A Lottery for Tennessee? / #7
By: Rubel Shelly

Bill Cosby is one of my favorite comedians. No, I take that back. He’s just one of my favorite people. He has a doctorate in education and has produced TV, books, and computer software for children.

When he lost his son to a murderer several years ago, he displayed a depth to his personal character and faith that made me feel good about being a member of the same race as Cosby – the human race.

Yes, his armor has chinks. And in the aftermath of the death of his son, some people tried to cash in on them. But he is a man who continues to be one of the most entertaining and best-selling performers of the last quarter century. And he recently had some comments to make about lotteries that I couldn’t help noticing in the context of the vote coming up next week on a state-sponsored lottery for Tennessee.

Cosby was onstage in Merrillville, Indiana, on Sunday, October 27, 2002, as part of a fund-raiser for the National Civil Rights Hall of Fame. It is a project for which he has worked for two decades. The hall will be located in Gary, Indiana, and will enshrine African-Americans who have been significant to the civil rights movement in the United States.

As part of his comments at a private reception for several hundred people before his show at the Star Plaza Theatre, he mentioned lotteries. “You go and buy a lottery ticket. You’ve got just as much chance of getting struck by lightning as you do of winning the lottery,” Cosby quipped. “Take that money and build something you can see . . . something for your children.”

No, he wasn’t weighing in on the Tennessee lottery. And, no, I don’t know his general feeling about the appropriateness of lotteries. But I found it interesting that when he needed to find an illustration for wasting money, acting irresponsibly, and potentially working against the future best interests of children, he picked the lottery!

I wonder how many halls of fame for any number of historic movements could be built and maintained by the money that goes into state lotteries during any given month. There are 38 states that have bet their fiscal futures on gambling in some form or other. There are 38 states that have embraced lotteries in spite of what we know about the problems that are commonly associated with them – addictive gambling, political corruption, criminal activity, etc.

Nobody has a really good statistic that I could find on the odds of being struck by lightning. Too many variables! An article a few years back in the Louisville Courier-Journal dared to estimate that the chances of being struck by lightning in Kentucky were something like 1 in 709,260 but that the chance of winning the jackpot for the Kentucky Lottery at the time of publication was 1 in 5,245,786.

Sounds like Cosby was a bit optimistic on anybody’s odds of ever coming away a big winner in the lottery. But his advice is still sound: Better to use your money for something tangible – even if it is as unglamorous as food, rent, or transportation – than to squander precious resources. You’ll have something more than a losing ticket to show for your time and expense.

I hope you will join me in voting against the lottery on November 5.