"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Gambling–NO To Regulation!

I remember years ago while taking a cross-country road trip, I stopped in Las Vegas. Later, when asked by foreigners what they should see when first visiting America, I always answered “Las Vegas” without hesitation. What city could be more quintessentially American?  The glitz and cheap glamor; the ersatz experience of faux Paris, London, and Venice? The outrageously over-the-top, kitschy hotels? The anything-goes spirit that makes New Orleans feel like a cow town?  It was just as overwhelming to my twenty-year old eyes as it is now.  There is absolutely nothing like landing in Vegas no matter where you got on the plane.   It is Times Square, the Ginza, Hollywood, and the Lido all wrapped up in one flashy neon package.  There is nothing like it.

Since I had little money and no experience with poker, blackjack, or baccarat, I played the slots.  After about twenty minutes of nickels and small change payoffs, I hit the jackpot. Nickels came rattling down the chute and everyone turned to look.  It was exciting; and nothing in that long, soggy trip through the cornfields, dry plains, and cracker South could possibly compare. I was in the Great Temple of America, and I would never forget it.  And I had won.

In the movie The Gambler James Caan plays a compulsive gambler, Alex Freed, who goes deep in debt to the mob, and yet cannot stop betting. In the final scene Axel provokes a ghetto pimp who slices him.  Axel looks in the mirror and sees the blood streaming down his face, and he smiles. Gambling is not about money, chance, or quick takes. It is about risk. The Paul Sorvino character tells Axel that he knows why gamblers gamble. “You all want to lose”, he says.

Axel does not want to lose, but knows that the highs of gambling and the pure adrenaline rush of risk are not only worth it, but are the only way to live.

At the same time, Axel understands the mystery of gambling – that there are moments of spiritual calm and certainty.  He can’t lose. In one of the most famous scenes of the film, Caan is standing at a blackjack table, shot from below, and backlit by the lights of the casino chandeliers. He has an aura. He is in a holy place.

In the years following my first visit to Vegas, casino gambling has expanded to Atlantic City, the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and to the Indian reservations of Connecticut.  Billions of dollars are bet every year, and state treasuries are enriched thanks to gambling.  Americans bet in every way possible, and while gambling is still highly regulated, we find ways around the rules all the time.  Betting is in our blood.  My father used to tell me that if he didn’t bet five dollars a hole, golf would be a boring game. Football pools, the NCAA brackets, stock market flyers, the ponies at Belmont, and the dogs at Hialeah all give extra juice to office life. While few of us get as hooked as Axel Freed, we would miss the safe risks of the betting table.

Which is why the persistent efforts to ban or restrict gambling are as senseless as Prohibition.  Gambling is in our blood, and no nanny state attempts to control it for ‘social good’ will succeed.  Reformers come in all stripes – ‘progressives’ who claim that casino revenues come disproportionately from poor residents who live near casinos; religious zealots who still see gambling as a distortion of Christian values; free labor idealists who see gambling as detrimental to the tried-and-true American principle of working for a living.  They all have one thing in common – an idealism and ignorance of human nature.

Can gambling become an addiction? Certainly, but no more than alcohol or cigarettes. While betting the table does not give the jolt of nicotine or the rush of coke, it satisfies – as the Axel character attests – real psychological needs. There is also no doubt that gambling, whether at blackjack or Lotto, offers the hope of get-rich-quick – a lucky break, a way out of debt without working, a just reward for 50 years on the assembly line; but so what? 

Those who try to regulate gambling live in an unreal, abstemious, sterilized world; and have taken no more risk than switching from Tide to All. To them gambling is the worst personal failing, an unhealthy giving in to irrational hopes, a sickness, a crippling disease of the spirit.

Shortly after the fall of Ceausescu, I was working in Romania, assisting the government in designing health behavior change campaigns, undoing decades of unenlightened Soviet-era programs. Romanians were drinking and smoking too much, got no exercise, and ate fat-laden, unhealthy diets.  I suggested a national campaign addressing these lifestyle issues.

“You don’t understand”, said my young Romanian counterpart. “We have suffered long and hard under the Communists.  Cheap cigarettes and alcohol were all we had.  They were our small pleasures.  Now we have meat to eat, and life is getting better.  It is not time to tell people to give it all up”.

In other words, life for the poor is indeed brutish and difficult, and no one should judge their immoderate appetites, let alone the government.  Social reformers may be well-meaning, but they are like stern Calvinist preachers for whom there is only one absolute.

In a recent Opinion blog in The Telegraph Brendan O’Neill said:

Fundamentally, the Left today, unlike the radicals of the past, has no faith whatsoever in ordinary people, in humanity itself, and thus it constantly turns to the state and asks it to fix the alleged problems blighting society or giving Leftists a headache. The reason modern Leftists want state interference in the press is because they don’t trust the people, the rabble, the little folk, to be able to read and see things and rationally make up their minds about what is good and bad, right and wrong.

People should be left free to choose their diversions, pleasures, and addictions. We are not stupid, and although governed by impulses we may not fully understand, life is nothing if not figuring them out. 

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