuring that, what the heck, somebody has to win. And somebody did.

Stupid, really. Nobody has to win, unless every possible combination of numbers is played. And what if I had won? The fact is that I’m not sure what my wife and I would do with $50 million. A change of venue to a more interesting city would be a start, but I like my job and can’t see sudden wealth as grounds for quitting, so moving might not be practicable. I also find the typical material trappings of wealth to be of marginal interest. What point is there in owning a home with more rooms than you actually use? I don’t drive, so expensive cars would be pointless. Motor boats are polluting, and sailing takes too much time to learn. I dislike wearing jewelry. I already have a wardrobe of reasonable-looking casual clothes, indistinguishable from Armani at a distance of greater than six inches. I could buy more expensive wine, but my dilettantish taste buds can barely distinguish between any bottle over $15 anyway. I have no need for more household consumer electronics. I don’t even own a TV, because even the biggest of big-screens fails to provide quality programming. The only thing worse than five-hundred channels of "reality" TV is five-hundred channels of reality TV projected onto a space the size of your living-room wall. As for that hallmark of the leisure class’s daytime itineraries, golf, I agree with Mark Twain that it just spoils a nice walk. Oh, I’d travel more, but moderate travel isn’t beyond my financial means now. Maybe Oprah’s right: maybe wealth doesn’t make you happy.

The lottery serves us mainly as a useful reminder of the remorseless logic of a universe that operates according to constant physical principles that we are powerless to alter. It just goes on, inexorably, and that LottoMax number you play every week will come up, on average, once every 85,900,584 draws – or about once every 1,651,934 years. It could be this year; it could be in a million. It doesn’t matter if you play your mother’s birthday or your lucky numbers or pray for divine intervention. The machine that randomly selects the seven numbers doesn’t care.

Admittedly, that particular game gives you better odds than that, since it generates three numbers on every $5 ticket, increasing your odds to a can't-miss 28,633,528 to 1. Put it this way: write down the names of every person in Canada. Put them in a hat. Draw your name at random. That’s about the same odds.

Unfortunately, statistically, you’d also have to spend, on average, about $150 million to win the grand prize, which never exceeds $50 million and might have to be shared. It’s for this reason that billionaires, looking for a fast buck, don’t simply buy 28,633,528 unique tickets every week: winning would be a bad return on investment.

Most people don’t believe this, of course. They believe that there are other forces at work. Toss a coin ten times. It comes up heads the first nine times. When polled, most people will say that tails is most likely to come up on the tenth toss, because they believe that tails is “due”. Things have to even out, right? Well, no, they don’t, and for a simple reason: the coin doesn’t care. But this “gambler’s fallacy” is nonetheless a very commonplace belief. Our cognitive equipment evolved to seek patterns, and sometimes will find them even where they don’t exist. We aren’t by nature rational – we have to force ourselves to be.

I recall a math teacher, circa the 10th grade, who taught this lesson in a dramatic fashion. He bought three lottery tickets. On one, the numbers were selected at random. On the other, the numbers were the same as last week’s winning numbers. On a third, the numbers were 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. When asked, the class overwhelmingly agreed that the numbers selected at random were the most likely to win, and we were divided on which of the other two tickets were least likely to win, with a slightly greater number doubting that the same numbers could come up twice in a row. Even after the teacher explained that the draw is completely random, that the computer selecting the numbers doesn’t care what numbers you choose, and that therefore any combination of numbers is as likely to appear as any other, most of us retained grave doubts. Surely 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 can’t happen.

Polls show that most regular lottery players don’t really understand how long the odds are. They also tend to believe that their wins and losses even out, think that their chances of winning on any given draw increases over time (just like they believe that “tails” is more likely to come up after a run of “heads”), and most of all are convinced that the numbers they choose is consequential in the outcome. A disturbing poll in the United States even found that a significant percentage of people believe that lottery winnings will be a significant factor in their retirement savings. I have no doubt that many Canadians think the same way.

It’s at this point that I wish to raise the issue the government’s involvement in all of this.
Back in the day, gambling and booze were the province of organized crime. For some time now they have been the province of the province – the province of Ontario, that is, and indeed every other province in Canada that runs lotteries, casinos, and liquor stores. I’ll leave aside the fact that we pay taxes so that the government of Ontario can sell alcohol to us at inflated prices for another occasion. For now, let’s consider the Ontario Lottery Gaming Association, whose website, overflowing with photographs of smiling, happy people, positively gushes that lotteries and gambling generated $3.8 billion in economic activity last year. But they say this as if that activity wouldn’t exist if the lottery didn’t, as if the $5 that I spent would disappear into a black hole if I hadn’t taken a 28 million to 1 spin of the roulette wheel that week.

Moreover, a closer look reveals that $1.8 of that $3.8 billion (what the website calls “support for communities”) is spent just keeping the lotteries and casinos running, while $1.9 billion of the remainder goes to “hospitals, health related programs, and other provincial priorities”, meaning that it goes into provincial coffers generally to be disbursed as the government sees fit.

Our casinos are jammed to the rafters with gambling addicts shattering their own lives, and the same government that will eventually pay for social services (or jail cells) to pick up the pieces is content in the short-term to help them in the process. As for lotteries, Ontarians spend an average of $550 per year on tickets, with the lowest income bracket spending an incredible and truly depressing 4% of their income on them. The same government that is telling Canadians to save more for retirement spends our money to encourage us to play games of chance from which we will almost always emerge as losers.

State-run lotteries are a form of voluntary communism. Put your money into a pot, and the government will redistribute it for you. It’s a legal, socially sanctioned, massively promoted weekly pyramid scheme in which millions must lose in order that, on occasion, some random individual will win. Here’s an idea. Don’t play. Don’t gamble. Want to support our hospitals? Give directly to them, and get a tax receipt. Want to generate economic activity? Spend some of your lottery and gambling money at local shops and stores on Canadian-made goods. Want to support your community? Save more for retirement, so that the community doesn’t have to support you when you retire. But don’t play. Don’t gamble.You won’t win anyway.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Electoral politics – and in the United States the majority of political effort is devoted to getting either elected or re-elected – is a nauseating exercise in hypocrisy at the best of times.

The Founding Fathers of the United States devised a political system that they intended to be insulated from the whims of vulgar popular opinion but the result two centuries later is a massively dysfunctional government that seems to do almost nothing but pander to vulgar popular opinion. Two centuries ago, political leaders publicly debated the form that their government should take through such epoch-shattering works of literature as the Federalist Papers. Now crass and boorish charlatans like Sarah Palin sell out stadiums by publicly rejoicing in the petrified state of their own intellects.

Well, elected hypocrites have one very great advantage over the unelected kind: they tend not to murder their own citizens, at least as long as they have to keep getting re-elected. I once asked a renowned scholar of the Presidency how many citizens of the United States had been literally murdered by the order of American presidents in the 20th century. He thought about it for some time and said, "I would have to say that, as far as I am aware, the number is zero." Now ask the question about past heads-of-state of, say, the Soviet Union, Germany, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, or Iraq. Given that, it's probably best to learn to live with the infantile sloganeering, the unthinking enthusiasms of the party faithful, and the depressingly predictable mudslinging from all sides of the political spectrum.

Still, it does get mighty tiresome. One terminally boring refrain made by Republicans in the United States is that the Democratic Party seeks to leave America toothless and defenceless in the face of its enemies. A prominent American comedian, Ann Coulter, even says that for this reason Democrats are uniformly and literally guilty of treason. This is easily contested by a ten-minute search for freely-available figures on American defense expenditure since the 1930s, but it's not necessary to do that, even. The most cursory examination of 20th century history will remind anyone that it was liberal Democrats who led the US into World Wars One and Two, who dropped the atomic bombs, who started and escalated the Vietnam War, and that Obama's last defense budget was larger, even accounting for inflation, than any since the Second World War. But, then, facts don't matter when there are electoral points to be scored.

Still, there was something particularly perverse, during the last presidential election, about the Republicans' argument that Obama would not "keep us safe" from the terrorists, when the Americans who actually were attacked on 9/11, the citizens of Washington and New York, voted overwhelmingly for him. And there is something equally perverse today about the way in which millions of Americans who have never been to New York – and who hate the city from afar – have taken a far dimmer view on the question of the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" than have most New Yorkers themselves.

Last week, I visited Ground Zero, and saw the great chasm (now a major construction site) where, nine years ago, a small group of religious nihilists murdered three thousand people. St. Paul's Chapel, adjacent, holds a deeply moving display of photographs, placed in the succeeding days by hopeful loved ones of the missing, that went unclaimed as hope faded. The Church has retained them in the form of a makeshift memorial, one that I found far more touching than the memorial planned for the site itself when construction of the new World Trade Center is finally complete. It occurred to me that day that if anybody has a right to adjudicate on the question of the Ground Zero Mosque it ought to be New Yorkers. I don't agree with but I can at least comprehend the sentiment of the two-thirds of New Yorkers who have said that, while they agree with the legal right of the proposed center to be there, they would prefer it to be elsewhere. If anybody has a right to an irrational fear about this sort of thing it is them. Why the folks at Sarah Palin rallies in Armpit, South Dakota, or Bible-Belt fans of Rush Limbaugh suddenly care so much about issues of public safety in a city that they have never visited and detest for its liberalism and multiculturalism is easy enough to see: they actually don't care. But they do care about making political hay out of a non-issue, and all the better that they should do so at a time when fully a quarter of Republicans profess that they suspect their President is a Muslim. (We need hardly speculate about the percentage of those people who have even the foggiest notion of what Islam is.)

The proposed Mosque is not, incidentally, a Mosque at all, but a community center with a basketball court, a swimming pool, and a prayer room. And as many commentators have observed, Muslim worship is already going on in an old building at the site, as indeed it does daily at the Pentagon. Again, facts are the not the point.

Obama's response – which was that, as President, he ought to have no opinion on this matter –has been called typically clinical and academic, but you can bet that it was the result of a fairly lengthy discussion with advisors about how different response scenarios would "play" with various voting constituencies. (I suspect that it has been eons since any President has genuinely spoken his mind about an issue.) But it was also, coincidentally, the correct position for him to take. One of the fundamental principles of the American constitution, defended by its earliest and most important presidents, is that the state is secular and its citizens religiously autonomous. The same people who howl that Obama is a power-mad dictator and profess that they want "small government" now want him to exceed his constitutional authority on a very small matter that's no business of theirs.

On TV the other night some Fox News mercenary stated that the Mosque might be a breeding ground for terrorism, and "less than a mile" from the new World Trade Center, too. Does he believe that this danger is negated if the center was two miles away or ten? Does he think that terrorists are incapable of taking the subway? But what really caught my attention was something another commentator said: that the site was "sacred". Perhaps it is, but like many sacred things the believers themselves do not agree on what the significance of it is.

Next to St. Paul's, there is another temple, to the real religion of America: Century 21, a vast discount department store, where acreage of "designer" clothing, most of it manufactured in China, is marked down to something resembling its actual worth and set upon by throngs of people seeking salvation through middle-class conformity. I suspect that, when the history of the 21st century is written, the supposed clash of civilizations will have been deemed to have been decided in favour of that faith and none other.