Gambling with Our National Character

GEORGE F. WILL

February 08, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- If life is, as a poet said, a sum of habits disturbed by a few thoughts, we should think clearly about those habits we deliberately develop. Consider the rapid spread of legal gambling.

Until 1989 just two states, Nevada and New Jersey, had casino gambling. Then such gambling returned to Deadwood, South Dakota, where in 1876 Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back while holding a poker hand. Since then 11 more states have legalized some casinos. Staid Minnesota today has more than New Jersey.

Lotteries helped to finance Jamestown, the Continental Army, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton and many public works. Today 32 states and the District of Columbia have government-run lotteries which in 1991 siphoned up $17 billion. Forty-seven states participate in some form of gambling.

Fifty-two Indian tribes in 17 states (so far), exploiting a Supreme Court ruling that states do not have regulatory powers over tribes, are operating casinos and bingo operations grossing $6 billion annually.

States cannot tax Indian casinos, but can profit from them. For example, a Connecticut tribe -- whose casino, a three-hour drive from New York City, soon will employ 10,000 -- has struck a bargain with their state: The tribe will give a projected $100 million annually to Connecticut as long as not even a single slot machine is legalized off the reservation.

Around the nation some cities are contemplating ceding parcels of land to Indians as ''reservations'' where gambling would be legal and the cities would get a cut.

In Tunica County, Mississippi, America's fourth-poorest county in the 1990 census, unemployment has been halved, largely because of a riverboat casino. (Four other states also have riverboat casinos.) It may net the county $2 million annually, a sum about the size of the county's current budget.

Five states operate keno and two others are flirting with it. Maryland hopes to raise $100 million this year from keno gambling. Maryland keno is a high-speed video lottery offering bets every five minutes on monitors in 1,800 bars and other places. Supporters of this say to critics: If you object to this windfall from the behavior of consenting adults, what taxes you propose to use to compel a similar sum from reluctant citizens?

In 1991 gross revenues from legal gambling nationwide were $26.7 billion, more than five times the box office of the domestic movie industry. States received only 2.4 percent of their revenues from lotteries, but this sum -- $7.5 billion -- net was not trivial.

Are there social costs from all this? Lots, beginning with the ruinous -- to health, work and families -- excesses of compulsive gamblers. These are people susceptible, perhaps for psychological or even physiological reasons, to what the American Psychiatric Association calls ''a disorder of impulse control.''

Now, classifying such destructive behavior as a ''disease'' can be a tactic for attaining access to government and insurance money, and can further attenuate the notion of individual responsibility. And calling a behavior ''addictive'' is problematic. But research suggests that some compulsive gamblers are peculiarly prone to a ''high,'' like a drug user's, from abnormally elevated levels of endorphins in the blood when they are excited TC by gambling. For such people, gambling truly is ''suicide without death.''

Furthermore, state-sponsored and advertised and hyped lotteries are exploitative. Per-capita sales of lottery tickets are higher in poor inner-city neighborhoods than in suburbs, and the disparity is even larger when lottery spending in poor and affluent neighborhoods is compared as a percentage of household income.

Michael Berberich, writing in Notre Dame magazine, recalls with appropriate disgust an Illinois lottery billboard in a Chicago ghetto: ''This Could be Your Ticket Out.'' Thus does government peddle a spurious but tantalizing hope to people particularly vulnerable to delusive promises and ill-equipped to decipher the discouraging probabilities.

Gambling can be a benign entertainment, but it can become, for individuals and perhaps for a society, a way of attempting to evade the stern fact that (as Henry James said) ''life is effort, unremittingly repeated.''

Gambling inflames the lust for wealth without work, weakening a perishable American belief -- that the moral worth of a person is gauged not by how much money he makes but by how he makes his money.

By institutionalizing a few highly publicized bonanzas, government foments, for its benefit, mass irrationality. It also deepens ''the fatalism of the multitude,'' the belief that life's benefits are allocated randomly.

Joseph Epstein, the essayist, notes that ''to have come to America in the first place was to take a serious gamble. To advance with the country's frontier was another gamble.'' Nowadays, when life for most Americans is without routine risk, gambling may be a way of infusing life with stimulating uncertainty.

But by now, with a deepening dependency of individuals and governments on gambling, we are gambling with our national character, forgetting that character is destiny.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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