HERE'S A QUICK quiz conducted by Rep. Frank Wolf on Capitol Hill last week: (1) What business last year made more than $50 billion in profits? (2) What business contributed more than $13 million to political campaigns for Republicans and Democrats alike? (3) In what business did Americans spend $600 billion -- more than they did for clothes or cars or groceries?
The answer is gambling, the fastest-growing industry in the country -- tightly woven into the national fabric, operated and promoted by increasingly dependent governments at every level. These and other disturbing findings come from a two-year inquiry into the social and economic implications of gambling by the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, whose members were selected by the president and the bipartisan congressional leadership.
Most troubling is the conclusion that the worst form of gambling is the lottery. It addicts politicians in search of quick revenue fixes, leading them to push misleading advertising for lotteries that pay back the smallest share of takes of any legal game.
The heaviest playing is by the least educated and by low-income minorities. Commission member Richard C. Leone noted on these pages Monday that the lotteries' "promise of funds for educational, senior citizen and health programs also is largely bogus, with almost all serious studies indicating that net spending on such programs does not increase." Stadiums -- Baltimore leaps to mind -- are portrayed as bonuses from lottery money, as if the take from gambling is gravy not figured into state budgets.
The commission's call for a moratorium on further expansion of gambling is only a call: States and localities decide. But the report is more than a onetime alarm. Its recommendations ought to spark new demands for controls -- such as bans on betting on amateur and college sports, clear notifications of chances of winning, required warnings about risks of addiction, elimination of the gambling-loss tax deduction and, if politicians have the courage, an end to government sponsorship of gambling.