Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

State lotteries and education

I’ve long ridden this hobbyhorse and am happy to see the NYT join the good guys, even offering this cool interactive graphic.

For me the bottom line is this: it’s ironic that a program often touted as being good for education relies, first of all, on the economic ignorance of its "core" customer base (quick: what’s the expected value of a dollar "invested" in a lottery ticket, compared with a dollar put in an interest-bearing bank account?) and, second of all, on an attitude (wishfully thinking that one can get something for nothing) that is antithetical to the connection between hard work and self-discipline, on the one side, and reward, on the other that we’d presumably wish to cultivate.

To me, lotteries indicate a failure of political leadership: they’re a so-called "voluntary tax" imposed by legislatures unwilling or unable to make the case for spending more public money on education. What are they afraid of--that the voters can’t be persuaded that the public education as it’s currently constituted is less marketable than the exploitative "entertainment" of a scratch and lose (er, I mean scratch and win) ticket?

Vouchers and choice, he whispers.

Discussions - 3 Comments

absolutely... the EV (expected value) of every dollar spent on lottery tickets is around -40 cents. All forms of gambling have a negative EV collectively but at least in games such as blackjack and especially poker a skilled player can have positive expectations that are rational.

Gambling has, for many, utility beyond the raw calculation of expected value. So for many, spending $1 gambling is preferable to $1 tax levied directly for education.

But I take your point -- in a more "manly" world the bureaucrats would make the case for education rather than trying to tart it up with a lottery such as they've done. But it's easy money, apparently, and there's nothing a bureaucrat likes more than easy money.

My complaint with lotteries is more mundane: there is administrative overhead associated with running the lottery. I don't know what the percentage is, but it's not 0%. Thus they create yet another bureaucracy with the attendant costs and expanding entrenchment.

Further still, it creates a revenue stream that keeps alive an education establishment that should, in my opinion, be starved to the point of death. Quick: what's the ratio of teachers to administrators in your district? I'll bet it's close to 1-to-1. It ought to be 10-to-1 at least.

Over time the education behemoth has grown so bloated there are in some places more administrators than teachers. There is no justification for that. Worse, most of those administrators are utterly incompetent, with make-work positions in which they can't be bothered to even do that. The City of Detroit is perhaps the most glaring example of this. It is shameful.

Yes, vouchers and choice would be nice. But we need to couple that with the stones to actually lay off or fire the unneeded and incompetent fools who populate most education bureaucracies.


Lottery payouts have been creeping up, so the expected value of the lottery dollar is now in the .60 - .70 range, but with administrative overhead, that means even a smaller proportion of the bucks going to the supposed beneficiaries.


You're absolutely right that lotteries actually help insulate the educational establishment.

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