March 04, 2006

Nebraska: Powerball Win Brings Out the Worst in Media, State Leaders

Most people now know about the recent huge "Powerball" award in Nebraska-- even those of us who have no interest in Powerball or in gambling more generally. A Harold Andersen editorial in the Omaha World-Herald asks some very uncomfortable questions about why this has been such a big deal in the media:
Recall the number of times - an exact count is not necessary, of course - that you have seen the press give major attention to the winning of a large gambling jackpot. Then try to recall - you are likely to come up with zero in this case - the number of times you have seen the press report the amount of money lost by other gamblers in a predictably vain pursuit of that jackpot.
This sounds an awful lot like the Bush administration's criticism of the media's Iraq coverage, of course: how come the press is only covering the interesting, unusual stories (suicide bombings) and not the boring, typical stories (opening schools, training Iraqi policemen)? In both cases, the answer is sorta obvious: no one would watch the news if it was about the millions of everyday lottery losers and the incremental growth of a civil society in Iraq.

But Andersen is right. I bet most people would agree that press coverage of Powerball is not driven just by the all-too-infrequent winners, but by the mere existence of a big potential jackpot. Who hasn't seen local news coverage showing a line out the door at the local convenience store as people try to cash in on the big jackpot? This sort of coverage has the effect of encouraging people to take part in an activity they have statistically no chance of benefiting from. It doesn't have to be this way, of course; an Iowa paper took a better approach in congratulating recent local winners.
While we’re happy to see these women win, we hope people remember to follow their example, to spend only what you can afford to lose. Jackpots don’t grow to $365 million by themselves, it takes a great deal of people investing a lot of money and getting nothing back. Throwing a dollar aside if you have it is one thing, but we’re guessing there are some people out there who think spending $20, $50 or $100 on Powerball tickets is a sound investment, when all it does is feed the gambling beast. Just like our local riverboat casino, you should only bet what you can afford to lose. Because in most cases, you will.
But in the end, the media is not the real culprit here. Ultimately, it's state lawmakers who have decided to help balance their budget using Powerball revenues-- which means it's state officials who have to help preserve the illusion that the experience of the Nebraska Powerball winners is something other state residents might achieve, with a hoopla-laden press conference. Andersen hits it again:
As to all the hoopla that Nebraska Lottery officials helped generate: The commission's responsibilities would have been fully discharged by simply issuing a press release announcing the names of the winners and the financial details, period. It seems to me totally unnecessary to call a press conference, invite Gov. Heineman to speak and supply each of the lucky eight gamblers with a "photo opportunity" poster representing an oversized version of the multimillion-dollar check payable to each winner. The Lottery Commission's intent seems pretty obvious: Encourage more gambling by Nebraskans, in spite of the fact that the law of probabilities makes it less likely that a record-breaking Powerball payoff will strike in Nebraska again.
This is the uncomfortable, but very real, truth behind the state lottery game: state officials aren't simply extracting some benefits from a habit that has always existed and always will, as legalized advocates routinely claim. They're actively encouraging people to gamble more than they otherwise would, propagandizing for Powerball-- because once they've established gambling as part of their revenue stream, they have to do their best to ensure that that revenue stream keeps flowing. If only lawmakers would show the same enthusiasm for maintaining the health of the other taxes they adminster...


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