Whether for kindergarten admission at a prestigious school, a chance to occupy a subsidized housing unit, or the opportunity to take home a first-round NBA draft pick, lottery is the way people play for their dreams. But it’s also the way they buy into a fantasy of unimaginable wealth, and that has consequences.

As Cohen writes, the lottery’s rise corresponded with a decline in financial security for working Americans. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, income gaps widened, pensions and health care benefits eroded, and the promise that hard work would allow children to do better than their parents seemed to be coming true for far fewer of them.

State governments that introduced lotteries framed them as a source of “painless” revenue, wherein players voluntarily spend money to benefit the community at large. And they did, in fact, raise plenty of cash. But that money dwindled over time, and, as the economy worsened in the early twenty-first century, states found themselves facing budget deficits they couldn’t afford.

To combat this, the industry started innovating. New games were invented, and revenue growth accelerated—until it began to level off and eventually fall. This has led to a series of political and economic controversies, from concerns about compulsive gambling to the alleged regressive impact on poorer neighborhoods. But the biggest controversy of all may be what the lottery represents about human nature and our expectations for life. For if we were expected to be completely rational, the lottery wouldn’t make any sense at all.

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