Dear Adrienne and Lance,

Given the choice between buying a lottery ticket and buying a book, I urge you to buy the book. A book can educate, form, amuse, thrill, humor, explain, question and enlighten — almost certainly. A lottery ticket can make you rich — almost never.

The inspiration for this advice is a background paper published by the Tax Foundation titled “Lotteries and State Fiscal Policy,” by Alicia Hansen. The paper is, as the title suggests, about tax policy. Although not a moral essay, the paper raises some interesting points that may (unfortunately) say a lot about our culture.

It seems lotteries are nothing new; governments have been using them for centuries to raise money for big projects. China’s Hun Dynasty used a lottery to fund the Great Wall of China. King James I of England used a lottery to raise money for the colonists in Jamestown, Va. (Maybe that was to thank the colonials for naming the place for him?) And lotteries were used to raise money for the Colonial Army during our revolution.

But over the past couple of decades, Americans have raised the lottery to an art form. Forty states and the District of Columbia have lotteries. Average per capita annual spending on lotteries in 2003 was $155.33, which is a few bucks more than the average per capita annual spending on reading material.

I’m not sure which is more depressing — so much spent on lotteries or so little spend on reading. But something is clearly out of balance. And, when you consider that residents of non-lottery states spend less on lotteries, you realize things are really out of whack.

Of course, things are really, really out of whack in some places. In Rhode Island, the annual per capita spending on lotteries is more than $1,200. (In Illinois, the spending is “just” $125.64, one of the few instances I’m glad to be part of something that’s below average.)

Kids, both of you and the author of the Tax Foundation paper are better at math than I am. The author uses some fancy equations to show that the possibility of winning a big prize in a lottery is, well, somewhere between zero and nearly zilch. In fact, you really are more likely to be struck by lightening. I’m not denying that someone, somewhere, is going to win a lottery and end up on a beach sipping pineapple juice and, I hope, reading a good book. But chances are way past good that it won’t be Adrienne, Lance or Dad.

Lance, rather than spend $155 a year on lottery tickets, you could buy a Sunday newspaper every week, 45 grande lattes at the coffee bar of your choice or several very nice computer games.

Adrienne, you could buy a tall stack of paperback books or a short stack of hardcovers.

Hey, I could buy a copy of the Jeff Cavins Great Adventure Bible tapes or a color television. Or I could take mom out to dinner — a couple times at a nice place or once at an extraordinarily nice place.

Am I suggesting that buying a lottery ticket is always a bad thing to do? No. Lance, if your fraternity is selling tickets to raise money for scholarships for needy students, participate. Adrienne, if your school is selling tickets to buy new basketball uniforms, go for it.

But if you are thinking about wandering into the nearest convenience store to buy a state lottery ticket, take a detour to the library or the bookstore. You may not end up a millionaire, but you’ll be richer for the experience.

Jim Fair writes

 from Chicago.