The Sorry States of Casino Gambling

There are currently 28 states that have casino gambling, and like a drunken man tossing down his last $20 at the roulette table, Massachusetts is rushing pell-mell to become number 29. Here in Western Massachusetts, depressed locales such as Holyoke, Palmer, and Springfield are already battling for the dubious honor or further depleting resources in order to lure a hypothetical casino to their squalid borders. I say hypothetical because no casino has actually been built yet, and only one in the region stretching west of Worcester to the Berkshires will be permitted. Cities are literally betting on red—they are going deeper into debt to toss financial inducements to developers that might be awarded a casino license.

I shall not delve into the morality of casino gambling. I will say, though, that the poorest state in the Union, Mississippi, has 15 casinos and shows no sign of pulling itself above the Inferno's lowest rung. I understand the allure of casino gambling—it’s a lot like the drunken man down to his last twenty. As the Massachusetts’ Lottery—a cash cow in danger of being sent to the abattoir once casinos open—puts it, “You have to play to win.” Cities are like dream-drunk bettors who think they can defy the odds. After all, look what happened at Foxwoods in Connecticut. Funny that everyone looks there, but fail to see; Foxwoods has been hemorrhaging cash for several years and has been quietly moving resources into non-gambling ventures. Funny that people continue to treat the post-apocalyptic landscape of Atlantic City as an aberration rather than the rule. When Holyoke or Springfield boosters speak of casinos as the centerpiece of urban renewal, I wonder why they never invoke Detroit, which has three casinos and remains near the top of everyone’s “Why would I want to go there?” list. They never visit the wastelands of St. Louis, which opened casinos on dry land in the vain hope of raking in money that it thought went to Illinois when riverboat gamblers drifted across the Mississippi River’s state line.

What’s not to understand, folks? The entire point of casino gambling is that the house wins and the rest of us lose. Please refrain from playing the “Casinos create jobs” card because the house is holding at 21. Go online and check out where the nation’s 500 casinos are located. They fall into two categories: places you’ll never be able to afford, or places you’d never want to live. Casinos are simply the latest quick-fix straw at which down-on-their-luck states and municipalities are grasping. When the U.S. economy tanked in the 1970s, lots of places were sure that shopping malls were the answer and built them at the speed at which Henry Ford once cranked out Model-Ts. America got malled/mauled and the only discernible effect was that inner cities declined further. Come the 1980s, it was tourism that was supposed to rescue the economy. Golf course projects got enormous tax breaks, but we didn’t really become a nation of duffers; we simply built lavish playgrounds for the 1%, the ones who never stop at the local visitors’ center to pick up brochures for the area’s historical houses, scenic delights, home-cooking restaurants, or “unique shopping experiences.” Now it’s gambling’s turn to fuel false hopes.

If we actually lived according to the logic of one-fix experts, the America of the future would consist of dividing the masses in halves. A pot of money would be set aside for allocation to the masses. For six months of the year people would work in either the tourist or gambling industries and collect their allocations; for the other half of the year they would be furloughed and forced to spend their earnings at tourist sites and casinos while the other half worked. If my remarks sound as if I see municipal planning as a cynical shell game, that’s because I think it such. Has it not dawned on anyone that we’ve been spinning our wheels trying to substitute a future one-industry strategy (gambling) for the failed one-industry models of the past? (Detroit-automobiles; Holyoke-paper; Atlantic City-conventions; Springfield-machine tools) As a student of proverbs, I know that many of them convey timeless wisdom. Like the one that goes: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Like the one that says: A fool and his money are soon parted.

The drunken man stumbles to the table. His hoodie says Massachusetts on the front.        

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