Archive for Monday, June 28, 1999

AMERICANS EMBRACE GAMBLING

June 28, 1999

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— Having studied how fast and far the horses have bolted from the barn, the National Gambling Impact Study Commission's report suggests tinkering with the wide-open barn door. The report is a reminder, as the post-Littleton culture wars rage, that legislating to regulate cultural change is like lassoing a locomotive with a cobweb.

Last year Americans spent about $7 billion on movie tickets, $26 billion on books of all sorts, $450 billion on groceries. Gamblers in America wagered more than $630 billion legally -- in state lotteries, casinos, slot machines, video poker and keno, etc. -- and lost $50 billion in the process.

Gambling has been swiftly transformed from a social disease into social policy. A generation ago, legalized gambling was rare and generally stigmatized. Today it is ubiquitous -- 68 percent of Americans gambled at least once last year, often egged on by the 37 state governments that run lotteries.

Those lotteries prove, redundantly, that it's better to deal with the private sector than the public sector. In casinos, slot machines are the gamblers' worst bets, and even they keep only about 15 percent of the money fed them. Government keeps about 50 percent of the money spent on lottery tickets.

Often lottery revenues are dedicated to education or some other popular goal. But money is fungible, and it is difficult to demonstrate that the availability of lottery revenues substantially increases spending on, say, education -- that is, that those revenues actually change states' spending priorities.

In the 1998 election cycle the "gaming industry" contributed $6.2 million to federal candidates and the national parties, double its contributions in the previous midterm cycle. A safe bet: Government will restrict gambling only in ways the most muscular gambling interests want it restricted.

Those interests are the casinos of Las Vegas. The commission recommends a moratorium on the spread of gambling. Las Vegas might like a moratorium on the spread of competition, but states that are late in boarding the gravy train would not.

The commission urges state legislatures to ban political contributions from gambling companies to state and local candidates. New Jersey has such a law, but any legislation abridging the rights of a single interest to participate in politics is constitutionally suspect.

The Supreme Court recently overturned the 1934 ban on broadcast advertisements for casinos, affirming the principle that the First Amendment generally protects "truthful speech about lawful conduct." The Clinton administration favored the ban, citing "devastating social costs" of gambling, particularly those associated with pathological gamblers.

But the Court said there is no excision from First Amendment protections that apply to "vice products." Besides, can government label gambling a vice, now that governments do most of the advertising to exhort Americans to gamble, in government-run lotteries?

There is potential trouble for the industry -- including lottery-promoting governments -- in the commission's estimate that there are 5.5 million compulsive or addicted gamblers, more than there are users of hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Today, when every human problem or failing is medicalized, considerable confusion can be packed into the words "compulsive" and "addictive."

And it can be unpacked, for profit, by the sort of trial lawyers who, in collaboration with dozens (so far) of city governments, are suing gun manufacturers to "recoup" the costs of gun violence. It will be condign punishment if New Orleans, which is suing gun manufacturers and has casino gambling, gets slapped with a class-action suit on behalf of gamblers seeking compensation for government's contribution to their (in the American Psychiatric Assn.'s language) "disorder of impulse control."

Gambling is as American as the Gold Rush, the boom in Internet stocks, and other quests for quick riches. George Washington, who deplored rampant gambling at Valley Forge, supported a lottery to help build the city that bears his name. Lotteries helped build Jamestown, Gen. Washington's army, Harvard, Princeton and Dartmouth.

Time was, Americans probably gambled because life -- getting to America; getting across America, through Comanche territory; getting out of the mills and mines in one piece -- was a gamble. Perhaps nowadays gambling appeals because the rest of life is enervatingly predictable. State-run lotteries -- government manufacturing delusions and, occasionally, mass hysteria -- attract low-income players, exploiting their fatalism and what is called the "pathology of hope."

Conservatives rightly associate the culture of gambling with habits of mind inimical to self-government. However, when they ascribe gambling's explosive growth to government's ravenousness for revenues, they neglect their possible complicity. An indiscriminate celebration of wealth, disassociated from concern for the moral worth of the ways of acquiring wealth, may help explain why gambling and conservatism have waxed simultaneously.

-- George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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