The Rise of the Lottery

Lotteries, in which numbers are drawn to determine prizes, are ancient. They were popular in the Roman Empire—Nero was a big fan—and are attested to in the Bible, where they are used for everything from picking kings and judges to determining who will keep Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion.

But the lottery is now mostly a game for the rich, and Cohen’s story centers around the rise of one particular pro-lottery group that came to dominate its business: Scientific Games, Inc., a manufacturer of the scratch-off tickets that became hugely successful in the nineteen-seventies and eighties. While these tickets provide the instant gratification of a quick payout, they also have an extra appeal that has been hard to replicate: They make it seem as though you have some control over your fate.

As Cohen explains, Scientific Games’s success matched a moment in American history that saw an erosion of financial security for working people. This began in the nineteen-seventies and accelerated in the nineteen-eighties as income gaps widened, pensions and job security eroded, health care costs exploded, and the national promise that education and hard work would ensure that your children were better off than you were ceased to hold true.

State budgets were struggling, too, as booming population growth and rising inflation made it impossible to balance them without raising taxes or cutting services. Lotteries offered states a way to raise money without the specter of enraging their anti-tax voters, and they quickly took off.

The new pro-lottery forces dismissed long-held ethical objections to the games by arguing that if people were going to gamble anyway, government might as well get in on it and pocket the profits. This reasoning gave moral cover to many white voters who supported legalization.

It also enabled the advocates of lotteries to skew their marketing, to the point that they now spend more on advertising than they do on prize money. They create gaudy tickets that resemble nightclub fliers spliced with Monster Energy drinks, and they promote them using slogans like “Play for the good of the community” and “Win for life!”

There’s another thorn in the side of lottery advocates. They have a special player in their ranks, whom Cohen refers to as the Educated Fool: the sort of person who understands that the odds of winning are not the same as the likelihood of a bad outcome and who still mistakes the two for equivalent.

The Educated Fool misreads expected value, as people often do with education. It distills the multifaceted experience of lottery play—its prizes, probabilities, and risks—down into a single number, and in so doing confuses it with an investment opportunity. It’s a dangerous mistake. The chances of winning are still very slim, and a lottery ticket is not a wise purchase for most people. Nonetheless, the educated fool persists in believing that they’re making a smart move. And they may just be.