Sunday night on the season finale of HBO’s new news show Last Week Tonight, anchor John Oliver spent half the show attacking American lotteries, saying they largely preyed upon the poor and generally did not deliver their proceeds to the “good deeds” that they promised.
These aren’t new arguments. In fact, I’m pretty sure a visit to any high school debate tournament over the last 30 years would offer the same basic points (though without Oliver’s brilliant, equally furious and hilarious—fularious?—delivery).
What is new, perhaps, is the scale of the issue. Oliver began his piece with a CBS This Morning clip that noted that in 2013, lottery sales totaled $68 billion. As Oliver points out, “That’s more than Americans spent last year on movie tickets, music, porn, the NFL, Major League Baseball and video games combined. Which means that Americans basically spent more on the lottery than they did on America.”
The bit that most drew my attention, though, was the claim that in 21 of the 24 states that have lotteries, including my home state of California, profits did not in fact go towards education, despite those states’ claims to the contrary. In the full video, this portion of his argument begins at 10:55, with Oliver showing a CBS news report that makes this claim. Says Oliver in summary at the end of the clip (at 11:11), “Lotteries provided no additional funding for education in 21 out of 24 states.”
It’s a stunning accusation, the kind that can’t help but infuriate you.
Unfortunately, it’s also not true.
The clip doesn’t say there is no funding, but that the money earned was “down or flat”. In other words, it’s not making as much as they’d like.
So, for instance, checking the records for the state of California, in 2006-2007, the state estimated it would sell $3.6 billion dollars in lottery tickets, of which $1.27 billion would go back to education. (Most of the rest, by the way, would go to prizes. California prides itself on the fact that 94% of the money it earns goes either to prizes or education.)
In 2007-2008, the target was $3.35 billion; as per the CBS report, sales were indeed predicted to go down. And as a result, the money out for education also went down, to $1.19 billion.
But to be clear, money was still going out. Just not as much.
And that's not the biggest problem. You might be wondering, why am I using statistics from seven years ago, when Oliver is talking about the issue as it stands today. Well, the fact is the CBS news clip that Oliver uses as the foundation of this argument is actually not recent, but from September 17, 2007. And he never mentions that.
As you might imagine, a lot has changed since then. In the state of California, the state’s projected lottery sales for 2013-2014 is 4.99 billion – a 48% increase from 2007-2008. Next year’s projections are $5.4 billion.
Now (as Oliver himself likes to say) to be fair, he’s not the only one that has used this stat years after it was out of date without noting it. A quick scan on Google reveals articles and blog posts as recent as 2013 citing this statistic without noting it's from 2007.
But Oliver is not some anonymous blogger writing in his bedroom in his underwear. He’s the anchor of what is quickly becoming TV’s must-see news show, an outlet that reports on stories that no one else is covering, and does so with great insight (as well as great humor). It’s the kind of show I wish someone would do about the Catholic Church, or about religion in general. It shines a needed light.
Oliver is also incredibly likable, so much so that I kind of hate myself for writing this and am debating whether I need to go to confession when I’m done. (In fact, this piece began as a follow up to his report, investigating how California in particular spends its lottery money.)
But the fact remains, to go on the air without knowing 1) that his information was so out of date that the show could have been called Last Decade Tonight; and 2) that his interpretation of that information was also factually incorrect—well, it’s either inept or it’s dishonest.
I lean heavily towards inept, because dishonesty is the exact opposite of what Oliver stands for. (Also, there’s much in his argument about lotteries that our states need to face. Californians—a significant portion of them lower income--spend $5 billion a year on lottery tickets. The $1.3 billion of that money which goes to education makes up just 1% of the state’s public school budget. On its website the state lottery acknowledges this, saying “We concede that in the bigger picture our contributions to education are a drop in the bucket, but in this economy, every penny helps.” But given the ratio of what is spent to what is gained, wouldn’t it be better to see all those pennies kept in the pockets of people who actually need them?)
But either way, the bottom line is clear: if you’re going to call out other people as liars, you better make sure your own facts are straight. Or you’ll quickly lose all the ground that you’ve fought so hard to gain.
Given how rich and unique Last Week Tonight is, we definitely don't want that.
Jim McDermott, S.J., is America's Los Angeles correspondent.