The Other Side of the Lottery

In a time of growing toto macau inequality and diminishing social mobility, lottery prizes promise instant riches to anyone willing to buy a ticket. But there’s more to the lottery than just that, as a recent New York Times piece by Joshua Cohen demonstrates. From the way tickets are designed and advertised to the math behind the numbers, lotteries aren’t just about gambling. They’re about marketing, and about using psychology to keep people playing. In other words, they’re not unlike tobacco or alcohol companies, who use the same tactics to keep people hooked.

As Cohen points out, lotteries were once considered a legitimate form of state revenue. The immediate postwar period was one of prosperity, when states could expand their array of services without imposing particularly onerous taxes on the middle and working classes. But, by the nineteen-sixties, that arrangement began to collapse under the weight of inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War. It became difficult to balance the budget without raising taxes or cutting services, and both options were unpopular with voters.

That’s when lotteries really took off, at least in the United States. Lotteries were introduced in states with generous social safety nets, where the idea of winning a big prize was seen as a great way to supplement income and avoid heavy taxes. But they weren’t just about making money; they were also about promoting gambling as a civic duty. As far back as keno slips from the second millennium BC, lotteries have been used to raise funds for public works. In the early American colonies, a lottery was used for everything from building town fortifications to giving charity to the poor. It even helped finance the Revolutionary War and the wars of independence, though it often got tangled up in the slave trade. One enslaved man, Denmark Vesey, won a lottery prize that allowed him to purchase his freedom and foment a slave revolt.

Nowadays, people can gamble in many ways — on the Internet, at casinos, and of course, at sports betting sites. But state-run lotteries still make up a large share of the gambling landscape. It isn’t clear whether that represents a good or a bad thing. In a society where gambling addiction is real and widespread, it makes sense for governments to limit its availability and to provide alternatives to it. But, that doesn’t mean they should promote it or encourage it. In fact, it would be better for them to ban it altogether. Instead, they should treat it like alcohol and tobacco and offer people alternative ways to raise revenue — like through progressive taxation. But for now, the states are relying on the message that even if you’re not a winner, it’s a small sacrifice to help the state out. That’s the same argument they’re making to get us to buy into sports betting. It’s just a little less risky. And a lot more fun. Besides, you might actually win!