Democrats, GOP collude to lure people into gambling

It seems like America’s political parties have never been more polarized. But when it comes to state-regulated gambling, they’re often playing the same hand. Unfortunately, it's a losing one.

Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo
A poker dealer handles chips at the Magic City Casino in Miami Nov. 9, 2011. Newt Gingrich admits gambling might give the poor 'false hope,' but he deflected questions about a proposal to expand gambling in Florida, where one of his supporters, Sheldon Adelson, wants to build a new casino.

Here’s a quick election-year quiz: Name one issue where Republicans and Democrats consistently agree, no matter where they live. And if you get this question wrong, we can go double or nothing on the next one.

The answer, of course, is gambling. From taxes and the environment to abortion and same-sex marriage, it seems like America’s political parties have never been more polarized. But when it comes to state-regulated gambling, they’re often playing the same hand.

In Pennsylvania, where I make my home, a Republican-led legislature approved casinos in 2004; the measure was signed by a Democratic governor, Ed Rendell. Across the river in New Jersey, Republican governor Chris Christie is working with a majority-Democratic statehouse to introduce on-line gambling. And New York governor Andrew Cuomo – a Democrat – has joined hands with GOP lawmakers in support of legalized commercial casinos, which will complement the ones that already operate on the state’s Indian reservations.

Elsewhere, too, Americans are doubling down on gambling. Forty-one states now have some form of casino gambling, and all but seven sponsor a lottery. Successful efforts to expand gambling have been spearheaded by Deval Patrick, the Democratic governor of Massachusetts, and also by Haley Barbour, the GOP governor of Mississippi. On almost every other issue, they’re miles apart; but on this one, they’re two of a kind.

But gambling also contradicts the principles that each party claims to hold dear. Sure, some Republicans celebrate it as a triumph of free-market capitalism. By its very nature, however, gambling also corrodes the basic values at the heart of capitalism: individual initiative, discipline, and responsibility.

If you think otherwise, consider a recent advertisement for the Connecticut state lottery. “When I was younger I suppose I could have done more to plan for my future,” says a smiling young man. “Or I could have made some smart investments.” But he didn’t, the man admits. Instead, he bought a one-dollar lotto ticket, and he gets “a nice big check every year.”

Last time I checked, meanwhile, Democrats were supposed to care about fairness and equality. So it’s especially galling for them to throw in their lot with the gambling industry, which redistributes income away from the poor. The less money and education you have, the more you spend – and lose – in gambling. There’s also a stark racial disparity: African-Americans spent nearly $1,000 per capita on lottery tickets in 1999, as compared to just over $200 for whites.

One hundred years ago, ironically, America’s political parties also stood united – against gambling. In the 1890s, at the dawn of the Progressive Era, they worked together to ban the interstate distribution of lottery tickets. They also stepped up municipal enforcement of prohibition on gambling, which the muckraking police reporter Jacob Riis called “selfishness in its coldest form.”

Up until the 1930s, gambling remained tightly controlled. With the advent of the Great Depression, however, cash-starved states started to legalize racetrack betting. And in 1931, Nevada became the first one to permit casinos.

But the floodgates really opened the 1960s, when a Democratic governor in New Hampshire signed into law the first modern state lottery – approved by a Republican-led legislature. Not surprisingly, New Hampshire is also one of the only states that still lacks an individual state income tax (other than on interest and dividends) or general sales tax. Who needs that, when you have gambling?

Over the past three decades, as politicians on both sides of the aisle pledged to limit the size of government, per capita spending on education, health, and other services has skyrocketed. But we did scale back taxes, which made us rely even more on gambling to make up the difference.

It can’t. Despite what you might have heard about lottery profits, they only amount to about two percent of the average state’s budget. Nor have casinos in many cases fully generated the revenues and other economic benefits for states and municipalities that advocates predicted.

But they have created new pots of money for the super-rich, who can use it to game the entire system. Despite the drubbing he took in Florida, Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign has been kept afloat by $10 million in contributions to the pro-Gingrich super PAC “Winning Our Future” from the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam.

To his credit, Mr. Gingrich recently warned that gambling might lure the poor into a “false hope.” But he deflected questions about a new proposal to expand gambling in Florida, where Mr. Adelson wants to build a new casino. No matter what their party, our politicians have become hooked on the false hope of gambling. Too bad it’s a sucker’s bet for the rest of us.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).

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