What the Powerball breakout can tell us about the US economy

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The economy of the 2020s is hard to read. For example, are we in a recession? Technically, no, but “technically” has a lot of weight there. Economists look at a variety of indicators—GDP growth, employment, bond yields, wages, etc.—to determine the answer.

Of course, there are other less scientific but more fun ways to measure financial health. Famously, there’s the lipstick index, which suggests that lipstick sales rise in tough times because it’s a cheap indulgence that makes people happy. Alan Greenspan introduced the Men’s Underwear Index, which showed that from 2007 to 2009, during the Great Recession, sales of boxers and socks declined as the economy recovered.

Another indicator, profoundly unscientific: Powerball.

Watch here: The Powerball lottery jackpot is expected to grow to $1.9 billion before tonight’s drawing, the biggest lottery prize ever.

Your odds of winning are slim: about 1 in 292 million. Chances are a shark will eat it. Or lightning strikes twice. Then again, the odds of you being on planet Earth are 400 trillion to one, so you’re already winning, like, in the grand scheme of the cosmos.

Conventional wisdom held that people paid for lottery tickets even in lean times, willing to risk a few dollars in hopes of hitting it big.

But during the Great Recession, state lotteries suffered major declines as millions became disillusioned. By 2010, sales were on the rise, although people were still reeling from the downturn.

In that context, we can see this week’s Powerball record as a sign that people are seeking comfort in a bit of financial escapism. Incredibly large jackpots attract people who don’t normally buy lottery tickets.

Throwing money at a bet that you are almost guaranteed to lose is not a rational thing, but it is a fantasy that people can still afford. And with the ever-increasing costs of everyday necessities, what’s a couple of dollars for a Powerball? Again, it may not be rational, but it is undeniably human.

History suggests that there is a point of financial frustration and fear at which even a $2 bet feels reckless. Clearly we are not there yet.

Prosecutors in Manhattan seized nearly $3.4 billion in bitcoins from a real estate developer accused of stealing funds from the Silk Road dark web marketplace, according to Bloomberg News.

Investigators say the case is the Justice Department’s second largest crypto seizure.

It’s been just 10 days since Elon Musk took the reins at Twitter, firing his C-suite, disbanding the board of directors, laying off thousands of employees and vowing to eliminate the platform’s user verification process.

The mood on Twitter is chaos.

Over the weekend, celebrities and other people with verified profiles sought to poke holes in Musk’s mass verification plan, which would allow any user to pay $8 a month for the blue check icon that has historically been reserved for people with verified platforms. This led to some derision from comedians who changed Musk’s names and profile pictures, highlighting the flaw in a system that doesn’t really, um, check who controls the account.

Sarah Silverman and Kathy Griffin saw their accounts temporarily locked or suspended as a result.

Musk, who had previously said he would not change Twitter’s content moderation policies until a board was formed, issued a decree on his account, stating: “Any impersonation without Twitter clearly defining ‘parody’ will be permanently suspended.” He later tweeted that the suspension would not come with a warning.

As The Verge’s Richard Lawler put it:

“This is an update to the person who tweeted a few days ago, ‘Comedy is now legal on Twitter’ after taking control of the company. Comedy is legal as long as it follows the rules, which Elon says are and can be changed at any time.

While Musk figures out what he wants to do with his $44 billion toy, many people are looking for less chaotic alternatives.

One is called Mastodon, a little-known network that’s been around since 2016 and looks a lot like Twitter.

But, as colleague Rachel Metz writes, there may not be a clear alternative to Twitter. “Mastodon is kind of a social media escape if Twitter gets unbearable,” says Rachel. But whether Twitter can replicate the magic of Twitter when it was good is in the hands of the social media gods.