SOLOMON: News Media Hit Jackpot With State Lotteries

By now, we're so accustomed to the spectacle of state-run gambling that we rarely give it a second thought.Lotteries have spread across the country during the last couple of decades. From sea to shining sea, the get-lucky hype is hard to miss.If people want to gamble, that's their choice. But is it proper for government agencies to constantly exhort the public to buy lottery tickets at supermarkets and liquor stores?Such questions should be debated. But most news outlets seem too caught up in lottery mania to scrutinize it. Americans get a steady stream of news and feature stories about bulging pots of gold at the end of the lottery rainbow.Nationwide, a lot of local TV stations report on the state lottery with great enthusiasm. Nightly newscasts announce the winning numbers and the size of the next jackpot. And, of course, we learn about the ecstatic winners who have become instant millionaires.If you've been reluctant to play the lottery, the state tries hard to promote the idea that you're out of step. Plenty of public-relations expertise goes into creating glamorous images for games like Super Lotto and Powerball.While few lottery players benefit from their gullibility, many print and broadcast outlets hit the jackpot. Overall, states spend a little more than $1 million per day for lottery advertising.We're encouraged to go out and buy lottery tickets on the extremely slim chance that lightning will strike. Financially and psychologically, it's quite a rip-off. In the 38 states with lotteries, total sales topped $34 billion in 1996.The lotteries are touted as a way to fund government services. But, as Money magazine has reported, "lotteries are an inefficient way to raise public money" -- with two-thirds of sales going to "administrative costs and prizes."Meanwhile, the media spotlight seldom falls on such matters as compulsive gambling and the regressive nature of collecting revenue from lotteries. Lower-income people are more apt to play the lottery and more likely to suffer as a result.Many state governments have expanded their gambling operations with flashier offerings and cranked-up promotional campaigns. At the same time, news outlets have remained upbeat about the mirage of lottery salvation.What the-lottery-changed-my-life stories don't mention is that state-sponsored gambling is no substitute for equitable taxation. Propelling a few lucky players into wealth is a lousy substitute for implementing a fair tax system.Politicians like to say that lotteries underwrite schools and other laudable government projects -- as if generating more tax dollars from large corporations and the wealthy were not an option.Amid all the media hoopla about miraculous lottery tickets, it would be helpful to hear more about the grim realities of today's tax picture. For instance: During the 1950s, U.S. corporations paid 28 percent of federal revenues. Now, corporations pay just 11 percent.During the past four decades, the top bracket of marginal tax rates for personal income has plunged from 91.2 percent to the current level of 39.6 percent. Drops in the federal tax rate for the most well-to-do have shifted more of the tax burden onto others."The richest taxpayers, who saw their income go up the fastest in the last 20 years, pay fewer taxes than they did two decades ago," points out John Miller, a professor of economics at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. "In 1996, the top 1 percent paid one-third of their income in federal taxes, well below the two-fifths of their income that went to federal taxes in 1977."Miller adds that "not all income is taxed and some income is taxed at favorable rates. It is the capital income of the rich -- from capital gains to interest on state and local bonds -- that is most often tax-exempt or taxed at more favorable rates."Rather than take on such issues, it's much easier for politicians and the news media to keep banging the drum for state lotteries. The ads emphasize that we can't win if we don't play. But no matter what, our society keeps losing.Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His most recent books are "Wizards of Media Oz" (co-authored with Jeff Cohen) and "The Trouble With Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh."

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