Three years ago Congress created the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, and then its members spent the next two years -- not to mention $5 million -- traveling around the country, looking at state lotteries and gambling casinos and wondering what, if anything, should be done about it all. Maybe the commission was so busy it did not notice what was happening: America has become a vast casino.
I am not talking only about conventional gambling -- state lotteries, casinos and the still-useful neighborhood bookmaker. No, I am talking also about the gambling device I am using at this very moment: my computer. With it, I can buy and sell and sell and buy. Some people may prefer to call it investing, but you and I know it for what it is: gambling. (Excuse me, while I check some prices.)
You can hear the happy sounds of gambling everywhere. One hundred million Americans own stock, and almost 5 million of them buy and sell online. An elevator operator tells me about some stock that's a good thing. I heard a bunch of security guards talking about their 401(k)s. A general contractor tells me about some penny stocks. I pretend weary sophistication. Of course, of course. I intimate I'm into other things.
A Washington lobbyist tells me about a young man who came to him seeking a certain position, noticed a computer terminal, asked for the price of a particular stock, and walked out a moment later, saying he no longer needed the job.
My desk is strewn with stock tips, scraps of paper with what looks like secret codes -- the symbols of various companies. I am forever hearing of this good deal or that good deal. My seatmate on an airline flight from Phoenix suggests some health care firms (it's her field and I confess to asking), and a Washington lawyer gives me the names of some companies who do God-only-knows-what. My tipster has no idea -- and, until I do some research, neither do I. Anyway, I never buy. I am prudent -- my way of saying chicken.
But it seems to me I am the last prudent investor. Maybe the last investor, period. Everyone else is a gambler. Why else would stock exchanges consider staying open at night and, eventually, around the clock? (Now, you can lose money while you sleep.) Who are these day traders -- people who move in and out of stocks in a day -- and what has this to do with capitalism? I ask the same question about people who make instant fortunes on stock deals -- like those Internet issues that soar on the opening day. That's like Vegas. Put down a little, win a lot -- maybe.
We all know gambling can be addictive. We all know -- or we should -- that your typical lottery player is poor and four times as likely to be black as white. Just 5 percent of all lottery players account for 51 percent of all sales, and in some states where the lottery underwrites education -- Georgia, for example -- poor people wind up subsidizing the college tuition of the middle class. This is not merely regressive, it's absurd.
It has also become the American Way. Once casino gambling was synonymous with Nevada, particularly Las Vegas, and sin. Then Atlantic City, N.J., got into the act. In 1989, those two cities had nearly all the casino action. Now they have about half. The rest is spread all over America. Almost anywhere there's an Indian tribe, there's a casino. Legal gambling takes in more than the movie, record and theme park industries combined -- about $637 billion in 1997. The figures for illegal gambling are anyone's guess.
How can the rich tell the poor not to gamble when the rich are doing an awful lot of gambling themselves? How can we play nanny to the underclass when the nanny herself is using her laptop to dip in and out of the stock market? How can we talk about the virtues of investing when real money is to be made in new media companies that have never made a cent in profit? Who even asks anymore about earnings per share or dividends? How can you expect a dividend when you don't expect a profit?
Later this month, the national gambling commission will issue its report, and it will probably make recommendations galore -- including a ban against gambling on the Internet. (A bit late for that, I'd say.) But the debate over gambling is essentially over. Everyone gambles. Everyone's into the market. Everyone expects something for nothing. The commission's report will soon be forgotten.
You can bet on it.