Does the lottery help or harm the vulnerable? Plus, a cool story.

When I was a kid, my father was notorious for two sayings, both of which came out when one of us kids wanted something we were told we couldn't have. The first saying was "life ain't fair," and I guess comparing your toy box to your best friend's is as good a way to learn that one as any. The second line was, "when I win the lottery." "When I win the lottery I'll work less and travel more." "When I win the lottery your mother and I will buy a condo in the mountains." "When I win the lottery you can have all the Barbie dolls you want."

Now, my father is by no means a regular player, but for him (and for most people, I imagine), the lottery is a temporary but tangible license to fantasize about everything he would do if suddenly money were no object. But recent data seems to indicate that many people might be too deeply (and expensively) engaged in the fantasy for their own good.

Fighting in the lottery's corner are people like Lloyd Cohen from George Mason University, who is quoted in a New York Times article from March 2007 as saying "The people who denigrate lottery players are like 10-year-olds who are disgusted by the idea of sex: they are numb to its pleasures, so they say it's not rational." (It probably doesn't need saying, but Cohen is a gambling man himself).

Dr. Cohen argues that lottery tickets are not an investment but a disposable consumer purchase, which changes the equation radically. Like a throwaway lifestyle magazine, lottery tickets engage transforming fantasies: a wine cellar, a pool, a vision of tropical blues and white sand. The difference is that the ticket can deliver. And as long as the fantasy is possible, even a negligible probability of winning becomes paradoxically reinforcing.

The article goes on to talk about the physiological effects of gambles such as the lottery.

In brain-imaging studies of drug users, as well as healthy adults placing bets, neuroscientists have found that the prospect of a reward activates the same circuits in the brain that the payoffs themselves do.

"It's not just winning the money but anticipating winning the money that is exciting, and the two experiences are similar neurobiologically," said Christine Reilly, executive director of the Institute for Research on Pathological Gambling and Related Disorders.

I'm not sure that comparing lotto tickets to drugs is the most positive metaphor they could have invoked, but the article concludes,

...In most cases all the odds and numbers seem to pale next to the simple pleasure of possible transformation.

"I don't know what I'll do if I win," one man standing in line told a reporter last week. "It's too much money to think about."


On the other hand, an article from the same paper a few weeks ago discusses the concern raised over the lottery's targetting of the most vulnerable among us, "including the poor and members of minority groups".

Specifically, the article takes aim at scratch-off tickets, which are now available in 20 USD, 30 USD and 50 USD varieties. Adopting the drug metaphor, Texas State Senator Eliot Shapleigh (D - El Paso) says, "Scratch-off tickets are to the lottery what crack is to cocaine."

Just who plays the lottery - and how much - has always been a contentious issue. As lotteries have expanded their offerings, most states have emphasized statistics showing overall participation in any type of game, which typically matches the demographics of the population.

Academic experts on the lottery, however, say this kind of analysis is misleading because it does not make a distinction between those who play once or twice a year and daily or weekly bettors.

"Surveys usually stop with the question: 'Have you played in the last month?'" said Philip J. Cook, a professor of public policy at Duke University. "They don't plumb the questions about the depth of play, which the lotteries have chosen to obfuscate because they see themselves as vulnerable on this issue politically."

The introduction of the 50 USD ticket in Texas - and evidence that blacks and Hispanics individually spend much more than whites on the lottery - has spurred criticism from legislators in heavily minority neighborhoods...

"I didn't think I'd be this concerned but it's harming people," said Garnet Coleman, a Democrat who represents a majority black district in Houston in the state legislature. "When I go to get a pack of cigarettes or a soda I'm in line behind people playing the lottery. They're not buying one ticket or five tickets, They're buying 50 or 75 dollars' worth and this is in my district, which is limited-income."

Leaving off for a minute the fact that Mr. Coleman apparently doesn't see the double-standard in paternalistically trying to prevent people from playing the lottery while presumably rejecting paternalistic arguments against the legality of tobacco products, the statistics are indeed startling. A University of North Texas survey revealed the following monthly lottery expenditure breakdown along racial lines: black - 70 USD, Hispanic - 47 USD, white - 20 USD.

Concern over the prevalence of these games and recent moves to increasingly target "heavy players" (such as the new 50 USD scratch-off) has led to something of a devil's bargain between liberal urban Texas Democrats like Mr. Coleman and Mr. Shapleigh and conservatives such as the Christian Life Commission. The Commision is part of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

"We use the facts that are the most persuasive," said Suzii Paynter, executive director of the [Christian Life Commission]. "If it's just a religious argument, people can pat you on the head."

Conservatives generally advocate the complete abolition of the lottery (which, by the way, was introduced to the Lone Star State by Ann Richards, George W. Bush's gubernatorial predecessor), while liberals like Mr. Coleman just want to see the truly dangerous high-stakes games go. "If people want to play," he says, "they're better off buying a dollar ticket and calling it a day."

I have a hard time justifying the paternalism in limiting people's options this way. There's a line in the first article that says "people who feel that the opportunities to succeed in life are narrowing are more likely to play the lottery, or play more often." The long term goal should be to make it possible for people to believe that there are opportunities to succeed beyond the caprices of a scratch-off square of paper. But in the meantime, if holding a ticket in your hand is the little extra encouragement you need to permit yourself fantasies of a better life, and if those fantasies make the life you have more enjoyable, far be it from me to deny you.

Now, I have promised a cool story, and here it is. A friend of a friend of my family's (which I guess makes her about three degrees removed from Kevin Bacon) was, like so many others, hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. She lost her house and everything in it. Also like many others, she took what little she had with her and went to Texas. Out of boredom perhaps, or desperation, or maybe just the sheer cosmic certainty that her luck couldn't get any worse, she bought a Texas lottery ticket. And won 26 million dollars.


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There are a lot of good arguments against state-run lotteries, not all of which you have mentioned. There might be a few good arguments in favor of them, including some notion of "liberty." However, it's hard to justify having the state run a lottery that essentially preys on the weaknesses of its least powerful to the benefit of the more powerful. That benefit is realized in lower taxes. For example, Georgia provides additional education support by lottery proceeds rather than by taxation. That benefits those who might pay more in taxes but don't have to, and it benefits those who are most able to take advantage of educational support. The latter group probably includes a greater percentage of people with higher incomes than lower incomes, although I have no actual data to support that.

My stats teacher in college used to call lotteries "a tax on the uneducated," and you get the impression from the article that it is also a deeply regressive tax. That would weigh against legalizing the lottery.

That being said, I had always viewed the lottery as something where you were exchanging something for nothing -- a purely economic transaction. I guess I hadn't ever thought about the psychological benefits accrued of having a way out of your neighborhood -- even if it probably is never going to happen. These psychological benefits are vital. They give people agency over events, and we know from a lot of psychiatry research that giving people agency makes them feel better.

And I agree. It is really paternalistic to advocate for the abolition or limitation of the lottery. Cohen's research also suggests that it would be counterproductive. A lottery is targeted at those who want hope. It wouldn't work if it was limited to those of unlimited income.

Fifty bucks, a buck, it's all the same to you, right?

Great argument for legalizing and taxing heroine. More revenue for the state and plenty of psychological benefits for the users. Addictive? You tell em something about paternalism and tobacco, kid.


I think there is a reasonable distinction to be drawn between lottery tickets for a buck and $50 scratch and wins. For the lottery tickets you are getting the benefits for relatively cheap, but not for the scratch and wins.

I think there is a happy medium that can be achieved here recognizing that paternalism is bad and that lotteries do have intangible benefits.

Jake Young said:
"My stats teacher in college used to call lotteries "a tax on the uneducated"
Actually lotteries are a tax on stupidity: they are a voluntary tax and so you have to be stupid to pay them.

The most important distinction I was trying to draw was that in the case of lotteries, it is the state itself that encourages this behavior. And calling not having state-run lotteries "paternalism" is intentionally using loaded terms to try to sway the reader instead of using logic. I suppose any state regulation intended to protect citizens is paternalism. I suppose that include workplace safety, product safety, food and drug safety and everything else. Personally, give me some reasonable paternalism over an absurd notion of freedom of choice.