A lottery is a gambling game in which a large number of tickets are sold for the chance to win a prize. The prizes are usually cash or goods. The games are operated by governments and are subject to strict rules. They can be a lucrative source of revenue for states and other entities.

In his book, Cohen explores how the official lottery became an instrument of state power in the modern era. It began, he writes, when growing awareness about the money to be made in the gambling business met with a fiscal crisis in state budgets. In the nineteen-sixties, state funding wilted under the strain of inflation, a swelling population, and the cost of war and social safety net programs. Governments faced a choice between raising taxes and cutting services, options that proved extremely unpopular with voters.

Lottery organizers responded to this political reality by changing the way they framed their message. Rather than arguing that a lottery would float a state’s entire budget, they now claimed it would cover a specific line item–usually education, but sometimes elder care or public parks. They also sought to tie the lottery to a popular, nonpartisan cause, such as veterans or crime prevention.

The result has been a reshaping of public opinion about the lottery, from a serious and even sinister enterprise to a fun and harmless game. It’s a game, after all, that offers the chance to become rich overnight, and that appeal resonates with people in an era of inequality and limited social mobility.