Better (or Bettor) Nation?

SCENE I (poster-filled teenage bedroom, mid-American suburb, after school)

Johnnie (at computer): Hey mom, you know that new fridge dad's been promisin'? Still want it?

Mom: What are you up to, John?

Johnnie (proudly): I can buy it for you, mom ... really ... I can win $1,000 easy just playin' blackjack on the internet offshore casino....

Scene II (kitchen table, same house, 6:30 p.m.)

Dad (leafing through mail): Hey! We've won 10 million, honey ... uh ... well, if our number matches.... Don't worry. We'll get better odds on the riverboat this weekend.

Scene III (grimy living room, L.A. slum)

Kimberly (waving remote at TV): Mom, mom ... c'mere quick. I just won me $25.... I bet UConn would grab 37 points in the first period ... an' they did!

And on it goes across the US, from C to shining C(asino). From 0.7 acre big-city Indian ''reservations'' to planned internet virtual casinos sufficiently offshore to avoid gaming laws. From a lottery magazine featuring celebrity number picks to experimental interactive TV sports betting. From Keno where the addicted can bet electronically around the clock to lotteries in 48 of the 50 states.

The gambling tide looks unstoppable. But it isn't.

Popular Michigan Gov. John Engler has just slammed the door on three proposed off-reservation Indian casinos. Voters in Florida and other states have rejected well-financed campaigns for new casinos. Existing casinos in Mississippi and New Orleans are in financial trouble.

The Michigan case is instructive. Casino proponents claimed that the governor was spurning $1 billion per year in revenues. That's quicksand economics. If there is a billion out there, where would it come from? Most of it from Michigander pockets. And most of that from families who can least afford it. Money is simply diverted from more useful goods and services.

When Governor Engler put his foot down, the casino touts asked for a voter referendum. ''We'll get a fair shake'' that way, said a spokesman. An ironic phrase from an industry whose existence is based on unfair shakes.

When voters turn against casinos in such referendums it may be because some internal calculator tells them that gambling is not a free hunch. Most players lose most of the time. In lotteries, millions lose so an occasional winner can retire in style and pay a big slug of extra tax to the IRS. Yes, some state lottery profits go to education or the arts, but only after high advertising costs and political patronage salaries have been skimmed off the top.

Over most of US history, gambling existed but was officially and popularly frowned on as morally corrupting. Now the people's own government lotteries urge the people on. As do such upstanding lottery fund raisers as PBS stations, Consumers Union, and even some churches.

That's why Governor Engler's line in the sand is significant. It says to voters who cast ballots against gambling that their concern is beginning to be heard.

With new electronic variants looming, it's about time.

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