How We Lie To Ourselves About Slots
The Catholic Church is not opposed to gambling. "Gambling is not intrinsically evil or immoral," says a new paper on slot machines issued by Maryland's Catholic Conference in advance of next week's statewide vote on legalizing slots gambling.
The moral problem arises when gambling becomes excessive or when it interferes with the responsibilities of life. That applies to individuals who gamble, and also to governments that must decide how to raise the money to provide basic services and care for the needy.
In Maryland, according to this week's Washington Post Poll, 62 percent of those surveyed favor making slots legal and 36 percent oppose the plan.
But look a bit deeper into the numbers and you can see Marylanders struggling to get to Yes. People are searching for a way to square what they know about gambling's downside with the fun they might have at the slots, and with the temptation to solve the state's money problems by skimming off dollars that suckers plunk into slot machines.
Considerably more people believe that slots have a negative impact on the communities where they are located than believe there is a positive impact (47 percent say negative and 39 percent say positive. Another six percent say slots have no impact--the Immaculate Wager.)
So somewhere in the state, about 13 percent of the people believe that slots are bad for the community, but we should have them anyway. Maybe the people who say this have their reasons, but more likely, they're just saying it: They know it's wrong, but they don't care. And the state gives them permission to lie to themselves by pretending that a vote for slots is somehow a vote for better schools. (Of course, slots won't create a penny of new schools money; the gambling dollars would simply displace some funds now raised by other taxes. And you know those taxes aren't going down--ever.)
Looking only at those who favor slots, we find that 82 percent say they favor allowing slots in the county where they live. Only 16 percent of pro-slots voters admit to the hypocrisy of favoring the practice but not wanting it where they live. Now, let's be real about those last numbers: What cynic would admit to a pollster that he wants to stick it to the guys over there, but wouldn't accept any such thing for himself and his own neighbors?
But let's take those good people who cooperated with our pollsters at their word. A significant portion of those who plan to vote Yes on Tuesday nonetheless have real misgivings about whether slots gambling is a good thing.
In our country, we routinely allow activities that we know are dangerous or unhealthful--smoking, drinking, speeding, drunk driving (within certain limits)--and then we tax (or fine) those who partake of those activities on the theory that by charging people for the right to sin or behave irresponsibly, we are somehow ameliorating their responsibility for their misdeeds and contributing to the public good.
It's a neat balance sheet we've created. There is of course some merit in punishing those who commit unsavory or unhealthful acts by charging them a fee. And there is potentially some disincentive created when we tax the heck out of cigarettes and force heavy drinkers to subsidize government social programs. But state-sponsored slots create a wholly different calculus.
A tax on cigarettes surely doesn't encourage more people to smoke. But creating state-sponsored slots palaces does very much encourage people to gamble. "Human dignity is not promoted when budget needs are addressed through revenue streams likely to increase burdens on low-income families and expand social ills," the Catholic Conference statement says.
The trick to Maryland's question on slots is right there on the ballot: The wording says the money will go to support education. Everybody likes education. What it doesn't say is that by voting for slots, we vote to subsidize a failed, for-profit sport (horse racing); we vote to saddle low- and middle-income voters (slots players) with the task of raising a disproportionate share of state revenues; and we vote to impose on our neighbors an activity that we know makes their communities a less attractive place to live.
Happy voting. Maybe you'll hit the jackpot.
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