Asking the Right Question About Lotteries

A nearly destitute rancher, living in one of the ten poorest counties in the United States, in South Dakota, just won $232 million in the inter-state Powerball lottery. He will take home a lump sum of nearly $89 million after taxes. 

More important to some — namely, those who market state lotteries and those who donate to them — is what the rancher represents: the down-on-his-luck guy who proves that if you buy a ticket (or a few of them) anything is possible. Dreams really do come true. Things will get better. Blessings fall from the sky. Etc.

The rancher and his family, credulous newspapers have reported,own neither a house nor a telephone; their moblie home was repossed last year; they owe more than $3,500 in back taxes.

Yet he purchased $15 in lottery tickets, one of which changed his life.

The right question in this case not “how does one dude get so lucky?” but, rather, “how can someone be so fiscally irresponsible — and isn’t it immoral for the government to prey on the superstitions of those least able to afford the wasted money?”

Many pundits — and right-wing hate-mongers and liberal centrists, too, it should be noted — asked the right question when our otherwise politically savvy President made a rare goof, taking his wife to dinner and a play in New York City, at an extravagantly unneccesary cost of more than $80,000 to the nation’s taxpayers. They wondered: Has he lost all sensitivity to appearances and symbolism? General Motors is declaring bankruptcy and he’s jetting off to Manhattan for some organic grub?

Our love affair with getting something for nothing, of plowing what little money we have into pipe dreams, endures no matter how clearly the underlying math of lotteries — and slot machines and bingo cards and everything else — is explained to the willing victims. Perhaps we might have a national change of heart if, instead of making the annointed few into folk heroes, we ask the right questions of losers.

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