On Legalized Gambling

Who would have expected that a lesson
in promoting public morality
would come to us from Russia,
the heart of what the great communicator,
Ronald Reagan, called the “Evil Empire”?
Who would have guessed the point man for
protecting imprudent citizens from exploitation
would be Vladimir Putin?

Here is the story in brief. In 2006, Putin
proposed to end legalized gambling in
Russia. With the demise of the USSR in
1991, enterprises good and bad sprang up
all over the former empire. In particular,
gambling flourished. According to the Russian
press, Moscow alone had 29 casinos,
500 gambling parlors and 14 bookmaking
offices. In Russia at-large, the end of legalized
gambling would cause a half million
workers to lose their jobs. Despite lobbying
by the gambling interests, Putin stayed
on the issue after moving from president to
prime minister. As the deadline loomed,
President Dimitri Medvedev asserted, “It is
absolutely certain that these rules are to
take effect in due time. There will be no
revision of these rules or backtracking….
That’s the position of the state.” Remarkably,
the state followed through.

In American society gambling keeps
growing. What is its essence? It is the
idea of putting money, a bet, on an external
event outside one’s control, in the hope of
getting something for nothing. The gambler
does nothing constructive to generate
wealth. It is not a chancy investment
that puts an entrepreneur into a possibly productive business. Rather, the gambler
challenges the providence of God, in whose
hands are all this world’s outcomes, to a
fateful outcome. “Do not put the Lord your
God to the test,” Jesus told Satan during
his wilderness temptations.

A long time ago in a state far away, a
combination of speculators and Nevada
politicians cooked up a scheme to fleece
outsiders (there were hardly any residents
of Nevada at the time) with a combination
of gambling and entertainment. We Cards anyone?
have visions of busloads of grandparent
types brought in to feed quarters to the
slot machines. Blue haired ladies holding
their plastic cups of coins while anchored
in front of one-armed bandits, wreathed in
cigarette smoke. Fast forward to our day.
Now the casinos offer “family entertainment.”
You don’t bring quarters anymore.
The machines accept credit cards. While
you are at it you can wager on the horses,
the boxers, the sports teams, both professional
and college, as well as on the cards,
the dice and the wheels.

For me, trained as a political observer,
the greatest sense of outrage comes from
seeing our democratically elected leaders
cave to the special interests that have sold
them a bill of goods. Publicly forbidden a
century ago as part of the social agenda of
the “Progressive Era,” we have seen the legalization
of gambling during the last half
century in almost all the states. Our governments
have legalized pari-mutuel betting
on horses and dogs, “charitable” bingo,
state operated lotteries, casino gambling,
enlarged betting opportunities in off-track
locations, sports gambling and on-line poker.
The list goes on.

Not only have gambling opportunities
grown, but its marketing is ubiquitous.
State advertised lotteries use television to
select winning numbers during the late
news. What a marketing deal for the state!
Gambling obtains legitimacy when our media reports winning lotto numbers, or lists odds for sports events and the record payouts for various winners. Meanwhile
the gambling promoters have lightened up
the gambling concept. It’s just “gaming”!
Notice televised poker, shown as a harmless
sport. Public opinion from the Pew
Research Center reported in 2006 that 51
percent of its poll respondents approved actions in their states to legalize betting as a
way to raise revenues. Are anti-tax Christians
among those willing to tolerate the
gamblers paying the states’ bills?

The social complications pile up quickly.
Family breadwinners lose money from
the family budget intended for real necessities.
Gambling thrills are emotionally addictive.
Once behind, the temptation is to
double the bet to get the losses back. This
leads to financial ruin. Shocking losses
don’t stop addicted gamblers. They max
out their credit, borrow from others, dig
into retirement savings, even steal. (Embezzling
is commonplace among gamblers
who have responsibility for other people’s
money.) Gamblers suffer other addictive
behaviors–alcohol, smoking and drug use.
Gambling on legitimate sports has a corrupting
effect by raising the stakes in winning
and losing. Gambling insiders seek to
put in the fix, transforming their bets into
sure things.

Sadly, among gambling’s most helpless
addicts are our state governments. The US
Census Bureau’s most recent report indicated
lottery revenues alone totaled in excess
of $67 billion. Any arguments against
more legalized gambling are answered by
those who say, “Revenues from gambling
pay for the schools. We cannot raise taxes,
but we can get more revenues by allowing
more gambling.” The politicians fear the
wrath of the teabaggers, Christians included,
whose unreasoning opposition to just
taxation is part of their own quest to get
something for nothing. Unfortunately, governments
largely ignore the social costs inflicted
by serious gamblers and the regressive
burden put upon the poor people who
buy state sponsored lotto tickets. We who
believe our society is better for having free
public schools should shoulder the burden
of just taxation to finance good education
along with other appropriate collective social
burdens.

Next I add a touchy point. I cringe
when I hear about bingo events, raffle tickets,
and other games of chance sponsored
by civic organizations and even within
faith communities as a means to raise revenues.
They too are rationalized as being
“for a good cause” and not very different
from buying cookies or candy from youth
organizations. But raffles and other games of chance tell our young people that gambling
is all right. Should godly causes offer
chancy thrills of winning?

Certainly, gambling will go underground
in Russia. But the Russian state,
with leadership from the top, has sent a
powerful message to its people. It says that
the way to wealth and well-being is through
productive enterprise, not by trying to get
something for nothing.

In our country the states’ slick television
ads nourish hope among many, especially
the poor, that for the risk of only
a couple of dollars there is a jackpot in
the offing. Let the good times roll! Forget
hard work. Saving is for suckers. Why
sacrifice for the future when the future
is now? This is the most regressive tax
policy of all, legislated with the consent
of the governed–that would be us. Would
that our politicians emulate the Russians
by removing the scourge of legalized gambling
from our land.

Jack R. Van Der Slik is emeritus professor of political
studies and public affairs and former director of the
Illinois Legislative Studies Center at the University of
Illinois at Springfield.