'The Luck Business': Bad news for gaming

October 08, 1995|By David W. Marston | David W. Marston,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Luck Business: The Devastating Consequences and Broken Promises of America's Gambling Explosion," by Robert Goodman. New York: The Free Press. 273 pages. $23

"No matter what you do for a living," the Massachusetts Lottery advertises, "there's an easier way to make money." The easiest way, it turns out, is not by buying a lottery ticket, but owning the game.

Four-hundred-billion dollars, the total Americans bet legally in 1993, generated gaming company revenues of more than $37 billion, and stratospheric yearly corporate profits of 30 percent to 50 percent. Casino gambling, legal in only two states as recently as 1988, is now allowed in 23 states, and the pinstriped executives who run this new blockbuster industry want you to know it's just "entertainment" or "gaming" (not "gambling," which the bad old Mob used to run). And gaming's inevitable future, according to CNN's Ted Turner and others is in your living room, where any credit card will let you gamble - oops, entertain yourself - up to your credit limit, on interactive TV.

Still, despite surging profits, staggering payments to politically connected "consultants" and Disney-like descriptions of the "games," all seven casino gambling proposals on statewide ballots in 1994 failed, suggesting not just a backlash, but a riptide. Which means "The Luck Business" might be in luck, because the time is ripe for an explanation of how all of this came to be, and what it means for future public policy. Goodman, a college professor and former director of the United States Gambling Study, provides useful insights on both points.

To summarize: Goodman says gambling cannibalizes local economies (Atlantic City lost roughly one-third of its retail businesses after casinos opened), requires a continually expanding pool of bettors to maintain current returns, leads to increased crime, and carries an array of hidden costs which are only apparent over time. And by then, the author argues, state governments have metamorphosed from regulators into promoters, being hooked on gambling revenues, allowing the industry to successfully demand relaxation of whatever limits were originally imposed. Ultimately, as in the decline of pari-mutuel racing, states may be forced to subsidize gambling to preserve casino jobs.

Oddly, despite the book's free-swinging subtitle and an impressive bibliography and text notes, Professor Goodman seems almost unwilling to accept the implications of his own research. He does not call for an end to legalized gambling, rejecting only the "hasty rush" of governments to gamble on gambling as an economic panacea - as if the big problem is timing. And with the optimism of a craps player going for a hard four, Goodman finds a bizarre silver lining, suggesting that the gambling industry contains the seeds of future public-private partnerships, since it demonstrates that government can both help create and effectively run business enterprises. (Quick, someone tell Newt.)

But beyond such whimsy, the hard facts and relentless statistics served up by Goodman amount to a withering condemnation of the gambling industry. General readers may have difficulty with this mostly dry, sometimes uneven, account, but Donald Trump and Steve Wynn will not need Cliff Notes to figure out what this book means, which is bad news indeed for the gambling industry.

David W. Marston co-authored "Inside Hoover's FBI." He was the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania from 1976 to 1979, and from 1973 to 1976, legislative counsel to Sen. Richard S. Schweiker.

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