Most of my columns to this point have been about various aspects of sport. This column is also about one of my very favorite sports: government bashing. Just like when UNC plays Clemson in men's basketball in Chapel Hill, it is so easy that it is not much of a sport, but it sure is fun! Today's topic will be the North Carolina Education Lottery.
What I do love is the way government can outlaw something one minute as an insidious moral evil, and the next moment, legalize, operate and promote it as a great benefit to society -- and by separating the two by a fraction of a second, avoid even the appearance of hypocrisy. I am working on learning how to do the same thing myself. If I succeed, it will be one way the lottery helped in my education.
With a nod to Phil Woodhall, Duke grad, "second-career potter" and all-round funny guy from Southern Pines, I am calling this column "Leaving education to chance: How the lottery has helped educate North Carolina." By including a prominent colon in the title, I aspire to give my article a subtle gloss of academic respectability.
Let me catalog some of the many successes of the lottery in educating North Carolina. Critics can say what they may, but the lottery has done marvels for education in North Carolina by providing innumerable teaching moments to the state's children and adults, both to losers and winners. For one, it's been instructive even to those well-to-do taxpayers who, by not participating in the lottery, are now letting poor people pay for government services for them, providing a concrete illustration of the meaning of the term regressive funding scheme.
The education lottery also teaches about the concepts of unobserved costs, trade-offs and opportunity costs. As the late Milton Friedman and the late Gary Gaddy have tried repeatedly to teach the public: "There is no free lunch." (Friedman is late because he died recently. I am late because of all the time wasted as I stand in line at the Mini-Mart with my "Two Dogs for Two Dollars" rapidly cooling, behind some guy buying eight Pick Threes, two Carolina Cash Fives and three Powerball tickets.)
The lottery has also provided clear examples to those teaching business strategy, especially the concept of expected return. As in, bet a dollar, expect to get 52 cents in return.
The lottery has greatly simplified the teaching of mathematics. It has never been so easy to teach combinatorial statistics as now. The lottery commission practically writes the tests for the instructors. And lottery wagerers are, of course, always calculating the odds that they will win -- the wonderfully favorable odds being what keeps them betting. For example, how can anyone resist the Powerball odds of having a one in 146,107,962 chance of winning the Jackpot? With odds like these your ship is always just about to come in. Bet once a day and expect to win big in the Year of our Lord 202153, just 200 millenia from now.
The lottery has exemplified moral lessons as well, such as the deceitfulness of riches. Many preachers have harangued their flocks about the false allure of wealth, but to no avail. Now, thanks to the lottery, a number of North Carolinians have learned on their own that money doesn't solve your ills. As one study of lottery winners showed, a couple of years after they hit the jackpot even big lottery winners are no happier than they were before -- often because they also no richer.
The lottery has helped citizens learn about rhetoric by giving them the opportunity to compare politicians' promises to what they actually deliver. This may take a little longer than some of the other lessons but it will soon be clear that the politicians have indeed delivered on their promises that more money will be going to education after the lottery than would have had there been none.
The lottery also will help us learn patience as we wait to see that day.
The clearest evidence that the lottery education program is working is not in higher mathematics tests scores by the state's students, but in the recent report that lottery revenues are far below what the lottery commission had projected, indicating that we are already much smarter than they thought we would be.
Gary D. Gaddy, who once was a Statistician III, according to the state of North Carolina, has calculated the odds that he will lose money on the lottery to be a statistical certainty – even though he has never played -- because of the resources other suckers are wasting by playing it.
A version of this column first appeared in the Chapel Hill Herald, Thursday February 15, 2007. Copyright 2007 Gary D. Gaddy