Ambrose Bierce’s 1911 Devil’s Dictionary defines a lottery as “a tax on people who are bad at math.”
That still sounds right. The chances of winning the Mega Millions jackpot, for example, are one in 302,500,000. You have a better chance of being struck by lightning than of winning the jackpot. In fact, you have a better chance of being struck by lightning a thousand times: the chances of becoming a human lightning rod are about 300,000 to one, says the BBC — more than 1,000 times your chance of winning Mega Millions.
When it comes to logic, big numbers and long odds don’t mean much to most people, it seems, because they spend enormous sums on lottery tickets. A researcher named Ted McCarthy at Rutgers Business School found that the average American spent $220 on lottery tickets in 2017. Do you think Massachusetts residents are smarter than average? We had the highest lottery spending by far of any state that year: $737 per person. That was almost 2 percent of annual household income.
The lottery isn’t your weekly poker game, where the amount lost at the table is equal to the amount won. Only about 60 cents of each dollar spent on lottery tickets goes to the winners. The rest goes to the state. What’s wrong with that? People in need are the ones most hoping for a windfall. Research shows that poor people buy lottery tickets disproportionately more than rich people. So, Bierce’s tax is also a regressive one.
In 2017, states collected $72 billion from lottery ticket sales. I don’t think they spent that money on math education.
Better math sense would save lives as well as money. The Centers for Disease Control reported last week that unvaccinated people were 11 times more likely to die of the Covid-19 Delta variant than those fully vaccinated. Yet only slightly more than half the population has gotten the shots.
Last month, student Benjamin Siegel reported in the Independent that signs warning about great white sharks at Outer Cape beaches had replaced signs explaining the danger of rip currents — even though there have been about 50,000 times as many drowning deaths as fatal shark attacks in the last 100 years.
All this irrational math has me thinking about the RTE — the residential tax exemption. When some part-time residents addressed the Provincetown Select Board on Aug. 23, Scott Van Hove, a certified public accountant, called the exemption a way to “lavish support on the wealthy.” I don’t think the RTE is perfect, but I do know its progressive design offers the most financial help to those with the least valuable homes.
And while wealthy year-round residents may be eligible for it, they don’t get it unless they apply for it. Van Hove also owns a home in Miami Beach, which has an RTE. Perhaps he doesn’t choose to benefit from it. It seems as if living in both places might give him a better understanding of how the tax works, though.
But maybe not. Even accountants can be bad at math.