Shallow men believe in luck

Shallow men believe in luck

Ron Meador

When I came to editorial writing a few years ago, middle-aged and clueless, I made a kind of specialty out of odd topics – matters that were on people’s minds and in their conversations but not necessarily at the top of the news. Sure, I’d say, I’ll do the Thanksgiving edit, and the snowstorm, and a tribute to the guy who wrote “Louie, Louie.” My editors liked the way these pieces lightened and loosened the page, and still do. I was happy to oblige, and still am.

Of course I write a lot of serious editorials, too. During the Age of Monica I tracked such topics as tobacco litigation, environmental policy, Internet censorship, and legislative races. But I always have my ears up for a leavening opportunity, a chance to be entertaining and still make an editorial point. The Powerball frenzy of last July was a natural selection.

As for the impact of this editorial, it persuaded me to throw away 20 bucks on lottery tickets, and it moved a couple of readers to call with compliments. Those are always lovely to receive. More important, they signify that people are reading our page and finding it worth their while.

Powerball: The allure of effortless wealth

A Star Tribune editorial, July 29, 1998

“Shallow men believe in luck,” Emerson said. It was blunt condescension, but what can you expect from a man who lived so long before the Powerball era?

Lotteries now seem a permanent feature of American life, their allure attracting people of all depths. It’s not hard to imagine even as self-reliant a fellow as old Ralph Waldo applying the philosopher’s tools to a numbered grid, then plunking down a buck to test his conclusions. Maybe even a fiver for a jackpot like tonight’s quarter-billion dollars.

After 18 drawings without a winner taking all, Powerball frenzy will reach full sway today. Since the weekend, throngs of players have been making it hard to buy gas or groceries, let alone a lottery ticket, at certain outlets. Iowa dealers were selling 1,000 tickets a minute yesterday. And the crush was yet to come: Two-thirds of the tickets in tonight’s drawing will be bought today.

Among these players are certainly many who wager more than they ought. Others have money to burn – an alternative that would lengthen, but only slightly, the odds against becoming a millionaire overnight. But the great majority are infrequent players, who may not think of buying a ticket until a massive jackpot sets off a constant buzz of publicity and water-cooler talk.

For some, that buzz inspires a pleasant little transport of fantasy, alongside the thrill of joining in a national frenzy. It’s a bit of fun that is cheap at the price, if the price is a few dollars.

But for others, it leads to something more like lunacy. People by the hundreds are driving long distances today to buy last-minute tickets at Powerball outlets thought to be “lucky.” Plenty are buying in quantities that prove the truth of the observation that lotteries are a tax on people with poor math skills.

A young man in New York will be waiting tonight to see the outcome of taking $3,000 he had saved for college and spending it instead on, yep, Powerball tickets. The odds are high that he will get an education.

It goes without saying that lottery players should play within their means, if they play at all. Nobody should wager a larger stack of bills than they’d be comfortable using to light the barbecue. But for those who decide to play, and even for those who don’t, the buildup to tonight’s drawing offers one guaranteed gain: a chance to learn something useful about modern attitudes, shared and individual, toward luck, and greed, and the enduring allure of getting rich without effort.

NCEW member Ron Meador is an editorial writer for the Star Tribune of Minneapolis. His e-mail address is

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