Big Money and the Lottery


Although casting lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long history (it’s even mentioned in the Bible), state-sponsored lotteries are a relatively recent innovation. Their rise coincided with the mid-twentieth century’s decline in the financial security of most working people, as the income gap between rich and poor widened and social-security checks and pensions disappeared, health-care costs rose, and the old national promise that hard work would yield wealth beyond imagination ceased to be true.

During this era, legalization advocates could no longer argue that a lottery would float the entire budget and instead began to claim that it would cover a single line item—usually education, though sometimes elder care, public parks or aid for veterans. This strategy had the advantage of making it easy to campaign for the lottery, and it allowed lawmakers to avoid the more inconvenient ethical arguments about gambling.

In addition, a growing number of players had figured out how to manipulate the system. They bought thousands of tickets at a time to maximize their chances of winning, then let the computer pick their numbers for them. In the process, they deprived smaller-ticket buyers of their chance to win.

In a book that reads like a detective story, Cohen follows the trail of these super-users, who have skewed the distribution of prizes and made the lottery into something more akin to a private game where the winners are selected by an elite group. It is a case study of how big money can corrupt even the most benevolent government.

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