Friday, December 3, 2010

Lotteries -- Buying into Fantasies

Dec 2, 2010 Sheila Franschman

Picking a Winner - Sheila Franschman

Picking a Winner - Sheila Franschman

When we buy lottery tickets, many do not realize the history behind that little piece of paper. We are buying into a fantasy for a period of time. From the time we purchase the lottery ticket until the draw, we are multi-millionaires who can acquire anything, travel anywhere, even donate to charity or give away all our winnings if we want. It is only on the day of the draw that reality arrives. Very few win to live out their fantasy lives and most of us pick up another ticket to renew our lease on the dream of untold riches.

Lotteries in Biblical Times

Lotteries have been around since Biblical times. Moses won land near the Jordan River in a draw, according to the book of Numbers. We do not know if drawing lots for land was a common occurrence in these times or that this winner was famous. Today’s winners are commonly featured in newspaper articles and television reports. Is this to tell the public of the winner’s good fortune or to sell more lottery tickets?

Lotteries and Public Works

Lotteries have served many uses over the years. In China, during the Hun Dynasty (200 BC), a lottery game similar to Keno was used to raise money for public works such as the Great Wall of China. Today, it is common for the proceeds of a lottery to be used for charitable works or by a government for public works. In either case, the lottery is a form of taxation which does not hurt as much when there is a chance of winning a pot of gold at the end.

Lotteries and the Arts

The Flemish painter, the widow of Jan Van Eyck found a new wrinkle on uses for another form of lottery. She held a raffle with his paintings as the prizes. Raffles are an interesting idea. If you have an article worth fifty dollars, you can sell two hundred tickets at a dollar each to anyone interested in the article; you reap a profit of one hundred and fifty dollars. One person gets the article for their dollar and are ecstatic while one hundred and ninety nine people have lost only a dollar. That’s a good deal even today. Current prizes are exotic cars and small mansions but this is a sign of the times.

Lotteries and Government Debt

In the 1500’s, Florence, Italy awarded cash prizes in a lottery and the idea caught on. A few people may want a painting by a particular artist but everybody wants money. The idea of cash prizes became popular and spread to other European countries. In 1539, King Francis I needed money for his kingdom. He used a lottery to raise cash to help get the government get out of debt. Today, we do the same thing, although often the lottery raises cash for projects that would otherwise have to be funded by government. Sometimes the money goes into the general revenue stream to be divided amongst all the activities funded by government.

Lotteries and New Lands

In England, there were national lotteries and local lotteries. In 1567, Queen Elizabeth I set up the first national lottery and awarded prizes as well as money. A few years later, in 1612, King James created a lottery to raise money to build the Jamestown colony in Virginia. Gambling helped establish English settlers in North America.

Lotteries and the Colonies

It seemed only right for the colonies to follow the English lead, even after breaking away from European domination. Lotteries were used to fund schools and churches in early colonial times and later, helped fund universities such as Harvard and Yale. In this way, people’s fantasies were helping create dreams for a better future. Lotteries can serve useful purposes and allow many people to give large amounts of money a little at a time. As a bonus, they get to fantasize for a while of winning a prize that is well beyond what they originally put in.

Lotteries and Scams

Like everything else in history, there are always bad apples in the barrel. Some corrupt individuals sponsored lotteries but never awarded the prizes. Lotteries began to gain a reputation as sinful and evil, and movements sprang up to ban them. By 1905, lotteries were banned by the Supreme Court in the United States and people had to find new ways to satisfy their financial fantasies.

Lotteries and the Horses

The Irish Sweepstakes changed all this in the 1930’s. A lottery based on a horse race caught the public imagination and tickets were smuggled into the country and sold under the table. Winners gained money and a certain form of notoriety. Gambling is hard to stamp out with court rulings. The fantasies are necessary, especially during the Great Depression when gambling was the only fantasy that seemed to bring rewards.

Lotteries and the Olympics

The Olympic Lottery Corporation of Canada used lotteries to raise money for the Olympics in 1973 and the flood gates were open. Now, lotteries are everywhere and the prizes are becoming larger and larger. Some lotteries have prizes so huge that they are awarded over several years. Lotteries today can create multi-millionaires or create other problems.

Lotteries and Problems

Some people become addicted to the fantasy and buy more lottery tickets than they can afford. There have been stories in the newspapers about people who dream of lottery winnings to fund a lavish retirement and pour money into the scheme. Like all fantasies, winning the lottery may never happen. If you play the numbers for entertainment and keep your spending within your means, you can enjoy the fantasies and may even occasionally win. If you spend all your money on the dream and leave little or nothing for reality, you may need help with this issue. As with everything in life, moderation in gambling is the best path. Enjoy your fantasies but keep your eyes on reality.

Copyright Sheila Franschman. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

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