By Matthew Sweeney.
New York: Bloomsbury, March 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-1596913042, $25. 304 pages.
Review by Amanda Harmon Cooley, North Carolina A & T State University
In The Lottery Wars: Long Odds, Fast Money, and the Battle Over an American Institution, Matthew Sweeney provides a comprehensive and interesting discussion of the often polarizing issue of lotteries in the United States. Peppered with anecdotes that range from the story of the first American lottery winner to woeful tales of the lost winning ticket, Sweeney primarily takes a chronological approach to the structure of his volume. The threads that tie each of the explored eras together are the reiterations of the proponents and opponents of the ideology and actuation of lotteries, as well as an examination of the transformative effect—both negative and positive—that winning the lottery can have on people. By undergirding his narrative in this way, Sweeney provides continuity to his extensive history of the lottery.
Chapters 1 and 2 feature a historical account of the lottery in America from colonial times until the turn of the twentieth century. A key portion of this discussion focuses on the speculative lottery fever of the early 1800s and the backlash against it, which started in the 1830s and which began the process of the outlawing of the lottery in many states until the mid-1960s. Here, the book highlights a primary foundation of lottery proponents’ view, which argues the importance of lotteries as a way to bring needed money into governmental coffers, as well as a conflicting view of lottery opponents, which focuses on the negative moral, ethical, and socioeconomic components of such systems. Chapters 3 and 4 of the book detail the post-Prohibition resurgence of the lottery—first, as an underground enterprise, and, later, starting with New Hampshire in 1964, as a legal, state-endorsed and -run operation. Sweeney illustrates in these chapters the swift resulting rate of state legalization of the lottery and the meteoric rise in potential jackpots among these states, the fueling influence of media coverage of mega-wins, and how all of these factors have resulted in the creation of a bevy of peripheral businesses (from lobbying firms to corporate lottery operators to lottery cash advance companies).
From this macro-analysis, the author then turns to one state’s struggle with the issue of the lottery—that of North Carolina, which provides a microcosmic view into this complicated issue: “The North Carolina Education Lottery nearly tore the state in two on its way to being passed. As it approached its one-year anniversary, the nation’s newest lottery left scandals and recriminations in its wake, along with several hundred million dollars for education” (112). This chapter provides the most compelling discussion of the book’s overriding issues as it hones in on the divisiveness that a lottery can engender within a state and among that state’s stakeholders. Significantly, this chapter details how after eighteen years of resistance, North Carolina, which was surrounded by all sides by states that had legalized lotteries and which had potential revenues flooding out of the state into those neighboring states’ lottery systems, legalized a lottery with the one tie-breaking vote of the lieutenant governor. The discussion of the extensive lobbying efforts throughout the legislative process, the significant political fallout that resulted from the passage of the lottery bill, and the socioeconomic realities of the operation of the lottery in North Carolina cover so many of Sweeney’s themes.
In the final chapters of the book, which slightly pale in comparison to Chapter 5, the author explores the workings of GTECH, the largest corporate operator of lotteries in the United States; the issues surrounding gambling addiction; some of the actual statistics, rather than the marketing claims, of the revenues generated by state lotteries; and the fact that several states have begun regarding the allowance of private lotteries. In this final area of coverage, Sweeney concludes that if states adopt this type of lottery system, then it will result in “history repeating itself” (Ch. 9).
This book provides a fascinating look at an issue that has generated, and will likely continue to generate, a tremendous amount of conflict. Like any complex issue, the lottery is a substantial one to take on in a single volume. Sweeney does an effective job of providing broad coverage to this thorny subject matter, but his prose is at its best when the author dedicates an entire chapter to the complex intricacies of one state’s debate over the lottery. The themes in this detailed discussion can be significant precedent for future state lottery issues. As such, given how prevalent lotteries currently are in the United States—with all but 8 states having legalized them in some form—and the gravity of the derivative issues that can arise as a result of the adoption and implementation of a lottery, this is an important volume for policymakers, consumers, business professionals, and academics.