Gambling on the Future

The state where I live, California, needs money to pay for massive infrastructure improvements, a sprawling penal system whose budget is larger than most sovereign nations’, and the salaries and pensions of a bloated bureaucracy. Our movie star governor, Arnold Schwarzennegger, has a plan. Rather than issue more municipal bonds, the interest on which must be paid, even if it’s 12-15 years from now, our leaders want to privatize the state lottery. 

They want to sell this lucrative license to steal to a group of investment bankers who figure they can wring more money out of hapless gamblers than the state presently does.

For something like $40 billion up front, the new lottery proprietors would get to operate the larcenous drawings and scratch-off games that, in addition to providing hours of gambling fun, help fund our schools. Around a third of the lottery proceeds goes directly to “education,” where, apparently, rudimentary mathematics are taught very badly or not at all. Of all the gambling ventures one could waste money on, the state lottery is by a clear margin the worst. The “house edge,” the amount not returned to players, is nearly 50%. The average dice, blackjack, or baccarat game is closer to 1%. Terrible games like roulette and Caribbean Stud Poker are slightly more than 5%. Most slot machines are set between 6-12%. And the real stinkers, like keno and horse racing are 20%+. The state lottery is more than twice as bad a play as the worst gambling venture, and almost 50 times worse than the average casino game.

Eventually the poor and uneducated folks who purchase the bulk of lottery tickets will get hip to these startling numbers. (And some of them will even stop playing.) As a taxpayer who stands to benefit from a huge infusion of Wall Street money, I endorse the governor’s plan to sell off the lottery franchise. But we ought to take a small portion of the proceeds and conduct a statewide advertising campaign discouraging our citizens from playing the sucker’s game.

OK, so these public service messages haven’t stopped people from ingesting drugs or having premarital sex. But if you plastered billboards everywhere that said, “If you play the Lottery, you’re an idiot,” someone might notice.

And if it worked, what a mirthful and wry scenario that would be: the treasury fixed, the populace enlightened, the schools freshly painted, and the robber barons wondering why no one wants to play their shell game. Frank Capra couldn’t have filmed a nicer fable.

The lottery’s new owners would be displeased, naturally. But no one ever said crime was supposed to pay.

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