Poor folks gambling,
Bit by bit,
They lose their shirt.
In not-so-ancient times, gambling was viewed as a tool of the devil, much like sex or liquor (this was before illegal drugs). People played the horses and the numbers through convenient newsstands and accommodating runners. The mob organized this efficient system, and the judicious application of hot lead settled any disputes. Las Vegas was Satan's embassy in the U.S., where he also practiced sex and divorce.
Times change. Las Vegas has morphed into a "family entertainment" center while gambling has cleverly donned the protective garb of "recreation." Other wagering centers have followed suit, as state after state and tribe after tribe have shed religious anathema and gone for the gold. The mob wasn't so much defeated as outflanked. In response, it moved petulantly into garbage collection.
Thus the administration of the gaming industry is now conducted in art-filled chambers of government, rather than in smoke-filled chambers of crime. Some feel that's not such a big step, but at least it provides for public input. If the town fathers of Black Hawk, Colo., want to hitch their wagon to a towering casino, it gets voted on. If the gaming public in Missouri wants penny slot machines, there's formal debate. If Bethlehem, Pa., wants to try turning steel into gold by converting the abandoned mill to a casino, it's a public issue.
These high-profile decisions generate plenty of ink because average citizens see themselves as stakeholders. Maybe not so much in terms of morality, but rather in terms of taxes, traffic, crime, image, jobs and various other side effects of a profitable if ethically challenged industry.
But gambling's biggest ethical challenge doesn't come from these casinos at all. It comes from the state lotteries. Unfortunately, our nation's sainted addiction fighters normally focus their energy on challenging the big developments, rightly pointing out that each one will unleash latent demons in a certain number of nearby residents as temptation is brought conveniently to their door. Worse luck, that's the lesser enemy.
As much as casino owners love gambling addicts, public pressure has forced them at least to keep an eye out to protect such folk, and to fund support groups to help them get treatment.
Not so with the states themselves. They are totally mercenary. If we're going to extract money from the mentally ill, let's do it first-class. We'll put wagering outlets in every convenience store and gas station. We'll advertise on billboards and TV. We'll go into every poor neighborhood where people can only afford to spend a little at a time. We'll make a big deal out of the winners so poor folks will erroneously feel that they have a reasonable shot at riches.
This is how the devil has made his comeback. Only this time it's not the mob that is strewing temptation before the masses; it's us. The more we can persuade the poor to contribute to the state budget, the less the rest of us will have to pay in taxes. Hmm...that sounds like a good deal -- let's advertise some more. So what if it's regressive? Nobody knows what regressive means anyway.
Satan promotes other sly schemes as well. The recession is a hot one just now. With the resultant sag in gambling revenue, some states have chosen to throw another shovelful of dirt on morality's grave. New Jersey, for example, always in our nation's ethical spotlight, decided to reinstate smoking in casinos, looking to attract more patrons. Illinois is looking at allowing free drinks on the gaming floor. The only potentially deeper degradation of the industry would be to turn over the whole business to Wall Street. No doubt that's coming.
Minuteman Media columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Conn.