An old friend and I were driving around our childhood neighborhood last weekend, when we passed a decrepit and long-abandoned shack along the road. I recognized it instantly. “Hey,” I said. “Remember Wally’s Ski Shop?”
“Sure do,” he said. “Wally won the lottery . . . The next day he closed up shop and took off.”
The lottery has replaced the American Dream as the way to wealth. In Pennsylvania, where it’s celebrating its 40th anniversary, billboards urge the public to “play every day.” But the multi-billion-dollar market may be reaching its saturation point, and states are finding it ever harder to sell ever more tickets. So governments must constantly come up with new games and gimmicks to fill their coffers.
The main difference between state lotteries and the TV car salesman who jumps out of the trunk waving a giant cardboard price tag is that the money the states so generously give away comes out of the pockets of their own people – and in particular of those who are least able to afford it and most addicted to trying.
Of all the hidden taxes we pay, the lottery is the most regressive. And in their frantic search for revenues that don’t seem like taxes, the governments have become as addicted as the players.
Maybe it’s time to have an honest conversation about the need to provide essential public services and a fair formula for distributing the cost of doing so. But that would be a tax, which is, of course, unthinkable. The states have a better idea.