A team of highly-paid ex-politico lobbyists are out there arguing against proposed bills in Congress to allow Internet gambling. Under one of these bills, a 12% tax would be shared between the federal and state governments, 4% and 8% respectively. That would be a lot of revenue in these hard times.
Gambling is an American and ancient tradition. Lotteries helped fund the American Revolution, which makes them practically sacred. In this case, the main opponents of digital gaming for money are the wealthy owners of real-world casinos and establishments, most visibly billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who helped bankroll Mitt Romney’s quest for the Presidency. No surprise there. The practice of online gaming, which already goes on with offshore sites, would expand dramatically, leaving bricks, mortar and showgirl spots with a severely reduced market.
Some of the arguments against the bills are, on their own terms, not entirely unpersuasive. Gambling does support hospitality and tourism, and if the already declining dollars drop further, there are going to be folks who lose their jobs in this challenged economy. It’s not clear that the entrepreneurs getting rich off this have the will and creativity to come up with substitute businesses that would replace those jobs. Gambling is also already a social problem, damaging lives and families, and what is bad gets worse with increased volume. The final big argument is, naturally, about “the children.” No matter what we try to do, the online environment is notoriously freewheeling, and there is no question that underage players would find a way to play, just as they get cigarettes and alcohol.
On the tourism question, cultural and social trends have always left some forms of entertainment and diversion behind while other new or more appealing ones prospered. Either you believe overall in the free market or not. People who say that government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers shouldn’t be telling the government to pick winners and losers.
Out of control gambling can be pernicious, no doubt about it. But the argument, one actually made, that the poorest in society would be unfairly burdened by the attraction of online gambling is under current realities absurd. First, because it is not clear that all the opponents of online gambling care so very much for the lower tiers of American society. Second, because government already endorses, promotes and profits from easy-access gambling that does weigh on the most vulnerable—the lotteries. With all the strains on government budgets, it is unimaginable what state some states would be in without those gaming dollars.
Then there is the ultimate trump card: the children. That score is easy to answer. On the scale of things kids shouldn’t be allowed to do, alcohol is number 2, tobacco is a close number 3, and then comes gambling. Number 1 is easy. Children should not have guns, should not live in an environment where guns are widely available and acceptable, and where guns are regularly used to shoot, injure and kill innocent people—including children.
So if you happen to see or hear any of those lobbyists shilling for Sheldon Adelson and his ilk, talking about how it is about “the children” and how we must protect them from the evils of playing online poker or placing a digital bet on an NFL game, ask them if guns aren’t a tad more dangerous, and ask them what they’ve done to seriously reduce the ubiquity of those guns and to eliminate the personal and social costs that those guns have inflicted on all of us.
There likely won’t be a good answer, at least not one that isn’t laced with equivocation, hypocrisy and protests of irrelevancy. It is relevant. Ask them to put the two side by side, the harm to children from online gambling and from guns, and tell them that the billionaires are free to make billions more on their casinos—just as soon as the guns get put away.