Different types of lotteries

This is Colin Jost talking about the Amazon HQ2 announcement last week on SNL’s Weekend Update:

“By the way, only New Yorkers could complain about getting 25,000 new jobs. All the cities who lost out must be like, ‘shut up you whiney bitches’. New York basically won the lottery and we’re like, ‘oh, but the subways might be slightly more crowded.’ Meanwhile, people in West Virginia are like, ‘well? Back to the mines!’”

When he says, ‘New York basically won the lottery’, Jost is invoking the lottery we play in gas stations, the ones run by Mega Millions and Powerball. A bunch of people pay into a fund and a few lucky winners based on sheer chance get to keep it all.

People who play the gas station lottery are often scoffed at for wasting their money on something with such long odds. High-brow society says it’s a stupid bet. But the Powerball winner is funded by and only by the people who think it’s not a stupid bet—by other people trying to win the Powerball. It would be as if the Rio Olympics were only funded by people in Rio who wanted the Olympics to be there.

That’s not how the Olympics work, though: just look at Rio. In spite of the fact that Rio de Janeiro has some of the worst income inequality in the world, in spite of the fact that Brazil was entering the worst recession it had seen since the 1930s, and in spite of the clear evidence that the Olympics do not financially benefit their host countries, that they often, instead, bankrupt them, Rio threw down $13 billion to host the games.

What explains the government officials that continue to insist in spite of all evidence that the Olympics pay for themselves through tourism and temporary jobs? It’s the narrative they get. It’s the world stage glory. That’s what they’re really paying for. Like Powerball hopefuls paying for the narrative of ‘I just might be the winner’, these government officials are bidding for a feeling and a story.

Unlike the Powerball, though, the Olympic lottery would still go on whether or not the people paying for it thought that narrative was worth it.

If you’re the mayor of a city like New York, the narrative of ‘we’re emerging as the East Coast rival of Silicon Valley’ is valuable and exciting. Maybe enough to pay $3 billion for Amazon, even though you’re New York and you didn’t really need to. Your people don’t really give a damn about being the East Coast rival of Silicon Valley…but you do.

Colin Jost is right and he’s wrong at the same time. New York is one of the only cities in America that would complain about Amazon coming to town. We shouldn’t take from this that New Yorkers somehow suck and have a massive case of #firstworldproblems. It should instead be a sign that our lottery is askant. Cleveland could have used those jobs. Same with Nashville, Austin, and Denver, which are all desirable middle-sized cities where young talent would have been more than willing to locate. New York and DC got them, though, where the players say it was worth it even though the payers say otherwise.

There are different types of lotteries.