Lottery is a game in which players buy tickets, select numbers, and win prizes if enough of those numbers match the ones randomly spit out by a machine. It’s a wildly popular pastime, with tens of billions of dollars being awarded annually. It’s also a source of controversy and a major source of social instability, with players often falling into addictive behavior and families struggling to cope.

Cohen begins his book with an intriguing historical tidbit: Throughout the Roman Empire, lottery-like games were used to distribute gifts during parties known as Saturnalias. Typically, the giveaways involved fancy dinnerware; each guest received one ticket and the winners were selected by drawing lots. These early lotteries were deployed primarily as amusement, but they also served a practical purpose, such as divvying up property or slaves after a death.

In the United States, the lottery grew into an enormous business during the first half of the nineteenth century as a means of raising money for public works projects. This popularity owes in part to the fact that America’s early history was defined by exigency. Despite strict Protestant prohibitions against gambling, lotteries were popular in the colonies, where they helped finance everything from civil defense to church construction. The Continental Congress even tried to use a lottery to fund the Revolutionary War.

Unlike the modern version of the lottery, which largely offers cash prizes for matching certain combinations of numbers, these early lotteries offered anything from slaves to land grants. As a result, they became deeply entangled in slavery in ways that would have been unthinkable in today’s anti-gambling era. In the end, though, they were able to raise enough capital to pay for infrastructure and even to help subsidize the education of enslaved people, including Harvard’s founders and the founders of Yale.

As a result, it’s no surprise that the popularity of the lottery has waned in recent years. But what’s less apparent is how much work is being done behind the scenes to keep the system running. There are countless employees who design scratch-off games, record live lottery draws, and maintain websites, and they all deserve to get paid. Unfortunately, the bulk of winnings are sucked up by commissions for lottery retailers, overhead costs for the lottery system itself, and state taxes.

To make a lottery more competitive, states have started to narrow the range of what’s being gambled on. Instead of arguing that legalizing the lottery will float a state’s entire budget, advocates now promote specific line items, such as veterans care or education. This makes it easy for voters to support the lottery without expressing support for gambling. The idea is that, in a world dominated by austerity and deficits, a lottery seems like an appealing way to fund the things we all need.