John Oliver on the Lottery: The Odds Will Never Be In Your Favor

November 10th 2014

ATTN: Staff

In his latest episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver discussed the lottery- or what he also refers to as "the second best use of magic marker on ping pong balls after Kermit the frog's eyes." Jokes aside, 44 states currently have lotteries, and they spend spend nearly a half billion dollars a year on slick - and as Oliver notes, very tacky, deceptive marketing campaigns.

Why? Because they're a gigantic cash cow. Last year alone (in 2013) lottery sales totaled about 68 billion dollars. That's more than Americans spent on movie tickets, music, porn, the NFL, the MLB, and video games combined. (yes, you read the correctly).

If you think about it, "it's a little strange for the government to be running what is basically a gigantic gambling business, " notes Oliver. 

And he's right. "The lottery is in the business of selling people hope," says Oliver "and they do a great job of that." But the lottery is hardly an investment in achieving your dreams: the real chances of winning are 1 in 176 million. It's akin to getting struck by lightening at the same time you're getting eaten by a shark. No joke.

So why do people play, inquires Oliver? Because it's highly addictive and in many states, slot machines and video poker games are ubiquitously available. Aggressive marketing campaigns also don't help rationalize consumer mindsets toward their odds. 

So what is the justification for lotteries? Well, that really depends. In some states, lottery profits might actually enhance social services, while in others, the revenue is merely a regressive tax to fund state services that governors and legislatures utilize to decrease corporate income taxes. 

It really depends on where you want your state's revenue coming from...