The Lottery and the Budget Crisis

The lottery is a gambling game that raises money by offering a chance to win a prize — usually a large sum of cash. It is one of the world’s oldest gambling activities, with ancient keno slips dating back to around 205 BC and modern state-run games having their roots in the Middle Ages. But the lottery is also a trippy exercise, combining a sense of absurd improbability with a glimmer of hope that you might, just possibly, win. It is an exercise that can feel like a morally dubious endeavor, and it’s a questionable activity in a nation where the income gap continues to widen and the notion of a meritocratic upward mobility is increasingly remote.

Despite the fact that the odds are long, people continue to play. They have all sorts of quote-unquote “systems” that aren’t borne out by statistical reasoning: buying tickets on specific days, at specific stores, choosing certain types of numbers, and so on. And they know that the more the jackpots get bigger, the lower their chances of winning. But, counterintuitively, this doesn’t deter them. In fact, the higher the odds, the more they want to play. That’s why you see billboards boasting the Mega Millions and Powerball jackpots at gas stations, convenience stores, and other locations where people shop.

Cohen’s book starts with a history of lotteries, which have often been tangled up with slavery in unpredictable ways (Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton both supported them; George Washington managed a Virginia lottery that offered human beings as prizes, and a former slave, Denmark Vesey, bought his freedom by winning the New York Lottery). But it is in the nineteen-sixties that the story really gets going, when growing awareness of all the money to be made by the game collided with a crisis in state funding. As the population boomed and inflation, war costs, and other expenses exploded, it became harder and harder for states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. The solution, many politicians figured, was the lottery.

When state officials began selling the lottery as a “budgetary miracle,” they meant that it would allow them to maintain their existing service levels without ever having to talk about increasing taxes, which are always politically dangerous and deeply unpopular with voters. What’s more, the ticket price would be so low that it was “not a tax at all.”

The idea was to make the lottery appear so tempting and attractive that it would overcome ethical objections from people who might otherwise reject it on principle. The argument went something like this: People are going to gamble anyway, so why not let the government profit from their efforts? This argument had its limits — it amounted to saying, by the same logic, that governments should sell heroin — but it gave moral cover for some people who approved of state-run lotteries. For example, some white voters in the South backed legalization because they thought black numbers players would play, and they would end up footing the bills for services that they wanted their communities to have but didn’t want to pay for themselves.

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