City City Bang Bang, Columns

The lottery as idea

Recently, there were news report of a farmer in Punjab borrowing Rs 200 to buy a lottery ticket which went on to win him a prize of Rs 1.5 crore. We hear these kinds of stories of often, for there is always something quite fascinating about the luck that befalls random individuals for no discernible reason. There is something about the lottery which manufactures fables; parables that dramatically illuminate the incomprehensible idea of fate. Stories abound about the accident of winning -improbable winners, who move from abject penury to untold wealth, winners-to-be who tore up their tickets by accidents and lost millions, sudden millionaires who blew up their fortune in no time, prizes that went abegging because winners forgot they had bought a ticket.

The two elements that make up the idea of a lottery are chance and disproportion. The low odds of winning are rarely a deterrent; if anything, the remoteness of the possibility of winning is part of what makes the lottery what is- a wildly optimistic bet on how lucky one is. The fact that winning has little to do with any variable that can be meaningfully managed or explained, and that nobody really has a better chance of winning, is what makes the lottery a form of communication that one receives from the universe.

The other critical element is disproportion. Winning a Rs 1000 lottery serves little purpose. Transformation, dramatic and instantaneous is what makes the lottery so seductive. The change must beggar our imagination; we must be left wondering what a human being would do with all that money.

The lottery serves as an advertisement for the idea of the success that is wildly improbable. It formally redistributes wealth on the basis of random chance. In doing so, it implicitly sells the idea of everyday inequality through dramatic exception. If everyone can make become truly wealthy, then the system that produces inexplicable wealth can present itself as being accessible, and therefore just.

While the lottery ticket might appear to be a device that exists at the periphery of our lives, the principle of the lottery is visible everywhere. The lottery is a distillation of a principle that is present in dilution otherwise as everyday practice. Democracy plays the lottery of power, with disproportionate gains accruing to the winner. While victory is not purely a matter of chance, at the individual level, luck can play a disproportionate part in getting elected- ask James Comey and Donald Trump.

Business rewards its top leaders disproportionately, in part because that serves as an inspiration for others to slog away in relative poverty, in the hope that one day the big prize will be theirs. It is cheaper to pay a few people obscenely than to pay everyone well. Celebrities, the ultimate beacons for our way of life, are the ultimate lottery winners; people who earn ridiculous sums of money, and lead impossibly dazzling lives for possessing obscure talents that our culture has chosen, at random, to privilege. The ability to hurl a small ball at great speed, for instance, can earn an individual a fortune in India but is worthless in Iceland.

The winner-takes-all paradigm helps make the lottery viable. Magnificent exception powers the tiresome rule. Every time one buys a ticket, the flicker of magical hope lights up our life. Years ago, the New Year Lotto advertised itself with a wonderfully insightful line- Hey, you never know. It captures the essence of the act of buying a lottery ticket, that faint but tantalizing idea that one’s life could be transformed forever for no reason at all. The lottery loser is still a small winner, of a moment of hope, and that animates him enough to spend money on what is rationally a hopeless cause. For the poor, the lottery represents a difficult dilemma- hope here is both a release as well as a cruel reminder of what is not to be.

But perhaps deep down, the lottery is a device that brings us face to face with the inexplicable randomness of the world. It deliberately manufactures the chance that is at work in all major parts of our life. We are born randomly and much of our lives is built on the edifice of chance. Who we meet where, the flights we miss and barely catch, the opportunities we run into, the chance encounter on a plane that changes our life, the accident that occurs because we were early. Our lives are shaped to an extraordinary extent by events that happen purely by chance but we have successfully found a way to shroud this with ideas of order and purposefulness. The lottery gives us a taste of this for a price that for most part, is affordable. Buying a Rs 100 ticket is flirting with fate, betting Rs10,000 is a gamble.

While the lottery itself can become a ruinous addiction for some, in its construction, the lottery does not ask us to put anything we cannot afford to lose, on the line. The lottery trades what we can afford to lose with the tiny possibility of winning what we cannot begin to conceive.

Studies show that winning lotteries do not lead to happier lives in the long run. In the short term, things improve but they soon return to a threshold of happiness that was previously experienced. The lottery as an idea in that sense is far more powerful than as reality. Psychologists use the idea of “hedonic adaptation” to explain this. People come back over a period of time to a level of happiness that they usually feel about their life. Happiness is embedded in a dynamic context, as we have more, we get used to more, and it stops giving us incremental pleasure. We calibrate expectations and broadly stay as happy as we allow ourselves to be. If that idea sounds like a prescription from a cheap self-help book, perhaps one will need to win a lottery to truly appreciate its wisdom.

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