Gambling: A bad bet
Years ago while researching a book on the gaming industry, a local writer came across a collection of letters written by a gangster of some ill-repute, Bugsy Siegel.
Siegel has been referred to, from time to time, as “the man who built Las Vegas.” He’s the man who foresaw in the 1930s that a forsaken corner of the Nevada desert could become a mecca for casinos and gambling and all that goes with it.
In fact, it was Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel who convinced the mob to build a new casino there, one he called “The Flamingo,” after a nickname he’d given to a girlfriend.
Friends of Siegel had written to him asking about visiting the casino, about which games they should play and which they should avoid.
First, he said, don’t bother coming if what you plan to do is gamble. And which game is best? Avoid them all, he said. Don’t play anything because — and this is what the “man who built Las Vegas” said — “they’re all bad bets.”
Fast forward a few decades and eavesdrop on the Kentucky General Assembly and you’ll hear, time after time, that casino gambling isn’t a bad bet at all. Some state senators and members of the state house see it as a way out of our financial morass. Give us casinos, they say, and the future will be brighter, the schools better, the roads smoother and on and on.
They said the same thing a few decades ago when the notion of a state lottery was first suggested. Now, the Kentucky Lottery Corporation has added millions to the coffers of the commonwealth, but it obviously hasn’t been a panacea for what ails Kentucky financially. If it had been, we wouldn’t be staring into such a shortfall abyss; we wouldn’t still be talking about taking off down another gambling road.
Recently the Lexington Herald-Leader carried information about the possible impact of legalized casino gambling on the state financial coffers.
The article wasn’t optimistic.
“Experts who study gambling’s economic impact said Kentucky should be realistic about what it could win,” the article said. “Casinos are a poor substitute for a strong, stable tax base, (the experts) said.”
The newspaper quoted Alan Mallach, a visiting scholar at the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia as saying that “casinos will almost certainly increase your revenue to some extent.”
“But there will be offsets and costs that you also need to consider,” he added.
The experts noted that casinos “cannibalize other forms of spending from which the state takes a cut,” according to the article. “From lottery tickets to gas and consumer goods — and that cancels out some of the casino states’ financial gain.”
Mallach, the scholar at the Federal Reserve, was even more pointed.
“Casino gambling does not create a single new dollar,” he said. “Every dollar dropped into a slot machine is a dollar not spent on something else. It’s not like you’ve got an auto plant and you’re building cars to be shipped and sold around the world.”
And far too often those dollars “not spent on something else” were meant for rent, or mortgage payments, or groceries.
Spend any time at all at a casino blackjack, poker or craps table — or even at the omnipresent slot machines that twinkle, chirp and sparkle incessantly throughout the casino day — and you’ll likely run across someone who, from the look on his face, is spending money he should not spend, losing money he can’t afford to lose.
This isn’t to say that any and all gambling should get the back of our collective hands. Anyone who’s spent a dime and won a cake at a parish picnic can testify to the harmless fun of some forms of pecuniary risk.
But when it comes to casino gambling, the position of The Catholic Conference of Kentucky and the state’s bishops is clear: The expansion of gambling would not be good for Kentucky.
The conference, its website says, “has a long-standing commitment to oppose amending the state Constitution to allow for the expansion of gambling in the Commonwealth or to expand it through other legislation. While proponents point to economic benefits, it is our belief that the state must consider the consequences, namely the potential for destroyed lives, increased crime and other social ills.
“The Catholic Church teaches that gambling is a morally neutral act and that games of chance ‘are not in themselves contrary to justice’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2413). However, the Catechism also warns that ‘the passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement’ and becomes morally unacceptable when it deprives an individual of what is necessary to provide for his/her needs and those of others.”
There is bound to be a right way to address the state’s financial crisis. Experts know — as does the Catholic Conference of Kentucky — that casino gambling isn’t it.