Illinois's addiction to gambling
As I write, Illinois’s legislators have approved and its governor plans to sign a bill permitting a increase (of the sort usually described as "massive") in land-based casino gambling. Illinoisans who love games of chance already have lotteries and video poker and off-track horse betting and riverboats and, of course, gubernatorial elections. Gaming venues have not quite reached the level of market saturation as Starbucks, which (the jokesters have it) just opened a new Starbucks in the restroom of a Starbucks. But keep your eye on the news. It could happen.
More Illinoisans gamble than vote or read books or go to church every Sunday. Lottery purchases at their peak a few years ago were made in seven of ten Chicago-area households; more than a third of the adults in the six-county Chicago area reported visiting a casino within the year. Indeed, going to the casinos has become for old people what hanging out at the mall is for teenagers, another group plagued by too much free time and too much spending money.
Illinoisans thus confirm their status as representative Americans; nationwide, gambling (as measured by attendance) is near to replacing big league baseball and football as the national pastime. True, Illinoisans are not as mad for games of chance as were Asians nations earlier in this century, when as much as a third of average family income in some countries went to pay gambling debts. However, a state already struggling with the social effects of drug and alcohol abuse and gun violence does not need another popular vice.
Americans are in some ways peculiarly susceptible to gambling's allure. Psychology Today asserts that gambling is a way to rebel against the dominance that money exerts in our materialist culture. Our lack of a fixed class structure means that fate, not family, determines our futures. We are a nation of much religion but little faith, and the superstitions of the gambler differ hardly at all from the ritual of the believer, save in respectability. The casting of lots used to be a means to divining God's will; now God's will is invoked to influence the casting of lots.
The Rev. Tom Grey is the United Methodist minister from Galena who, as the executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, has been dubbed the "most dangerous man in America" by the gaming industry. Grey recently said, "We are either going to have a casino economy, or we are going to build America with good, economic justice and a quality of life we can pass on to our children." But America has always had a casino economy, as any Galenan ought to know; Galena was the classic mining boom—and bust—town of the 19th century.
The Protestant work ethic may have been needed to inure the lazy to the hard work of digging a living out of the thin soils of New England, but to a European peasant, buying 60 acres of Illinois farmland from the government for $1.25 an acre was a get-rich-quick scheme. And one need read no further than two or three pages into the history of any Illinois town before encountering a successful real estate speculator.
Not much has changed since those days, except that actually getting rich is harder to do for the average person. The expectation is little dimmed in spite of that. Ronald Reagan—beloved saint of the religious right, and another Illinoisan shaped by his environment—used to say that the great thing about the U.S. economy was not that it offered good, economic justice and a quality of life but that anyone could get rich here.
Alas, given the insecurities in the job market caused by downsizing and the stagnation of real wages, even a Lotto ticket with odds of nearly 26 million to 1 offers a better chance of making it rich than does work. But while the cheap land is gone, there is still lots of luck around, and a lot of Illinoisans have concluded that luck is what it takes to win in America. (How to explain that Bill Gates is rich and you are not, if you know nothing of computers or business?) Buying a lottery ticket is to apply personal luck in the form of one's lucky number to the processes at work in the wider world, a chance to enter a plea with the gods personally.
The fact that state- sanctioned gambling is popular doesn't make it right, of course, any more than the fact that voting is unpopular makes democracy wrong. Harvard University's Center for Addiction Studies estimates that between 3.5 percent and 5 percent of all adults exposed to gaming can be expected to develop into pathological gamblers. This is potentially a lot of families, given the high proportion of Illinois adults who play legal games of chance. This also is potentially a lot of crime, job problems and disrupted families.
The neo-conservative journal Public Interest last year stated flatly, "Legalized gambling must be discontinued." Grey's group is asking Illinois legislators to pledge to at least not support any expansion of gambling unless Illinois voters approve it via referendum.
Like so many issues that vex the General Assembly, the debate about gambling is in fact a debate about human nature. Many gambling opponents assume that at least some of their fellow citizens are incapable of informed moral choice, or are captives to their appetites. The assumption that a lot of people are incapable of freedom undercuts the basis of the modern liberal state, of course, which is the point of many of gambling's critics from the social right. Oddly for skeptics of government butt-in-ism, such critics argue in effect that family and church are powerless to teach the weak to resist temptation, and that the state must help by removing it.
Asking the state to do what God manifestly has not been able to do is asking rather a lot in Illinois. A more sensible policy will seek to mitigate the social effects of vices—alcohol use is the obvious model—that are too popular to ban. Besides, banning all gambling in Illinois would be not only impolitic but unwise.
The middle-class economy is based on gambling. From the farmer hedging his bean contract to the little old lady moving her retirement mutual fund in search of a higher return, Illinoisans gamble in every realm of life. When newlyweds buy a house, they make a big bet on the neighborhood. And paying for college by borrowing money against a job you might get or choosing a major to give you skills that might be in demand four years from now is more like poker than planning.
What some of gambling's foes mean but cannot say is that the state ought to ban gambling by the poor and stupid. But we are a nation dedicated to equal treatment under the law, and if we are to ban gambling by the poor and stupid, we ought to ban it for the rich and stupid, too. Illinois's poorer citizens spend disproportionate amounts of their money on lottery tickets, but its corporations spend disproportionately on political candidates, and no one is talking seriously about banning elections.
Denying opportunities to strike it rich through the lottery and the slots while leaving the options exchanges open ignores the fact that the poor need gambling more than do the well- off. The dream of winning big in the lottery may be only a dream for the overwhelming majority of players, but at a buck a pop, it's the only dream the poor can afford. The pleasure in playing is the anticipation of winning as much as the winning itself. Poor people are used to disappointments; it's hope that is an entertaining novelty.
Besides, while gambling by the poor may be bad for the poor, it is good for Illinois. The state gets a rebate on its welfare spending in the form of profits on tickets purchased out of AFDC grants. More important, making low- cost gambling available to the poor is a cheap way to keep the social peace. (The Romans had to stage bloody circuses to distract the poor from revolt; Pick Four thus must be accounted one of civilization's advances.) Just as the sensible government provides a bus for those citizens too poor to buy a BMW, so it ought to provide the lottery for those who cannot afford to bet on technology stocks.
That settles the issue of whether the state ought to allow gambling. Even if state-sanctioned gaming is rendered immune to complaints based on morality or political principle, however, it is open to attack on grounds of fairness. The poor tend to get less and pay more for almost everything, including gambling. Illinois has been stacking the decks, as it were, against its own citizens. By ruling that the policy rackets are illegal, for example, the state forces its law-abiding citizens to play the state's games, even though the illegal ones give better service by giving shorter odds, offering credit, and sending runners to pick up bets. Thus does the state presume to interfere in the market in foolish dreams in ways it dares not do in the market for long- distance telephone calls or elected officials.
Better that the state get out of the gambling business and let someone fleece the poor who will do it less punishingly. Let the market set the limit on the extent and type of games, with the state reverting to its traditional role of overseer in return for a reasonable cut of the take. Make policy games legal (but subject to regulation) so the odds tilt in favor of the poor. License bookie parlors. Eliminate the present ludicrous legal distinctions that make betting on running horses legal and betting on running humans a crime.
Unlike a ban on state-sanctioned games, this approach looks politically doable. The governor gets the money he wants to fund retirement benefits for teachers and raise general school funding. (Given the proportion of retirees at the casinos, this comes as close to a self- financing pension system as Illinois is likely to get.) The anti-gambling moralists get the satisfaction of watching the state renounce sin as well as denounce it. Middle-class alums get to support the alma mater in the way that really matters. And the poor get the same range of choices as the rich about how to throw away their money. That's a parlay that can't lose. ●