Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Five'll Get You Ten

The devil loves nothing better than the intolerance of reformers. ~James Russell Lowell

This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer. ~Will Rogers

(I couldn't decide which to use, so you get a twofer today.)

America is a schizophrenic country. We have excellent intentions, we sometimes do great things, but we may be the most hypocritical population on the planet.

What brought this on was a commentary by Paul McNamara concerning the taking up of anti-gambling legislation by Congress. Mr. McNamara's main stock in trade is writing about the tech industry, but he uses his blog, like most of us, to throw out the occasional rant, and this one struck a chord.

Let us consider, before jumping into the gambling discussion, the great social experiment of the twentieth century: Prohibition. The Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution stopped the legal sale of liquor (with some small exceptions). The idea, pushed by a variety of well-meaning but utterly stupid temperance groups, was that demon rum was the cause of much of the evil in the world. It generated huge social costs, medical bills, and antisocial behavior. What these people seemed to ignore was that the majority, perhaps the vast majority, of people who imbibe spirits did so (and do so now) in a social context without going on drunken rampages or ending up as indigent alcoholics lying in alleys. To the anti-booze crowd, the issue was cut and dried: Booze is bad; ban it and people will become all righteous and sober.

Of course, the exact opposite occurred. People actively broke what has been termed the dumbest law in American history. Thanks to the Prohibitionists, the criminal element in this country went from being local thugs and gangs to being a huge business, that was able to adapt when Prohibition was repealed by moving on to illegal drugs, prostitution, and gambling.

And we know how successful we've been in limiting those sins.

Gambling is very similar to alcohol in that, when done socially and responsibly, its practitioners have a good time and no one gets harmed. In fact, it's better than alcohol in that you can go to a race track, bet on every race, and be able to drive home safely (assuming you didn't overstay the clubhouse bar). Unfortunately, like alcoholics, there are gamblers who can't control their fun and become addicted to the activity, losing tons of money and getting into serious trouble as a result.

We can deal with this sort of problem a couple of ways. We could make serious attempts to educate people from a young age about responsible gaming (and drinking). We could quit pretending that gambling doesn't exist everywhere, and focus on providing help to those who are desperate need of it. That would be a good way to go.

Nope. We'd rather get on our soapbox and close down evil bingo halls, block passage of lotteries, and, most imporantly fight Internet gambling. Legislators like issues like this one because they can get all moral about those evil off-shore gambling site operators, while ignoring some embarrassing facts. For instance:
  • Gaming is legal on Native American reservations, even in states where it's otherwise illegal.
  • Some forms of gambling are exempted even in “tough on gambling states" (like dog tracks and horse racing in Alabama).
  • Gambling is outright legal in several states. Can't shoot craps in Alabama? Head for Vegas or Atlantic City.
  • The government, at least at the state level, runs the biggest gambling operation there is in the form of state lotteries.
What's ironic is that groups in states that have lotteries frequently fight the establishment of lotteries and other legalization of gambling in neighboring states, so that their take won't go down. Because, let's face it, a lot of those ultra-moral folks in the non-lottery state are coming across the border regularly to buy their tickets.

And then there's sports betting. A local radio station, during the college football season, has a regular weekly feature where the proprietor of a tip site will spend nearly half an hour talking about the odds, offering betting recommendations, and advertising his site along with a site where you can actually place bets. In addition, the station will have commercials by at least three other tip sites before and after his segment.

Remember, betting on sports is illegal in Alabama.

So Congress, having solved all its ethics problems, passed campaign reform, funded social programs, and simplified the U.S. tax code, is deciding to deal with those evil off-shore gamblers. Okay, they haven't done all those things, but those are hard to do; going after some web operator in Belize is easy.

Congress is not about to legislate about gambling in the U.S. because, a) we all know what happened with Prohibition, and b) the people who run gambling operations are big political contributors who like things just the way they are.

One solution is to legalize gambling in this country, especially to allow Internet gambling even where local gambling is not permitted. Then, encourage the betting public to “bet American”, so that the government can collect taxes on gaming profits. After all, the gambler doesn't give a crud whether that poker site is running from some island in the Caribbean or in Weasel Piss Creek, South Dakota. He or she just wants to play some Texas hold 'em.

The gambling interests won't like it because people won't go to Vegas or the local Indian reservation casino if they can bet in their living rooms. The moralists won't like it because they want to control the way other people live. The only group I would respect in this are the people who genuinely want to address gambling addictions. So for them, a portion of the tax revenues should be dedicated to educating people about the signs of addictive gambling and programs to help compulsive gamblers kick their habit. Unfortunately, I anything of this sort stands no chance of happening.

In fact, if it were legal to do so here, I'd bet on it.

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