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Commentary: Though April Fools' came early this year, numbers can add up

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 5, 2012 - I was working in the office last Friday afternoon, trying to catch up on some paperwork before adjourning for the weekend. For background noise, I had the radio tuned to a local news-talk station.

I really wasn’t paying much attention to the broadcast. …blah, blah, blah Romney, …blah, blah, blah, health care, etc… 

The big story of the day was the $640 million jackpot in the Mega-Millions lottery drawing that evening. The story that was least likely to have any direct impact on the listener’s life was the one that garnered the most attention. Sure enough, when a so-called “lottery expert” came on the air, my ears perked up.

In fairness, I wasn’t a totally disinterested observer to the proceedings because I had a meager investment in the outcome. A co-worker had stopped by earlier in the week to ask if I wanted to join an office pool he’d organized to buy tickets. If lightning struck, we’d divide the windfall equally among all players.

I was about to comment that he had a better chance of being hit by an asteroid while purchasing the tickets than he did of winning the big prize when it occurred to me that should these people win, I’d be stuck working in a place where everybody belonged to the Kiss-My-Ass Club but me. That prospect was sufficiently daunting to prompt me to kick in my $5 for purely defensive purposes. A small price to pay for peace of mind.

At any rate, the lottery expert was explaining the odds against any given ticket winning. He quoted them as 1 in 175 million. I later learned that they were actually closer to 1 in 176 million, but that discrepancy really didn’t matter because my layman’s brain processes either figure as “BIG NUMBER.”

The odds-maker’s discouraging assessment did little to dampen general enthusiasm, and callers proceeded to phone in to explain how they planned to spend the money they weren’t going to win. I wondered if these folks really appreciated the hopelessness of their plight. Maybe mere statistics were too abstract to convey the message.

Imagine Busch Stadium filled with 176 million marbles. One marble is black, the rest are white. For each ticket you buy, you get one blind pick to find the black marble. For a dollar bet, there’s 1 way to win and 175,999,999 ways to lose. The only way to improve your odds is to buy more tickets. Unfortunately, your original odds of winning are so infinitesimal that even increasing them substantially will do nothing to change the outcome.

Let’s say you go nuts and spend $10,000 on the drawing. You now have 10,000 ways to win and only 175,990,000 ways to lose. I can thus tell you two off-setting truths about the lottery: 1. somebody has to win eventually, and 2. that person will not be you.

I left work smugly satisfied with my command of probability theory but somewhat puzzled by my chronic inability to keep up with office paperwork. When I got home, I checked the mail and discovered that Wayne LaPierre had written.

Wayne, the executive vice president of the NRA, corresponded because he knew me to be a Missouri gun owner. Though he was correct that I live in Missouri and own firearms, I have no idea of how he learned these facts because I’ve never met the man nor belonged to his organization.

Wayne encouraged me to sign the enclosed “National Petition to Protect Our Rights to Keep and Bear Arms” because my “constitutional right to own a gun is under attack by anti-gun politicians, global gun ban diplomats at the U.N., militant anti-hunting extremists, radical billionaires and the freedom-hating media elite.” I could also help the cause by joining the NRA.

Well, I fear and loathe the freedom-hating media elite as much as the next guy so I checked the price list he’d included. All memberships were discounted due to the urgency of the situation. Wayne advised, “The longer your commitment, the more you save.” Hmm … Turns out you would pay less yearly with the longer contracts, but the savings were not as clear-cut as the literature indicates.

The $35 one-year membership had been reduced to $25. A three-year deal, normally $85, was now $70 and joining for five years was down from $125 to ONLY $100! Let’s see: I save $10 if I sign up for a single year or $5 annually if I select one of the longer commitments.

Further, analysis of my potential savings as a percentage of the original list price reveals that I would save 28.6 percent for 1 year, 17.6 percent for 3 or 20 percent over 5 years. I’m sure Wayne shoots straight at the range but he really ought to invest in a slide-ruler for the Promotions Department.

All this calculating left me depressed and thirsty so I decided to invest in some beer. At the store, I discovered that a 12-pack of Bud Light was retailing for $11.99 but a 30-pack of the same product was on sale for $17.75. Twelve beers thus cost me a buck apiece, but the additional 18 were priced at 32 cents a pop. It seems you don’t have to play the lottery to hit the jackpot.