Friday, July 13, 2007

Casinos and the "Inevitability Argument"

So, as I just said below, once again I've been out of it for a while. I guess being hit by a bad flu bug one week followed by the July 4th holiday the next followed by needing to catch up from all that wasn't done the previous two will throw you off like that. I missed some major events that I would've liked to have blogged about (and maybe still will) during the past little while: the end of Tony Blair's premiership in Great Britain (I probably praised Blair more during the early months of this blog than any other political leader, living or dead); the collapse of the immigration bill in Congress (the issue of immigration and assimilation also having been something I discussed much in the past); and a few more. All big-news items, to be sure. But today, I want to write about something local.

Last April, after a lot of contentious debate and not a few late-night legislative shenanigans, the Kansas legislature approved, and Governor Sebelius signed, a bill which would get the state of Kansas further into the business of gambling. We're already in the gambling business to what I would consider a foolish extent: the Kansas Lottery was established way back in 1986, and there has long been pressure to expand the sort of games which the Lottery offers (according to the state constitution, all gambling facilities in Kansas must be owned and operated by the state, and that means through the Lottery Commission--though the exact meaning of "owned and operated" has been subject to serious dispute). It is this "pressure"--those forces that make the need to expand state-owned gambling seem compelling, a high priority, popular, even "inevitable"--that I want to explore, as Sedgwick County voters prepare for an August 7th vote as to whether or not to give approval for the state to accept various investors' bids and build a casino or install more slot machines (or both, or neither) here in Wichita.

I'm opposed to the effort to build casinos in Sedgwick County, and plan to vote no on August 7th. Those who have read my blog for a while probably could have predicted such a vote on my part: it's not like I have a record of shying away from proposals concerning the common good which shade over into the moralistic. Personally, I think most forms of gambling involve both citizens and the state itself in habits and practices that are frequently addictive, often socially destructive, and always corrupting (morally, to be sure, but also financially). Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, gambling in almost every context imaginable ends up being profoundly unfair in its civic impact, as it is nearly always the case that those most affected (in terms of wasted incomes, loss of property values, family breakdown, an increased criminal presence, and so forth) by the arrival of gambling are poor and minority members of the population. I'll gladly admit that there is a hierarchy of harms which come along with different forms of gambling, and that sometimes, in certain circumstances, a case can be made that the (usually unpredictable and in the end rather small, but still occasionally real) economic benefits and other incidental virtues associated with some types of gambling (the job opportunities, the potential to renovate areas of urban blight, etc.) are worth the social harms which they bring along with them. If this vote was solely about expanded gambling opportunities for the sake of , say, helping out existing horse and dog racing venues in Kansas, I would be more hesitant with my vote, despite my dislike of slot machines, because I acknowledge some value in the act of racing; and if this vote gave us the option to choose casinos in exchange for getting rid of the lottery, my choice would be a snap, as lotteries are by far and away the most exploitive and manipulative of all forms of gambling, far more than casinos. (And, tragically, for reasons like those mentioned above, often therefore the easiest to turn into law, politically speaking: lotteries get most of their money from those slices of the population who live in neighborhoods dominated by low wages or levels of employment, and high levels of alcohol or drug consumption, meaning that their discriminatory social impact will rarely be felt by those voters ensconced in the suburbs and in pricey neighborhoods downtown.) But this vote is not giving us those sorts of choices and alternatives; it is an up or down, yes or no vote on whether we want to let the state take bids from big-league investors in regards to building a casino here in Sedgwick County. I don't.

All that being said, I'm not going to spend a lot of time rehearsing my arguments in regard to the above with the intention of convincing anyone; you can find all you need and more at websites like No Casinos in Sedgwick County and We Believe in Wichita, and you can catch up on all the news by looking at the Wichita Eagle's archive of gambling-related stories. My interest here is primarily in a certain kind of rhetoric which I've heard defenders of casinos use often over the past few months. Call it "the inevitability argument." Basically, it works like this: Sedgwick County should vote yes on August 7th because Sumner County has already approved the building of casinos there, which means there's going to be casino gambling in south-center Kansas whichever way Wichitans vote, so shouldn't we want to have one built here rather than there? Or like this: the most common forms of gambling--a state lottery--has been the law in Kansas for over twenty years, so what's the point of complaining now about the addition of a few potentially lucrative, high-end gambling options? Or like this: we've already got folks who love gambling--and with gambling addictions--driving to north to Topeka and south to Oklahoma on a regular basis, and they leave their money there while bringing the costs of their addictions home, so why not expand gambling locally so we can at least hold onto those dollars? And so on, and so forth. It's like some variation on the "build it and they will come" approach to economic policy making: gambling exists, the law exists, market forces exist, so isn't it just logical to go with what the people want, try to make some money off it, hope for the best, and deal with the consequences later? If we don't get on board the casino train, then we'll...well, we won't have casinos, we'll be left behind, we'll be ignoring the reality of the situation.

The problem here is with what I see as a profoundly cramped and reductive view of our ability as Wichitans to make choices, to democratically determine our destiny. This is not a left or right thing; conservatives and liberals alike (as well as every other ideological perspective under the sun) has a tendency to invoke "the people" or "the market" or "growth" or "human nature" as an excuse to let what are, in truth, powerful forces (whether personal or impersonal) with particular agendas or unconscious assumptions to roll forward relatively unmolested. Which is, of course, simply incompatible with any serious defense of democracy and representative government. "The market" would dictate that scads of money could be made if Wichita would legalize cage-matches to the death between chickens with razor-blades embedded in their wings and blindfolded pit bulls; "the people," on the basis pretty massive and obvious evidence, would choose to make speed limits optional, reserving for themselves the right to drive to Hutchinson at 105mph. But no serious person believes that a proper democratic regime operates on such a mindlessly plebiscitarian or majoritarian basis; obviously, we can collectively choose, through reasoned discussion and carefully and equally administrated voting, to subject ourselves--and thereby also subject those forces which we confront in our daily economic, social, and cultural lives--to laws and common aspirations. When you put in straightforward language like that, most citizens of the U.S. would probably agree. But when you dilute the democratic principle here with all sorts of often murky specifics, people waver: suddenly, the arguments like "well, casinos are inevitable, so I might as well get on board," or "if people are going to gamble, I guess they might as well do it here," or "if all these investors want casinos, how can I say no?" appear somewhat persuasive. But they shouldn't be.

This is not to say that one should or ever entirely could ignore financial or political details. But I find it frustrating how many of some of the most prominent voices in the Wichita area (and I'm thinking in particular of some Wichita Eagle editorials and opinion pieces here) tend to fall back into this inevitability mode when discussing casinos. "Gambling is here to stay," they say; "there will be casinos in south-central Kansas," they add; "Wichita can't pretend to be a small Kansas town anymore," they comment; and then they act as though any of those are actual arguments. But of course they're not, or at least not if you agree with the central democratic idea that self-government is something separate from and higher than whatever what a random survey or an economic model or cultural peer-pressure may have to say. It's entirely possible that the voters of Sedgwick County will agree to let the Kansas Lottery Commission select some interested parties who will get to build a casino in Wichita. I hope not; I think such a result would be bad for the county in the long run, and possibly the short run as well. But if they do so choose, I hope it's because voters have been positively convinced of the supposed goods that a casino would bring. That's a vain hope, I know; in this election, as in almost every election, the majority of people will vote in accordance with their private interests, and so the real determining factor will be how many voters there are out there who want to gamble, and furthermore will want to take a financial gamble on possibly receiving some cultural benefits from a casino being built here. But even that kind of self-interested vote is better than one which chooses to support the expansion of gambling because...well, because "everyone" wants it, or because "growth" is inevitable, or because "everybody else" has casinos, so why not us? That's not the action of a responsible citizen--that's the example of a citizen who, when confronted by some seemingly neutral (but of course often highly partisan and constrictive in its framing of the issue) faction or trend or spreadsheet, throws up their hands and says, "'s not like it matters to me."

Well, actually, choices do matter. A change in the law to allow liquor stores to sell on Sunday (which just went into affect here in Wichita) wasn't some inevitable result of market forces which tied peoples hands; it was the result of choices and actions (or, in the case of liquor laws, inactions) which arose in response to those forces. Similarly, there are a lot of forces--again, both personal and impersonal--that support the local construction of casinos. Those forces are not neutral, inevitable realities; they present choices, any response to which carries with it possible benefits and likely harms. To any Sedgwick County voter who reads this I can only say: consider those benefits, weigh those harms, then go make a positive vote, a vote on behalf of a specific intended outcome, one way or another on August 7th. And whatever you do, don't vote "yes" simply because that seems like what everybody wants you to do.


Jacob T. Levy said...

If this vote was solely about expanded gambling opportunities for the sake of , say, helping out existing horse and dog racing venues in Kansas, I would be more hesitant with my vote, despite my dislike of slot machines, because I acknowledge some value in the act of racing.

[blink, blink] Can you unpack that? I find it a very surprising sentence. I'm of course a legalizer, and consider the business of selective case-by-case legalization to be possibly the worst of both worlds (as it introduces massive returns to corruption), and entirely agree with you about lotteries. But it would never occur to me to talk about there being any value in any form of gambling, above and beyond the recreational/ meeting consumer preferences value that they all share ex hypothesi. This isn't because I can only talk in terms of consumer preferences; I can happily talk about activities, ways of life, and urban amenities that have value. I just don't see why betting on the ponies is one of them!

Russell Arben Fox said...


Thanks for commenting. I'm glad to hear you agree with me about lotteries (though of course, the data is pretty obvious), and I have to admit you probably have a point about "selective case-by-case legalization"; while my complaints are primarily civic and moral rather than economic, even I can recognize that the way the state has set this up, with the Kansas Lottery Commission taking bids from private investors following various competitive county-wide votes, has resulted in a bunch of potential offers on the table that will apparently pay out far less in taxes and profits than other states get from their casinos...and still you have a lot of poor communities just rabid to land one in their back yard.

[I]t would never occur to me to talk about there being any value in any form of gambling, above and beyond the recreational/ meeting consumer preferences value that they all share ex hypothesi. This isn't because I can only talk in terms of consumer preferences; I can happily talk about activities, ways of life, and urban amenities that have value. I just don't see why betting on the ponies is one of them!

Well, I won't pretend to have a fully worked out moral philosophy of horse racing or anything. Still, the racing industry--mostly horses, but also dogs--frequently carries along with it a host of properties, professions, family traditions, relationships and so forth that I find valuable on their own terms. The trainers, the groomers, the breeders, the veterinarians, etc., with all the practice grounds and pastures, all the time spent with animals, and so forth. Plus, very simply, racing is generally more social, and its venues more attractive in terms of landscape, than a warehouse filled with rows and rows of blackjack machines.

I don't think all that covers up for every negative associated with gambling. Also, while I think I can haul out arguments that make the above sound plausible, I recognize them for what they are: a rational, but still subjective, preference. Could the same be said for, I don't know, all those hard working electricians who keep the casino lights flashing, and the young women who work all their lives to grow up to become craps dealers? I suppose. But still, as I weigh it out in my head, I feel there are some gambling contexts where certain social goods are being furthered/preserved, and that compensates for other costs. Your mileage, of course, will vary.

Jeremy said...

I have to say that I'm a little ambivalent about the whole casino issue. A lifelong Catholic, I was never raised with the idea that there is anything intrinsically wrong with gambling, entirely aside from its wider cultural consequences. I think both sides (not you or this post, though) of the issue are overstating their cases somewhat.

I have zero desire to gamble, preferring to throwing money out my car window to serve the same end more efficiently. But I know quite a number of people who enjoy gambling and don't do it to excess. (My Baptist grandmother for one, and my boss for another.) That's not to say that there won't be men who gamble away their kids' college funds at craps, and so forth. Generally I'm a firm believer in allowing people the freedom to make stupid mistakes/decisions and suffer the consequences. That's a somewhat harder sell when children and spouses have to bear a significant portion of the direct cost.

My best guess is that slot machines at the Greyhound Park will be approved, but a casino will not be. A casino will then be built in Sumner county and Sedgwick will still get some of the revenue, but avoid at least some of the social costs.

That's not the worst possible result.

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