WHAT would induce a normal, fully functioning human being to stand in line for three hours to place a bet that had only an 80 million-to-one chance of winning? What could possibly persuade someone to drive for 90 minutes from Manhattan to Connecticut for the privilege of doing so? Not to mention his neighbour, who got out of bed at 3am to make sure he got in line first. If a punter placed an 80 million-to-one bet on a racehorse, his friends would sign papers to have him committed. But when it comes to the lottery, last week's mass hysteria proved that several million Americans were more than willing to waste precious hours of their life in a bid to gamble for those very same odds. The world has already read about how a retired Illinois couple won the jackpot in the largest lottery prize in US history - the US$195 million (HK$1.5 billion) Powerball prize. They may also have heard how the winners did not even buy the ticket themselves but had it collected by the barmaid at their local pub. But now the Powerball jackpot is back down to a mere US$10 million for the next draw, questions are being asked about what lottery-mania says about society and its love affair with gambling. 'I think of lotteries as a tax on the mathematically challenged,' Chicago University maths professor Roger Jones said. And what a tax it is. In the two months since the Powerball last had a winner, and public interest grew in tandem with the ever-expanding jackpot, a massive US$350 million in tickets was wagered. That means US$155 million in pure profit, and another tax windfall for the participating states. And while that might mean a few more bucks for new roads or school facilities, it does not say much for the powers of logic of the average American. The fact is, the lower the chances of winning, the more punters are inclined to have a go. That is because the Powerball operators actually changed the rules last November to raise the odds of matching the six numbers for a jackpot from 55 million-to-one to 80 million-to-one. Previously, ticket sales had been declining, so to increase business the company decided less-frequent winners would pump up the jackpot totals enough to cause the kind of frenzy the nation has just witnessed. Organisers hope there will be at least three US$100 million jackpots this year. But in a nation where several hundred billion dollars are gambled each year, and where the majority of people losing their hard-earned salaries are the working classes who can least afford it, some pundits find much to criticise in this state-sponsored rainbow-chasing. Some states which run their own lotteries have come under fire for unfairly raising the public's expectations, including New York, where the governor ordered a change in the style of television advertising in order to dampen the hype. Tom Grey, a member of an anti-gambling coalition, told the Washington Post : 'It's the Government using rat psychology. The key to behaviour modification in rat psychology is infrequent reward.' And there are no shortage of rats out there willing to gamble at an almost-impossible shot. While the American Dream teaches people that if they have the willpower and are willing to work hard they can get whatever they want, there are also plenty who are open to cheating their way there through a US$1 lottery ticket. And not all rats are society's downtrodden. Take Mike McCurry, the president's spokesman who apologised for being late for a press briefing last week after standing in line at the local 7-Eleven for a Powerball ticket. What if he won the big one? 'You could effectively conclude that my service here at this podium would come to an abrupt end,' he admitted. Americans are particularly cynical about the people they send to Washington, and are not averse to calling the politicians on Capitol Hill little more than a bunch of crooks. Occasionally, it transpires many a true word is spoken in jest and the long arm of the law reaches into the corridors of power. In only the past couple of years, one can recall Illinois Congressman Mel Reynolds ending up in jail for underage sex with an assistant, and a prison term for another Chicagoan, Dan Rostenkowski, for paying friends and relatives for jobs on his payroll that did not exist. But now the Capitol is being treated to the sorry sight of another recently inducted member of the Congressional Hall of Fraud spending his jail term within its very walls. Jay Kim, a Republican Congressman from California, was a poster-boy for the Asian-American community until he pleaded guilty last year to accepting US$250,000 in illegal campaign contributions from foreign companies. Not only did it represent the biggest ever case of campaign finance fraud, his offences took place in 1992 - long before the Asian cash scandals that are now plaguing the Democrats. The extra cash in his coffers probably also gave him the boost he needed to squeeze past his opponent by a mere 889 votes in the 1992 primaries. Yet despite being slapped with an incarceration order as part of his sentence, Kim is walking round Congress schmoozing and voting as if nothing happened. But he is the first congressman in history to be doing so with an electronic tag around his ankle: he is confined to his apartment and Capitol Hill until his term ends. Not one for reading the tea leaves, Kim refused to step down and is even campaigning for this year's elections. This delights Democrats, who feel his candidacy gives them a solid chance in an otherwise heavily Republican district. And the word is that Republicans, who are greatly embarrassed by his presence in Congress, would be just as happy if he lost.