The lure of the Big Score is as American as apple pie. It started with the earliest explorations of the New World. The first immigrants expected to find gold and other riches lying around for the taking. Unfortunately, there was a lot of gold in Mexico and Peru. Spanish explorers stole most of it and spread Big Score fever across Europe.
Early English settlers expected the same luck. When it didn’t happen in Virginia, a serious morale problem developed. Gentlemen who had expected easy wealth were unprepared for the hard work of producing food and shelter in the new land. That prompted the settlement’s governor to link eating to work. Eventually, the English colonies concentrated on farming and industry as they developed the new land.
People who came to America mostly sought freedom, industry and self-sufficiency. Their farms and businesses built the nation. Yet a hunger for the Big Score simmered just below the surface. When gold was found in the north Georgia hills in 1829, crowds flocked in. Successive gold rushes in California, Colorado, South Dakota, and Alaska drew millions, changing the country dramatically. The Forty-niner became a new kind of Pilgrim. The lure of the Big Score is really a variant of the American Dream. A good friend still has a box of nuggets left by his grandpop, who went to Alaska around 1900.
Politicians soon realized that Americans’ lust for the Big Score could produce tax revenues for their states and localities. The venue of choice was gambling. Even churches joined in. By 1830, lotteries were funding 47 colleges, 300 lower schools, and 200 church groups, including most minor denominations and every major denomination except Quakers. Any city or town large enough to have a courthouse and a jail also had a lottery wheel.
The curse of the lotteries was fraud. It quickly spun out of control. There were simply too many ways to cheat, including outright theft. In 1823 Congress authorized a private lottery to fund beautification of Washington, DC. The organizers stole the proceeds and the winner was never paid. No beautification, either. After 1830, most states outlawed lotteries. Lotteries returned to fund the Civil War and Reconstruction, but corruption reigned. Responding to public revulsion, most states finally abolished lotteries by 1878.
For the next 80+ years, state and local governments fought gambling. Crusading politicians like Thomas Dewey built careers on “cleaning up” gambling and other crime. Whether gambling was legal or not made no difference to the level of activity, however. Consumer-demand ensured gambling’s continuance, but government received no cut when gambling was outlawed, just as with booze. The 1919 Volstead Act, prohibiting alcohol-commerce, produced huge illegal profits that financed organized crime on a national scale.
By the time citizens saw that banning alcohol caused more problems than it solved, the damage was done. With a large, well-funded crime organization in place, it was inevitable that gambling should come under mob-control. Most states and localities waged long, bitter battles to drive it out. I recall a news photo of a Maryland governor, circa 1964, smashing the state’s last slot machine. Around the same time, New Hampshire re-instituted the first state lottery in nearly a century. Gambling has the proverbial heads of Hydra.
Lotteries have re-boomed in the intervening 50+ years. Today, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U. S. Virgin Islands, and every state except Alaska, Alabama, Hawaii, Mississippi, Nevada, and Utah, again have state-run lotteries. Lotteries and numerous derivatives, including power ball, keno and scratch-ticket games, produce $50 billion a year.
But state-run lotteries aren’t the only legal games. Twenty-one states now allow casino-gambling, or have riverboat or Indian-run casinos. And every state but five (Connecticut, Hawaii, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee) permits slot-machines to some extent. The old machines with the mechanical wheels are gone, replaced by “video lottery terminals” (VLTs) – i.e., the electronic, push-button slot machines now common in casinos. 700,000 slots are installed in private venues, including casinos, restaurants and cruise ships.
Casino states (in orange)
Internet gambling produces lavish revenues. In 2015, online gaming grossed $38 billion – predicted to reach $60 billion by 2020. But that market is turbulent. Many credit card companies don’t want their cards used for Internet gambling, and conventional gaming establishments dislike the IG-competition. Critics cite loss of community-control, lack of regulation, and lack of business infrastructure as drawbacks. They say money is siphoned off with no benefit to the players’ communities. Child-involvement and an inability to guarantee that Internet-games are honest are also major concerns.
Estimates of legal gambling run as high as $500 billion a year. Illegal gambling costs are unknown, but might top $1 trillion. (Only seven nations have a GDP above $1 trillion.)
Gambling advertisements on TV – typically showing delirious winners tossing wads of money in the air – are as common as laundry-detergent ads were in the 1950s. The latest blitz is televised poker-matches (e.g., the World Series of Poker) where bizarre-looking dudes bet piles of money in high-stakes games. Annual winnings of these poker “superstars” are publicized, and the gambling-lifestyle is hyped.
In the Wild West’s heyday, gambling was never so big or so “mainstream” as it is now. It is truly on a roll. And – glory be! – it’s all “for the children.” (Ring out, wild bells!) Politicians answer all criticisms of gambling by reciting how much of legal gambling’s revenue funds education and other social programs.
Indeed, gambling is more mainstream than one might have thought. I know evangelical Christians who gamble (but only “in moderation”). They see no problem with losing $100 or more at a casino or track. (Mr. Obama was right: some people do have too much money.) I once heard an elder say from the church-pulpit that he had lost $10 at the track. White-gloved ladies tittered politely. It reminded me of church-goers who drink wine, but only “with dinner.” Admitting that you enjoy a beer with the guys would be unspeakably gauche.
Folks who wouldn’t dream of gambling themselves like the idea of the state raising revenues via an activity they don’t participate in. I’ve tried to square this with “rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s…,” [*] but I can’t work it out. The whole business smells bad.
Having “libertarian” political leanings myself, I’m unimpressed with the prohibition approach. We can’t just ban whatever we think is bad, as we did with alcohol, and now drugs. Why doesn’t this work? (1) The demand is huge; (2) the money is overwhelming; and (3) we’re a free society. We’re simply not equipped to exert the force needed to stamp out something that enjoys such wide public support and involves so much money. We’re not “bad” enough – not Gestapo enough! – to do it. And if we were, we wouldn’t be “free” any more. By outlawing gambling, we simply grow law-enforcement and crime into major enterprises. All the money goes to the cops and the crooks.
This doesn’t mean that I think gambling is good – or even relatively harmless. In fact, I consider it a wretched vice at both the individual and societal level. Any “leisure” activity that can take everything a participant has can’t be viewed as a “harmless diversion.” I read about a woman who gambled away everything she had, lost her job and family, entered gambling rehab, and still got a credit-line on which she borrowed another $50,000. (She lost that, too.) Stories of gambling addiction would curl your hair. It has afflicted people in my own extended family. I hate it.
So if gambling is bad, but we can’t effectively prohibit it, what can we do? If I knew The Answer, I’d run for president. But I do offer some suggestions.
1. Control. Gambling should be legal, but controlled as tobacco and alcohol (and their advertising) are controlled – only better. America’s unique flaw is banning what we think is bad. But if we realize a thing can’t be outlawed, we convince ourselves that it’s good. The Volstead Act’s failure showed us that booze couldn’t be banned. But once it was legal, we had to believe it was “good.” So we filled the glasses and stopped worrying about problem-drinking. Movies since the 1930s show people swilling booze like water: carrying hip-flasks; drinking in the car; drinking at parties, at home, and sometimes at work. The bad guys drink; the good guys drink. They drink at the table and under the table. (Let’s all have a drink.)
Today, alcohol-abuse costs the nation $300+ billion a year, but we’re after tobacco now. It’s still legal, but it’s “bad,” so we’re moving toward banning it. Taxes of $5 a pack in some places have created a booming black market. When we finally ban it we’ll be in the same soup as with drugs and (formerly) alcohol. We’re not learning anything here. We need to develop the political sophistication to let an undesirable practice or commodity remain legal, while we exert meaningful control over it. This will remove the motivation for illegal traffic, and will limit the harm to society.
2. Details. With most problems, the Devil is in the details. Gambling’s Devilish Details are its gaming-devices. They must be controlled by incorruptible parties. Gaming devices should never be furnished or controlled by the “house.” At a minimum, government must take over all quality control. It does this with foods and legal drugs. Certainly it can do so with gambling. Devices must be sealed and tamper-proof. The state’s license-decal must be visible on any device. Use of an unlicensed device should be punished severely.
3. The Internet. Quality control of Internet Gambling is impossible. Gambling is crazy by definition, but Internet gamblers are a special kind of idiot. Who knows if the Internet game you are accessing is honest, what its odds are, or who controls it? Is there a device at all? Politicians have finally realized that computer-voting presents vast opportunities for fraud. This goes double for Internet gambling. I’m reluctant to say it should be prohibited, since I just argued against prohibition, but I do believe Internet gambling must be cut off at the source. Restricting credit instruments looks like one way to do it.
4. Advertising. Decades ago we decided that cigarettes and hard liquor should not be advertised on television because of the harmful effect on children. We also stopped actual drinking in wine and beer ads. If we can do that, we can certainly ban televised gambling. It conveys an unwholesome message, telling children that they could be one of those bizarros betting (and winning) the big bucks. How many bankrolls have those guys lost, and who staked them to that money? Who even knows if those “matches” are real? They might just be actors from Central Casting playing a role. TV gambling resembles those ads where platoons of cars appear to weave past each other at amazing speeds, in close formation. It is a virtual reality. They might have been going 10 mph in reality, or they might only be computer-generated images.
I don’t want to see the lure of the Big Score supplant the true American Dream of skills, education, hard work, success, and financial independence. Gambling will ruin us as a nation, if we let it. We can control it, but we have to want to.
[*] “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21, KJV)