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Powerball: An Idea Whose Time Is Dumb

04/08/02 12:00AM By Philip Baruth

(Host) The Vermont Legislature is considering reforming Act 60 with a proposal to develop the Powerball lottery as a source for education funding. Commentator Philip Baruth has only one word for this idea: dumb.

(Baruth) One day back in the '80s, I was walking through an outdoor mall in southern California called Fashion Land don't ask me why, it just was. And there was a big fake Conastoga Wagon set up in the middle of the food court, and an overweight man dressed in a fake Gold Rush costume was handing out free lottery tickets. Painted on either side of the covered wagon was the California lottery slogan, "Our kids win too." I walked by without reaching for a ticket, and the fake prospector yelled after me, "Hey, it's free! What are you, dumb?"

I like to think that I wasn't dumb, but let's put that question aside for a second. What was dumb about that scene was the slogan, "Our kids win too," because while the State of California was letting people think that the lottery proceeds would go to schools on top of funds already earmarked, in fact what they eventually did was to replace normal operating funds with lottery proceeds. And in that way, the kids didn't win, at least not anything they wouldn't have had in the first place.

Now continuing with this idea of dumbness Vermont's own state lottery commission makes use of the slogan, "It's good, clean fun." And yet most of their commercials are elaborate warnings about the effective impossibility of winning, and the dangers of playing too much.

So on the one hand, Vermont is telling potential customers that playing the lottery is good, clean fun and on the other it warns them constantly and dramatically that they would have to be very, very, very dumb to play. It's a meticulously mixed message.

And yet many, many people continue to play the lottery each and every day of their lives, as though playing regularly somehow dramatically bettered their odds. These people I'll call "not-smart." I sympathize with them, because their habit is fostered and abetted by marketing specialists employed by their own state government against them.

Just a few days ago, a panel of Republican legislators floated a proposal to eliminate the Act 60 sharing pool in part by bringing Powerball to Vermont. Powerball is your normal lottery on anabolic steroids, and Governor Dean has always rightly opposed it. With Dean leaving office, the Powerball people are again out in force.

But just think about it. Let's say we begin funding education with Powerball. Suddenly, and especially in a weak economy, the state would have a huge stake in maintaining a growing pool of gamblers within its borders. School costs rise every year, and there would be understandable pressure for Powerball receipts to keep pace. To put it simply, we would need more not-smart people every year in order to produce more smart people every year.

And if we didn't have enough not-smart people, we would almost certainly use up all the advertising necessary to create them. Our education system would develop a shadow twin, an "uneducation" system. This would be paradoxical and ethically indefensible.

It would be, in a word, dumb.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.
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