Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Mindboggling

This was my column on the date indicated above.

What would you do with more than half a billion pesos? This was the question that was foremost in people’s minds in the last couple of weeks. I had my own list of stuff I would have done with the money but that’s all really wishful thinking.

The final pot reached P741million —the biggest jackpot in the history of Philippine lotto - Monday night. It was won by a single bettor who was supposed to have placed his bet in Olongapo City.

The range of reactions to the windfall that befell one person was stupefying. There were those who openly wished that person—whoever he or she is—well and hoped nothing untoward would happen to him or her. Apparently there is not a single person in this country that believes the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office can keep the winner’s identity under wraps. I know some people who felt animosity for the lucky fellow as if that person took away something that had already their names on it.

But I guess it is safe to say everyone wanted to be that person.

Seven hundred forty-one million pesos is a lot of money. I asked my grade school nephew to write the amount in full and was amused to note that he struggled with the number of zeros. And apparently, the amount is incomprehensible even to some people with college degrees. I don’t know that many Filipinos would come close to earning even ten percent of that amount in their whole lifetime.

I witnessed at least three separate conversations when people who really should know better came across as mathematical nitwits while trying to figure out what to do with all that money. The first one involved a caller and the hosts of a morning radio show; the second and third conversations involved friends. Each of the three separate conversations were about what was the best way to spend more than half a billion pesos and each of the three conversations centered around the supposed brilliant idea of dividing the whole loot among all Filipinos.

The caller and the radio show hosts were having a spirited discussion last week with the caller arguing quite passionately that the government should have stepped in already to do what should have been done immediately which, to his mind, was to divide the money equally among Filipinos. He argued that instead of the whole loot going to just one person why not distribute it among the 90 million Filipinos? He went on and on about how five million pesos could make a significant difference in the lives of each Filipino. And the hosts were agreeing enthusiastically. I wanted to call the station and save the poor guy and the radio hosts from further embarrassment because there was something obviously wrong with their computation. Five hundred million pesos divided by 90 million comes to about five pesos each, not five million pesos. They were off by a number of zeroes!

Apparently the temporary inability to do basic arithmetic was pretty common in the last few weeks. Did you hear about the many calculations of the odds at stake to win the jackpot?

Figuring out what to do with the jackpot and how to win it were apparently not the only things that sent people into a frenzy. There were speculative drivel about how it is almost impossible to win the lotto and how the PCSO, supposedly in cahoots with the corrupt officials of the previous administration, regularly rigged the results of the lotto to make it appear that someone always won the jackpot even if there were no winners. My friends at the Philippine Gaming and Marketing Corporation, the company that provides the infrastructure for the Philippine lotto, vehemently deny this allegation. But they’ve not really gone out to aggressively refute the malicious allegations because people were still betting anyway, and doing so as if there were no tomorrow.

I personally stopped betting the moment the jackpot crossed the half-a-billion mark. Not that I didn’t need the money; God knows I had a few ideas of my own about how to make the lives of a number of people happier if I won the darned jackpot. I just thought something had to done to quickly stop the jackpot from ballooning further—and the one thing I could do was to stop betting myself. Unfortunately, it seemed I represented the minority. Even our senators and Cabinet secretaries were busy betting and weaving fantasies of their own about what to do with all that money in the event they got lucky. I heard even our priests had a momentary bout with amnesia. We certainly didn’t hear from the Catholic hierarchy in the last few weeks about how the lotto was the work of the evil, didn’t we? Apparently, it was a battle they couldn’t win so they didn’t fight it.

Seriously, I hope everyone comes to his senses now that someone has effectively and finally snuffed out everyone else’s fantasies of living the great life and doing great philanthropic works.

Let’s settle the debate about whether we should put a cap on the amount of the lotto jackpot. There are pros and cons to the issue, but the argument that floored me was that one about how government should not set limits to dreams. I couldn’t believe some people actually regurgitated that line about how people should be allowed to dream big. I think we are officially in trouble when some people begin equating dreams with a game of chance where the chances of winning are miniscule. I also think that shutting down the lotto for moral reasons is a bit of an overreaction but we should be very clear about certain things: Lotto is a game of chance, it cannot and must not be held up as a viable alternative way to prosperity.

The PCSO should sternly remind lotto outlets about certain restrictions such as allowing young people to place bets. The lotto lines in the last few weeks were particularly long and I have personally passed by lotto outlets where high school students in uniform were waiting in line to place lotto bets. It is easy to imagine why high school (perhaps even elementary kids) would be enticed to place bets in the lotto; after all, everyone and his mother has been talking about it nonstop. It is even plausible that some parents passed on the idea to their children that the lotto represented a direct line to an easy and luxurious life. We need to make sure we teach our kids that they cannot pin their hopes and their futures on the lotto.

The sad thing about jackpot prizes reaching the stratosphere is that it also stretches the extent of our expectations. Now that the jackpot has breached 741 million, I guess it would have to reach new highs for it to generate the same level of excitement. Do we really want a lotto jackpot worth a billion pesos? That’s a mind-boggling amount. But then again I am sure we can all figure out many wonderful things we can do with that kind of money. What would you do with a billion pesos?

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