In The Lottery, Michael Cohen explores what draws people to gamble their hard-earned money for a hope of winning the grand prize. His research reveals that state lottery commissions are not above availing themselves of psychology and addiction to keep players coming back, just like tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers do. Whether they’re billboards or scratch-off tickets, the messages lottery officials send out are aimed squarely at you and me.
Historically, lotteries have been deployed as a form of party game—Nero was a fan—or as a way to divine God’s will (the casting of lots for everything from kingship to the fate of Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion was a common practice among Jews and Christians). But they became a serious enterprise in the fourteen-hundreds, when they were used to finance town fortifications, bridges, and even the British Museum.
In the nineteen-sixties, as Cohen explains, growing awareness of all the money to be made in the lottery business collided with a crisis in state finances. With population growth, inflation, and war costs eating into governmental coffers, it was becoming difficult for states to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services—both of which were unpopular with voters.
The solution, as it turned out, was to increase spending on the lottery and cut other programs. But the resulting revenue was not nearly enough to offset the decline in federal funds and the increased cost of maintaining a social safety net. As a result, in the early seventies, America’s tax revolt began to gather momentum—prompting New Hampshire to pass its first modern lottery in 1964, followed by thirteen more within a few years and most of the Northeast and Rust Belt states.
Lotteries were a popular form of generating revenue in these early days of democracy, and as the author of The Atlantic argues, they’re still a popular pastime today because they’re cheap and easy to run. But it’s the message they convey that has been so controversial.
The main message that lottery commissions are sending out is that playing the lottery is a fun experience, which obscures the regressivity of the game and the fact that winning it is unlikely to make you rich. Americans spend more than $80 billion on tickets each year, a staggering amount in an economy where most people have to struggle to get by and pay off credit card debt. But the glitzy TV commercials and billboards show what the lottery has become: a slickly packaged promise of instant wealth in an age where social mobility is limited. It’s a dangerous game and the messages it sends are not benign. It’s a story worth telling. Then again, maybe it’s a story better left untold.