Bet while you booze

William Safire

January 12, 1993|By William Safire

Bethesda -- A PERNICIOUS philosophy of something-for-nothing is sweepstaking the country. Politicians push state-sponsored gambling to bilk the poor while publishers back lotteries to deceive the public.

Here in the Democratic-dominated state of Maryland, Gov. William ("Bet While You Booze") Donald Schaefer has been visiting restaurants with bars to tout his solution to budget-balancing: keno, a numbers game under state auspices that entices patrons to stare at a television screen above the bar and to try their luck.

The governor is putting the power and prestige of his office behind the exploitation of a human weakness. It raises money for worthy purposes, he maintains, firmly placing the ends before the means -- and besides, people gamble anyway.

On that theory, why not State of Maryland Official Brothels? People patronize prostitutes anyway, so why not cut out the middleman and have the state run the enterprise?

Libertarians like me believe that gambling should be decriminalized, regulated and taxed -- but certainly not encouraged by public policy. We don't want to see our governors out there hustling customers to do what is manifestly against their economic interests. Gubernatorial shilling is not just demeaning but wrong.

Fortunately for Marylanders, no Indian reservations are in the state. The Supreme Court has held that when a state sponsors gambling, it cannot deny the lucrative activity to tribes within its borders.

As a result, American Indian leaders have joined up with corporate hustlers to erect glitzy casinos on reservations. Like Mr. Schaefer, they insist that the purported end (lifting Native Americans out of poverty) justifies the sleazy means (preying on the suckers of other cultures while corrupting their own).

When the likelihood of corruption was broached in this space a year ago, American Indian leaders and their partners' lawyers complained. Now we have a report from the inspector general of the Interior Department charging that "over $12 million may have been diverted from tribes to operators and suppliers, principally because of theft and mismanagement . . . "

Interior shyly names no names. But to get an idea of the profit potential in the industry spawned by state-sponsored gambling, flip though the 1992 annual report of Grand Casinos Inc. The promoter, Lyle Berman of Minneapolis, boasts that 2 million visitors have come to the home of the Ojibwe Indians, where 1,400 video slot machines now grace Minnesota's premium fishing lake. (Grand Casinos' audit committee, its SEC form 10-K dutifully notes, did not meet last year.)

Why are the holy Savonarolas not up in arms against the enshrinement of something-for-nothing by so many state legislatures? Because many publishers are eager participants in the sweepstakes frenzy.

If you have not received a bulky envelope announcing that you are a "finalist" in the Publishers Clearing House $10 million sweepstakes, you must be demographically dead. Breathless TV spots hype the promotion; local media outlets cover the winners (never the millions of losers) as news.

Although the notice that "no purchase is necessary to enter and win" appears on the back of one of the so-called certificates, that federal requirement is cunningly circumvented by the headline "An Order Gets You Express Entry." The dodge: "If your entry comes in on time with at least one Order Coupon on it, we'll automatically enter you in every contest. . ."

The clear implication: If you buy a magazine, your contest entry -- your impossible dream -- gets preferential treatment. And if you don't buy, the promoters warn, you may not get another lottery entry.

Such august publications as Time, Newsweek, U.S. News, Forbes, Reader's Digest and Golf Digest sell subscriptions this way. No editor recoils publicly in distaste.

Why? Because too many state governors and powerful publishers go along. Unless curbed by public revulsion, the insidious propagation of something-for-nothing will explode into its next phase: keno on a sub-notebook computer, a state-sponsored casino in your coat pocket, a slot machine in your children's jeans.

The truth is that nothing is for nothing. Hard work, talent, merit will win you something. Reliance on luck, playing the sucker, will make you a loser all your life.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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