The New York State Lottery began in 1967, and has generated over 34 billion dollars in lottery aid for educational purposes. In that time, it has rebutted longstanding ethical objections to gambling by arguing that since people would gamble anyway, the state might as well pocket the profits. The logic sounded good to voters, including many African American numbers players, Cohen writes, who thought it might ease their friction with the police, who sometimes used numbers games as justification—not just for questioning but also for arresting and jailing people.

In fact, though, the lottery isn’t so different from other forms of gambling. People go in clear-eyed about the odds, and they know that winning is a long shot. Yet they still fall prey to irrational thinking, buying tickets at the wrong stores or at the wrong times, or believing quote-unquote “systems” that aren’t based on statistical reasoning.

Moreover, even after the state lotteries are run like businesses, they’re not above leveraging psychological tricks to keep people hooked. They market the lottery as a civic duty, encouraging gamblers to feel they’re doing their part to help the poor. They tout how much the lottery makes for the state, but never mention that it’s only about one per cent of total state revenue.

Lotteries, of course, don’t do much to reduce poverty in America, but they do make it harder for politicians to raise taxes. That, in turn, undermines their ability to fund the public services that they’re obligated to provide.