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June 30, 2004

Gambling on Gambling

Gambling, of itself, isn't sinful as far as I'm concerned. Yes, having a somewhat addictive personality, I've noticed the aftertaste of the temptation that it represents. Yes, the first notable scene that I came across upon entering Foxwoods Casino's parking lot in Connecticut when I was in college was an older couple — cusp of retirement, I'd say — crying in each other's arms.

Still, a night of roulette, blackjack, and slot machines, with a reasonable expense cap, isn't wrong or corrosive in the way that a night costing the same amount at a brothel would be. For some patrons, the all-you-can-eat buffet is the more seductive opportunity for excess.

So, I've been more or less ambivalent about the matter of allowing a Rhode Island tribe to build a casino on its land. For one thing, I know families that have suffered the consequences of a gambling addiction facilitated by just the Jai Alai enterprise in Newport, so any state policy toward a full-blown casino can't stand on anti-gambling principle. If the objection is to the greater draw that a casino would have, then it seems to me that regulating size is the logical answer.

For another thing, as much as I don't believe gambling to be an undeniable sin, I'm not comfortable with governments' seeing it as a source of revenue. Whether or not a casino yields a public profit seems to me irrelevant to the yes/no question of whether one ought to be allowed in the state. Of course, as Marc Comtois points out, Connecticut is finding that its casinos are expensive for the surrounding areas. This, however, seems another cause for creative regulation, to pass the expenses on to the company. Making area security, road repair, and adequate employee housing and education direct costs of doing business would prevent shuffling of the bill to local communities that receive inadequate reimbursement from the state government, which collects the revenue.

Perhaps the strongest argument against a casino is that it would attract a bad element from elsewhere and would concentrate Rhode Island's homegrown hoodlums. To be honest, I'm not sure that this wouldn't be true of any major attraction, regardless of its nature. Moreover, I was amazed at the distance that Foxwoods-goers had to travel through town roads to find the joint, so it could be that choice of location and direct access to a highway would answer most of the concerns of nearby towns.

It's probably a flippant attitude to take, but I have to admit amusement at the degree to which this issue traps various parties — many already corrupt — in their own decisions. From what I understand, other gambling facilities have been buying not just legitimacy, but special deals from the state's politicians. For its part, beyond the addiction to revenue from gambling in the form of lotteries endemic among states, Rhode Island has mainlined its fixes from Jai Alai and the Lincoln Park dog track. On top of this must be layered the strange arrangements that America and its states have made with Indian tribes over the centuries.

So, ultimately, I agree with Marc that it is for the people of Rhode Island to decide whether they want a casino to be a partially defining aspect of their state. And it's for the various parties to either regulate or find ways to compete as they're able. Which way I'll vote, I'm not yet sure. Allowing a casino could prove to be a bitter pill of disruption that will help to knock the state back on track.

ADDENDUM:
Sorry if this post isn't as strong and/or clear as it probably should be. As you can tell, I'm still working out my thoughts.

Posted by Justin Katz at June 30, 2004 10:59 AM
Culture
Comments

Justin,
I remarked on your gambling ambivalence and 'trackbacked' to you. On second reading, I fear I may have implied that I think you have slipped morally because of your ambivalence on the issue. I'll attempt to clean it up as soon as I can, but time doesn't allow for it now. If I have needlessly prejudiced your opinion on the post prior to your reading it, I apoligize, but I thought you should know that I believe I need to revise the post a bit to properly cast what I believe to be your position. In short, I fully understand your ambivalence and I did not mean to imply that you are a proponent of marijuana usage (though you may be ;) Later, Marc

Posted by: Marc Comtois at June 30, 2004 4:16 PM

As far as I can tell, the negatives to gambling sites far outweigh the benefits. It's basically a mechanism for taking money from a lot of (mostly poorer) people and giving it to a small number of rich people. Note that this also takes money from other local businesses. This includes the Indian casinos, since many of them are run by outside interests, and there are casinos like Foxwoods on reservations with fewer members, while large nations like the Sioux don't make much money from gambling because they are in sparsely populated areas. The money going to the state is wasted, because there is even less accountability than usual with tax money (for example from state lotteries).

It seems to me that we had a fairly good situation, with gambling restricted to Las Vegas and Atlantic City. That way, it didn't have to be banned entirely, but it was restricted in scope. Now with the internet and Indian casinos everywhere, gambling is much more pervasive, and much more damaging. I would take a stand on principle and vote against the casinos in RI, for what its worth...

Posted by: Mike S. at June 30, 2004 5:04 PM

I would argue that gambling is far more harmful to society than homosexuality is.

Posted by: Joel Thomas at June 30, 2004 7:38 PM

The question is whether gambling is inherently bad in all cases, or whether is only bad when it's done wrong.

If gambling is sometimes good, then you get drawn into complicated math problems, historical data on other casinos, and arguments about whether the casino will adhere to the "correct" gambling model.

If gambling is a priori always harmful, then skip the data and assumptions. Gambling is simply harmful in any incarnation, and the way it's done simply determines the magnitude of the harm.

I'm not passionate on the issue, but I tend towards categorically rejecting gambling. It doesn't do anything useful, and it frequently does an awful lot of harm. It's basically a tax on stupidity, which is the sort of viciously regressive tax that both liberals and conservatives should reject out of hand. Only rabid libertarians would think that we should stand idly by while people destroy themselves.

The response to that would be: Gambling gives people pleasure, and who am I to judge how important their pleasure is? The response to that argument requires a much broader discussion on the proper role of pleasure in life.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at July 1, 2004 3:29 PM

I'm not a fan of gambling, myself; I find it a poor example of stewardship, and moreover seems to indicate more trust in "luck" or fate than in God who should be providing for you.

Posted by: Jeremiah at July 1, 2004 4:40 PM

Marc,

No problem. I didn't take it as cutting.

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Mike,

I agree regarding Atlantic City/Las Vegas. I guess the conclusion to which I come with this post is that I believe the tribe ought to be able to put together some kind of establishment, but that it ought to be restricted in size in some way (more akin to the Jai Alai or dog tracks). Since the vote seems to be all or nothing, I'll probably vote "no."

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 2, 2004 8:20 AM