“Play to extinction”

In my previous post on gambling, in which I presented the economic case for “racinos” as made by the racetracks, I alluded to the moral case against gambling. Bringing moral arguments into political discussions is fraught with pitfalls, but sometimes they just can’t be avoided, and this is one of those times. What’s interesting about the fight over gambling in Texas is how it hasn’t broken down strictly across party lines, which leads to some interesting bedfellows as well as the occasional double reverse. (For instance, despite his avowed opposition to expanded gambling now, Governor Perry once explicitly supported video lottery terminals at racetracks and on Indian reservations, which is to say pretty much exactly what the racetracks are pushing for now.) That in turn means that I sometimes find myself nodding in agreement with members of Texas’ Christian conservative movement, something which doesn’t happen very often. This Fred Clarkson article gets at the heart of this.

“It is a myth” says Leslie Bernal, executive director of DC-based Stop Predatory Gambling, “that liberal and conservative religious groups can’t get along.” The same, he says, goes for the many religious and secular groups that work comfortably together all the time. “This is something I take for granted.”

The transformation of the religious community’s understanding of and response to the situation turns on two key points. One is distinguishing between what they call “predatory” forms of gambling and “social gambling,” such as church bingo nights, buddies playing poker, or the office football pool.

“Predatory gambling,” Bernal says, “is the practice of using gambling to prey on human weaknesses for profit.” He points to the highly addictive nature of contemporary electronic slot machines and video poker as the primary source of the profound “social costs” related to gambling addition. “Slots are,” he says, “designed to make you play as fast as possible for as long as possible,” and in gambling industry parlance, “to play to extinction.”

The other key transformational understanding is a growing recognition that state-sponsored casino gambling is incompatible with constitutional democracy itself. This argument is being championed by eminent historian of the civil rights movement Taylor Branch, who says that raising revenue via state-supported gambling addiction is a betrayal of the citizens and an avoidance of critical questions about our democracy: what do we want our government to do and how we are going to pay for it? “State-sponsored predatory gambling is essentially a corruption of democracy,” he said recently.

“[T]his violates our social compact, and the trust we must have in the belief that we are all in this together,” he continued. “And the first step away from it is to play each other for suckers. We’re going to trick them into thinking they are going to get rich, but they are really going to be paying my taxes.”

Read the whole thing, it’s well worth your time. It’s easy to think of casinos and slot machines and whatnot in libertarian terms (and I often do), in which consenting adults make their own choices about how they spend their own money. If that were all there is to it, there really wouldn’t be much of a case against gambling, in my view. But the fact is that the casinos make a huge chunk of their money off of the problem gamblers, those who “play to extinction” and in doing so create a host of social problems that we are unequipped, and frankly unwilling, to deal with.

(You may note there’s a parallel to another kind of legalization debate. As Mark Kleiman puts it, “The money in any drug, including alcohol, is in the addicts, not the casual users.”)

So that’s a big part of my qualms on this issue. There’s no way to capture the revenue from social gamblers without getting the problem gamblers as well, and we just don’t acknowledge those costs, much less account for them. How big a problem this represents is to some extent a matter of personal conscience. I must admit, I don’t know how many of these people we’re already dealing with, and how many more there would be if and when we make it easier to gamble right here. It’s possible the difference isn’t as big as I think it might be. But just as I believe the economic claims being made by the casino interests have gotten a woefully insufficient vetting by the press, so do I believe the costs associated with expanded gambling have been overlooked. If HJR 31 or something like it passes and we do wind up voting on an amendment this fall, I suspect some of these issues will get vetted as the various advocacy groups make their case. I just wish there’d be more discussion of them now, before the Lege takes action.

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