The Billion Names of Powerball

The Powerball jackpot is now up in imaginary number territory — $1.6 billion. And according to early reports, there appear to be three winning tickets in California, Tennessee, and Florida.

Whenever lottery payouts get crazy high there’s always a flurry of news stories about it. All the local Stop’N’Gulps are swarmed by reporters interviewing the hopeful ticket buyers, and we engage in communal daydreams about how many gold-plated trampolines and monster trucks we’d buy with the winnings.

It seems a little different this time, though. A lot of stories about this lottery — I’m inclined to say a solid majority of stories, in fact — are about the downsides of winning so much money. Lots of talk about taxes (which is always a given). Lots of talk about how, if you won, you’d basically have to go into hiding; hiding from the news, hiding from friends and family who are bound to come asking for money, hiding from the con men and crazy people whom you would now draw like fat kids to cake.

Billionaire Mark Cuban offered some advice to whoever might be about to join the billionaires club, and it wasn’t, “Woo-hoo! Pee on your boss and buy a basketball team!” It was a little more sobering than that:

…get used to saying “no.” Your friends and relatives will ask you for money, but don’t feel obligated to give unless you want to.

“If you are close to them, you already know who needs help and what they need,” he said. “Feel free to help SOME, but talk to your accountant before you do anything and remember this, no one needs 1m dollars for anything. No one needs 100k for anything. Anyone who asks is not your friend.”

With this enormous jackpot, there seems to be more acknowledgement that large sums of money bring their own problems. It’s fun to fantasize about being infinitely wealthy, but when people think about what it would really be like to be handed a billion dollars, their reaction isn’t that different from what it would be to being handed a live grenade.

Let me pause here and say that I would not turn down a billion dollar lottery payout if my numbers came through. Even though I know that sudden wealth brings its own problems, I’m pretty darn curious to find out what those problems are. (“Heavy traffic today. Should I go with the helicopter or the jet pack? I can never decide!”) And, like every lottery winner whose life went from a middle-class struggle into a spectacular, flaming nosedive into a volcano of catastrophe, I’m sure that I’m the one who’d be able to handle it. I’d be the savvy one. I’d be the one who didn’t sink all the money into a chain of Star Wars-themed pancake restaurants. Right.

But leaving aside the fact that any of us would Scrooge McDuck into a big pile of money if we had the chance, there seems to be a different vibe this time. With the payout rising from the gaudy range into the inconceivable range, we’re being forced to admit that there’s no amount of money that can fix all our crap. Money is not a wish-granting genie, not a god.

In spite of the frenzy of ticket-buying, there’s almost an element of sanity surrounding this Powerball news cycle. I’m not going to say that the country has rediscovered its soul or anything, but it’s at least aware that money may not be the ultimate answer.

(*Title lifted from the Arthur C. Clarke short story.)

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