Sunday, April 1, 2012

It Could Be You

By late Friday afternoon, there was only one question on everyone’s lips: “How will you spend it?”

You’d have to take a lot of holidays, buy quite a few houses and a stack of diamond rings to make a dent in your Mega Millions Lottery fortune. Here in America, 640 million dollars worth of anticipation had erupted into full-scale lottery fever.

My twin nephews were arguing about which type of Porsche to buy. When I pointed out that the winner could buy 5,000 of them, or maybe just 50 plus a mansion in Beverly Hills with a 50-car garage to house them, they began to get as excited as the rest of America.

The TV news was full of interviews with people looking forward to their new-found wealth. A taxi driver was going to drive his cab to the busiest intersection in town and leave it in the middle of the road to be impounded; downtrodden manual workers were going buy their businesses and sack their managers; Mexican maids were buying Caribbean islands and never coming back.

I’m writing this in a leafy, comfortably well-off town a few miles to the north of Los Angeles. Even here there were queues for tickets outside convenience stores on Friday afternoon. Meanwhile, 2,700 miles and a whole world away to the East, someone walked into a 7-Eleven store in a tired street of rundown shops in the small Maryland community of Milford Mill (average per capita income $20,195, 8% of the largely black population below the poverty line) and bought a single $1 “quick pick” ticket chosen randomly by the computer. Just 46 minutes later, in an embarrassingly brief televised draw in Atlanta (with a frantic presenter rushing through his few seconds of fame), that mystery person became $233 million richer, one of three winners in the United States.

As I write, no one knows the identity of the ticket holders, but all the newspapers and talkshows are full of advice for how they should spend their money. Meanwhile the owners of the 7-Eleven store that sold the winning ticket, an immigrant couple from Ethiopia called Abera and Mimi, were shocked to find they were $100,000 better off themselves – a thank-you from the lottery company.

Of course, behind the winners’ stories are the losers: 100 million of them. And you, and me, and everyone who’s ever bought a lottery ticket. For there’s only one real winner in a lottery, and that’s the taxman.

The real “mega millions” are those earned by the state, even if the distribution of some of the revenue is to what they primly call “good causes”. If government and state-sponsored lotteries were made to issue health warnings like they have on cigarette packets, I doubt they’d sell a single ticket: “This is a voluntary tax – half your money is snatched away for causes you’re most unlikely to benefit from, like opera and the Olympics; and you’re 20 times more likely to be struck by lightning in your lifetime than get your hands on the top prize. Enjoy.”

In the UK, someone buying five tickets a week - £260 a year – may as well simply write the government a personal cheque for £130. You won’t get a thank you note.

Of course, that’s not what I said back in the early 90s, when I was part of the original winning Camelot lottery team – my job was to write the part of the bid document that dealt with television. I remember sitting in Saatchi’s London office in in London as they unveiled the “It Could Be You” logo for the first time. “It could, but it almost certainly won’t be”, I muttered under my breath.

But at least when you watch the Olympics on television this Summer, and read about the theatre companies that have gone bust because their lottery-funded grants have been cut to pay for it, you can feel real pride for all that cash you’ve invested to make it happen. And maybe one of you will be watching the action from your Caribbean island with your 50 Porsches lined up on the verandah. Good luck to you.

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