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Is the lottery more dangerous than the "Hunger Games?"

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Sat April 7, 2012
A store in Baltimore, Maryland, where a winning lottery ticket was sold last week.
A store in Baltimore, Maryland, where a winning lottery ticket was sold last week.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dean Obeidallah: The record Mega Millions jackpot became our national obsession last week
  • Obeidallah: The lottery had morphed into our own version of "The Hunger Games"
  • He says that lottery is not just a distraction but an opiate for the masses
  • Obeidallah: States should encourage people to use their money in a smarter way

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is a political comedian and frequent commentator on various TV networks including CNN. He is the editor of the politics blog "The Dean's Report" and co-director of the upcoming documentary, "The Muslims Are Coming!" Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- $640 million dollars. We all know that number. It's the amount of last week's record Mega Millions jackpot. The media coverage reached a fever pitch as the prize rose to an awe-inspiring amount of money.

I haven't bought a lottery ticket in more than ten years but even I was sucked in hoping that I could win, despite knowing that I had a better chance of dating Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston -- at the same time. But I felt luck was on my side since I had recently received e-mails informing me that I had won the national lottery of Nigeria despite my never having ever purchased a ticket.

In any event, for a few days, the lottery joined us all in a collective moment of dreaming "what if..." If you simply chose six numbers correctly, your next stop would be a mansion and being able to finally tell your boss what you truly thought of him or her.

Dean Obeidallah
Dean Obeidallah

The media bombarded us with stories examining the lottery from every angle: The odds, the ways to increase your chances, how people would spend their new fortune if they won, etc. Issues like the presidential election, the economy and the Rush Limbaugh controversy faded to the back burner.

In a way, the lottery had morphed into our own version of "The Hunger Games." It became our national obsession.

For those who haven't read "The Hunger Games," it's a popular book series which is now the No. 1 film in America. In the story, the nation is obsessed with the "Hunger Games" -- an annual event in which contestants are chosen to battle each other in the ultimate reality TV show. The rules of the game are simple: The winner is the one person who stays alive.

Our lottery, along with the "Hunger Games, " share similarities with another game of chance: The gladiator games of ancient Rome. Despite the stakes being obviously different in each of these three types of games, all are state-sponsored forms of entertainment. And all three not only amused the citizenry, but lead the public to ignore -- however briefly -- the more pressing issues of the day.

But our lottery is far more dangerous than either the "Hunger Games" or the gladiator matches. The lottery is not just a distraction -- it's an opiate for our masses. The lottery can numb people into believing that since you have a chance to become a millionaire by simply spending a dollar on a ticket, then you can achieve the American dream without putting in the real work.

This mentality can dissuade people from battling the true barriers to economic mobility that threatens our society, such as the inability of many to afford a college education due to soaring costs, the gender wage gap that allow men to earn more than women for the same job, and the income stagnation that has plagued the middle class.

Despite the astronomical odds of winning the lottery, it is sold to us by the states as a realistic way of attaining dreams of a better life. Indeed, the states play on these very aspirations with their lottery slogans, like Minnesota's "What kind of mega millionaire would you be?," North Dakota's "If you don't buy a ticket, how is lady luck going to find you?," or Washington's "Whose world could you change?"

Michigan at one time even used a class-conscious slogan in its lottery commercials: "The Rich. Join them." This tag line took into account the reality that the ones buying lottery tickets are not "the rich." You're never going to see Donald Trump, Warren Buffet or even Mitt Romney in line at a deli to buy lottery tickets.

In fact, at least 20% of Americans play the lottery on a regular basis. Those who have lower incomes buy a higher percentage of tickets. And when unemployment goes up, lottery sales generally increase as people hang their hopes on this game of chance.

The 43 states that sell lottery tickets happily take money from their residents knowing full well the income levels of those who are buying the tickets and the grotesquely miniscule odds of winning. I'm not saying that we should ban the lottery, but states should not just tout the pipe dream of winning the jackpot. They should also encourage their citizens to use their hard-earned money in a way that can make them into true "winners" -- by saving for an education or investing their salaries in things that can actually provide a return.

The lottery is more dangerous than the fictional "Hunger Games" or historical gladiator games. In those events, only a handful of people suffered. In contrast, the lottery hurts millions of Americans.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.

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