Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do



The urge to gamble is so universal
and its practice so pleasurable
that I assume it must be evil.
THERE SEEMS TO BE something in human nature that likes to (a) predict the future, and (b) be rewarded when right. The destinies of individuals, peoples, and entire nations have rested on someone saying, "I think it will go this way." If this tendency is not inborn, it is ingrained early on. One of the most frequent interchanges between even young children is, "Wanna bet?" "Yeah! How much?"
The leaders of big business—who already have more than enough money to live ostentatiously for the rest of their lives—often say, "I'm in business because I enjoy it. It's a game." Part of the excitement of the game is that it's a gamble; people evaluate data, make conclusions, and place their bets. (In business, it's known as taking risks.)
Gambling is as American as 1776. Guess how the fledgling colonies raised money to pay the Continental Army and fight the revolutionary war? A lottery. Gambling was perfectly legal in this country until the 1820s when, guess what? Yes, our old friends the evangelicals had their revivals and declared gambling—along with drinking, promiscuity, and all the rest—a sin against God. By 1830, most forms of gambling were outlawed. (It's a good thing for Liberty that the evangelicals held less influence in France—the French paid for the Statue of Liberty with a series of lotteries.)
The Civil War and the expansion of the West re-established legalized gambling, but by the early 1900s the evangelicals held sway again and, as they were doing with alcohol, re-established the prohibitions on gambling. (By 1910, even Nevada had outlawed it.)

The gambling known as business
looks with austere disfavor upon
the business known as gambling.
Today, we see increasing acceptance of gambling. The fund-raising through raffles, Bingo, and even Las Vegas Nights keeps many churches from openly opposing gambling, and the government can hardly call gambling a social menace: most states run lotteries. (Having the full force of criminal law enforcement to eliminate competition makes gambling not just a monopoly, but a monopoly at gunpoint.)
The major objection people seem to have to gambling these days is not so much that it's wrong, but that their towns would start looking like Las Vegas: gaudy casinos, ostrich plumes, Wayne Newton, and red velour everywhere. People don't fear gambling; they fear bad taste.
That legalized gambling would cause no threat to community standards is evident from observing the evolution of betting on race horses in New York City. The police once spent heaven knows how much money and time raiding bookie joints. Then the city opened Off Track Betting (OTB) outlets in storefronts all over the city—near schools, churches, day-care centers, you name it. The OTB outlets have hardly become magnets for crime and corruption. In fact, there's hardly a better example than OTB to illustrate that addiction to gambling is no fun. The men and women who populate the storefronts appear to be numb. When the results of a race are announced, there is no cheering. Most silently drop their tickets to the floor (ripping up losing tickets is a movie clich), and a few unenthusiastically shuffle over to the payoff window. It appears to be no fun at all. If you don't want to visit an Off Track Betting storefront, you can call your bet in, charging it to your Visa or MasterCard. Has this led to the downfall of civilization in the Big Apple? Nah.

Gambling in a big city
is like cancer.
Clap a lid on this thing
before it spreads.
When it comes to people throwing away their money by gambling, nothing could be worse than the state-run lotteries. Here we have robbery by bureaucracy. The state-run gambling odds are so bad that wherever organized crime competes with state-run gambling, organized crime is not just winning but flourishing. This is because state governments spend hundreds of millions of advertising dollars to entice new gamblers into the arena. Most people find that, after buying a few lottery tickets, they're no longer interested in that form of gambling. The government, then, needs to encourage more people who have never gambled before to begin gambling. As law professor and expert on gambling I. Nelson Rose wrote in the Los Angeles Times,

Lottery tickets are the only consumer products actively promoted and sold by the state. The state does not sell toothpaste, or even promote brushing your teeth. But it tells people they should gamble. The main marketing concern is how to attract new players, who otherwise wouldn't gamble.

Those who decide gambling is for them soon begin shopping around for better odds. They're not hard to find. Most people, however, spend their money on other pastimes. Lottery commercials are clearly targeted toward the poor. (Stockbrokers pitch their ads toward the rich.) Even if one wins a million-dollar lottery, is one really a millionaire? Hardly. Although the payoff rules vary from state to state, large jackpots are usually paid off over, say, twenty years. That's $50,000 a year. Not bad, of course, but then taxes are taken off the top. That's up to 40% of $50,000, or about $20,000. Which means an income of $30,000 per year. Still very good, but not exactly enough to buy all those things you planned to buy when you became "a millionaire," and certainly not enough to live up to the expectations of all your friends who now want to be lavishly entertained by "a millionaire." After twenty years, your money's gone. (Those who live off lotteries get neither retirement nor health benefits.) More than one "instant millionaire" regretted ever winning in the first place.

I don't know much
about being a millionaire,
but I bet I'd be
just darling at it.
One would think the government, just out of shame, would allow other forms of betting. Shame, however, is not something governments are famous for. With gambling available in many churches, every supermarket in many states, and a phone call away to any stockbroker or OTB, should it really matter whether one wants to gamble on the turn of a wheel, the turn of a card, or the turn of events on Wall Street?


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