Right this moment, there are four channels on my television showing different poker tournaments. The nearest gas station doesn't have biodiesel, but they sell ten kinds of lottery tickets. Most of the attractions that lined St. Louis' riverfront when I moved to the city are gone, but four blocks of downtown are being replaced by a huge new casino. It'll compete with the new casino that flashes and glitters on the Illinois side of the river.
The NPR program On Point had a program this week about the rapid growth of gambling in the United States. In less than a generation lotteries and casinos have swarmed over the land. The progressive position in most locations has been if not "pro-gambling," at least "gambling tolerant." After all, even those of us without libertarian leanings are still likely to be strongly in favor of individual rights. I know that I wasted twenty dollars at the first Yearly Kos trying to play poker at 3AM when my ability to even discern the numbers on the cards was severely limited. The idea that we should have shunned the tables never occurred to me at the time.
But there are some good reasons that progressives might want to rethink our position toward gambling. Reasons that have nothing to do with "sin" or with any of the traditional evils (crime, drugs, women in spangly costumes, David Blaine) gambling might bring to a community.
- Gambling spread rapidly starting in the 1980s at the same time that Reagan took the stage. This might seem counterintuitive. After all, aren't conservatives supposed to frown on gambling? Maybe, but decades of experience have shown that conservatives really have only one commandment that counts: thou shalt cut taxes. Everything else is secondary. With trickle-down economics trickling away the budgets of states and localities, most conservatives were more than willing to look the other way as lotteries and casinos filled in the budget gap left from vanished taxes.
- Gambling is intrinsically regressive. A casino is nothing but a very large machine, and the purpose of that machine it to extract money and bring it to the casino owners. By its very nature, gambling cycles money from the poor to the rich. This would still be true even if the rich participated in gambling at a higher rate than the poor -- which they don't. In moving a state's or locality's funding from taxes to gambling, the rich gain enormously more than the poor.
- Gambling places all importance on chance, and in doing so it devalues work. In fact, it makes it much easier to keep paying people miserable wages when they get to rub off a few magic tickets each week. And stories of the janitor who won ten jillion dollars are just what you need to keep people happy with their lot. Mix in a few stories of the guy who would have won a billion, only he didn't buy a ticket with his newly rich buddies that week, and you have a perfect mix to keep people worshiping at the quick-pick altar.
We're at the point now where gambling isn't just accepted, it's worshiped. Democratic lawmakers in Illinois are fighting to add more casinos so they can fund the budget. Poker players are treated as superstars. School systems are run on lottery revenue.
Is there any way for the Democratic Party to extract itself from this bad bet? Could Democrats snag more of the Christian vote by opposing gambling in favor of fairer taxes? Or is America so addicted to gambling, that there's no point trying to stop it?