False Hope: The Lotto


The Lottery is a really sad expression of the realities of America for the vast majority of people who are unlucky, or just dumb (depending on your political leanings). Here we have a game where you pay something like $1 to $2 for a 1 in 100+ million chance (1/292 million if it’s the powerball) to win millions. I think it plays as a great parallel to the American experience as a whole. Why? Because of the following

  1. If you play you will probably lose (99.999999657% of the time for the powerball)
    1. Your motivations for winning are probably selfish and shortsighted anyway (“I want to travel”, “I want to live the high life”, “I want to leave x”). Whenever I ask people what they’d do with a million, it begins with consuming huge amounts of resources and ends with some thinly veiled promise to ‘give back’. As if promising to donate money will make white Jesus give you that lotto you so deserve. Don’t even get me started on charity.
  2. If you win you lose. About 70% of those who win go bankrupt within a few years 
  3. The saddest revelation of all is that rich people play for fun and poor people play for real.

The lotto is false hope made physical. It promises to give you a paradise that you’ll never reach. And even if, by some random act of God you stumble upon winning, I’d bet my life savings that you fuck it up some how. You play because of that age old heuristic ‘well someone’s gotta win it!’.  Generations of sacred wisdom from your 80 year old grandfather akin to some mental addition where you sub-consciously choose to decide that 1+1 in fact, equals 11.

To the poor, it’s a pathway to a life they will never have, but still have to watch every weekday at 7pm. The lives of the rich and famous who mimic our own so closely, except with shiny cars. We ridicule them, follow them around 24/7, but secretly we hide our jealousy that some idiot who made a sex tape is raking in more money in a week than I will in my lifetime (fuck you, Kim Kardashian). And the parallel is even worse because if the inner city poor don’t win the lotto, they’ll hedge their bets on the physical lottery of getting into competitive national sports instead of schooling (because reading is for pussies). But hey, at least there your odds aren’t 1/292 million.

To the moderately wealthy, the lotto is like the carrot we dangle from our roofs and laugh as the plebeians from below jump up and down trying to catch it. We don’t care about winning, we… “just want to find our dream job,” “really find something that fulfills me as a person.” To the wealthy, life is just another game to be enjoyed; so they major in political science and start writing obscure blog posts (“but I just LOVE what I do”).

“Maybe I’ll invest in a start up,” we’ll say as we causally spend another $100 buying overpriced mixed drinks at a bar. “I’d travel the world,” “I would give it to my family,” “I’d buy a villa in Italy and retire.” Essentially, we’d do what we were going to do anyway (it’s good to be king), except put an extra 5 million on the price tag. Oh, and we’d retire 20 years early. It’s a joke because the lotto won’t improve our life in any real way, we already have food on the table and a roof over our heads.

We buy into this dream of ‘escaping’ our reality, constrained by this oppressive, resource scarce prison. And yet, once you are actually faced with (near…) limitless resources to consume what will you do? If you’re poor, you’ll go bankrupt and probably die from murder or drug overdose. If you were wealthy beforehand, you’ll probably just blow it all on stupid stuff (I’ll still take those odds). If you are endlessly boring then you’ll do what you are normally doing now, but add a cost factor of 50 to it.

The reason is because none of us has any training on how to deal with nearly limitless resources. The fact remains that we all live our life with some training on dealing with varying levels of resource scarcity. People born into vast wealth get trained on how to use it correctly and those who are born into soul crushing poverty learn how to cope. Naturally, when you flip the situations both parties will fail miserably (there is even a nice TV sitcom about it, “2 broke girls”).

In Sum

The lottery is a reflection of our society. The poor have some probability of escaping their shitty world, but the method of escape we offer is smoke and mirrors. And to most of us, it’s a sick perverse version of a game that we don’t even need to win. But, like the prospect of a young poor kid getting into the Majors, it provides hope (except for the fact that most new national athletes have 0 budget control, so even if you make it there, surprise, you’ll probably fuck it up).

And to the wealthy? Well it’s just a real “discover your passions!” dinner table discussion primer. Just a whole lot of fun for everyone involved, ignoring the reality that some gullible, poverty stricken soul is going to forego dinner to buy more of these pointless tickets.

So yeah, keep playing the lottery. The poor can keep buying the tickets so I can funnel the money from one of the most broken, legalized gambling mechanisms in history into my equally useless, money sucking public school system (which the poor wont benefit from anyway).

So repeat after me…


Someone’s new life is just $2 away.





  1. As someone who is both moderately wealthy and a staunch optimist, I disagree with your comment about the lottery not improving our lives. I think it does, but not in a fiscal sense. Thinking about virtually unlimited funds allows us to dream with virtually unlimited possibilities. With this freedom, we are able to define the ideal life, no holds barred, and that helps us define hopes and values and have a momentary break in the monotony of our white collar lives. So what if we dream about having exactly the life we have now, plus $5 million? In my opinion, someone who dreams that is someone who is already incredibly lucky in life.

    1. Hi Voldemort,

      Thanks for the comment. What you say is a fair point, sure, I’ll concede that there are some physchological benefits to people (the prospect of hope). But how would you feel if we changed the game. Say the government increased everyone’s taxes by $2, and created a forced lotto system. So every year the government gives out $200 million to a completely random individual.

      Sure, this new system provides hope “this is my year!” but at the same time we have to ask the question, why does our society need this form of encouragement? Are we so broken that the only hope left is some 1/292m chance at “happiness”? The nice thing about the lotto is that you can choose to play or not play, however the dynamic is the same. What does it say about our society if this actually becomes a form of encouragement or hope?

      To make it more clear, why is the ability to consume and purchase anything you want the definition of hope? You cannot purchase the ability to become a great writer, or a successful business person. And no amount of money will purchase happiness (unless you are legitimately starving/on the streets).

  2. Cynicism, sarcasm, and moral aggression aside, you are correct in that the various lottos and other state run games of chance are a reflection of our society. Gambling is a behavior based on the “something for nothing” idea. It is a behavior that is reinforced by intermittent reward. And it is a promise of “luck”, an ideal that has no basis in reality, will provide. But we might ask why these state run games of chance of a reflection of our society. But in the good old days of organized crime the numbers racket was the common man’s game. The stakes were small as were the payoffs. Like betting on the ponies, the rewards were small. One could never believe that somehow one could win enough to retire from a life of toil let alone win a life of modest wealth. But in order to make the games of chance worth the state’s time and effort the state needed to attract a great many players.

    Economists love to tell us of the advantages of economies of scale. Governments love economies of scale. Business through the idea of corporations that have the “rights” of an individual human being love economies of scale. And both progressives and liberals love the idea of economies of scale so as to enlarge their efforts towards that progress of perfection of the individual and the state. Everywhere bigger is better. Except it’s not.

    Where once the local community had control over their own school systems we now have factories to produce uniform education units at what are becoming astronomical costs. Healthcare was once affordable but now is has become a monopoly for those who provide that care. Charities have become big business where salaries for those who hand out the benefits make excellent incomes. It has become almost impossible to name an avenue of human social behavior where bigness hasn’t triumphed. So you pay your two bucks and maybe you get lucky. Given the current state of economies of scale, what do you have to lose?

    1. Hi William,

      Thanks for your insightful comment. This was certainly an area I didn’t hit at, and a new spin on the parallel I attempted to paint in the post. I agree with your premise, once local control is lost, your influence in the system as a member of society gets diluted into the endless swath of nearly unimaginable “hundreds of millions.” This is brought about by economies of scale. Of course there are great benefits to this phenomena (I get more stuff per $1 now), but the relationship is a metaphorical one.

      Gambling has always been a pastime of the poor, but the national lotto is just a reflection of our society made physical and quantitative.

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