When was it exactly that gambling in America was transformed from sin to font of public blessings?
Not long ago, Americans gambled only rarely and furtively. Now you can do it at the corner convenience store, with the sleazy encouragement of your friendly state government. Moreover, you can throw away your dollars with a warm feeling of civic-mindedness, knowing that you're building better schools -- tax-free!
The transformation has been quick and powerful. In a state such as Iowa, the fuss just yesterday was over bingo at the local Catholic church. Now the Hawkeye State offers a full menu of "gaming," as they say in the industry, from casinos on Indian reservations to riverboats up and down both "coasts."
It's the same throughout the country: 47 states allow some form of legalized gambling. Oh, flimsy little gestures of containment remain: Riverboats must be on water, for example. Fine, say developers. We'll build a pond. It's almost enough to make you feel sorry for Las Vegas, which now must distinguish itself from the next American town by building ever larger replicas of other tourist destinations.
The foulest of the gambling lures is also the most common: the lottery. Sponsored by states, lotteries are heavily intertwined with public policy. They are free of most of the constraints applied to other forms of gambling and have a payback to bettors of about 50 percent, compared with more than 90 percent for most other legal forms of gambling. And they lure the poorest and most vulnerable among us through publicly sponsored, shamelessly misleading advertising.
I've never been much impressed with prohibition. Not only does it work poorly, if at all, it spawns malfeasance. But, short of prohibiting gambling, surely it's time we put a brake on state and local governments' enthusiasm for it.
Indeed, a moratorium in the headlong rush is one of the recommendations made recently by the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, which has spent the past two years studying legalized gambling. Its conclusions tend toward the bland, which is what you get when your membership must include everyone from the founder and president of Focus on the Family to the chairman of the board and CEO of MGM Grand Inc.
Still, the recommendations are interesting: a minimum age of 21 for legal gambling, a ban on state and local political donations by gambling interests, reductions in advertising for state lotteries and a ban on Internet gambling. Also proposed is imposition of a "gambling privilege tax" to fund programs for gambling addicts.
Here is the heart of the problem born of our steadily converting our hometowns into gamblers' paradises: Studies say more than 15 million Americans will be problem gamblers at some point in their lives. At more than 5 percent of the population, this is twice the rate of cocaine addiction, and young people are the hardest hit. Overall, according to a Harvard report, "pathological" gambling -- the severest kind of addiction -- has jumped more than 50 percent among adults since 1977.
As the commission's report notes -- after praising the many jobs created and the communities revived by gambling -- there is "a different tale of lives and families devastated by problem gambling, of walled-off oases of prosperity surrounded by blighted communities, of a massive transfer of money from the poor to the well-off, of a Puritan work ethic giving way to a pursuit of easy money."
Gambling is a part of the American heritage, sanctioned from the beginning by our Founding Fathers. But for most of our history, it played a very limited role: Until recently, Nevada alone had casinos, and only New Hampshire operated a lottery.
As the commission makes clear, we've come a long way, baby, and it turns out to have been much more than just a joy ride.
The commission's recommendations now go to officials at all levels of government -- which is a bit like asking the guy slumped at the end of the bar to lead a cure for problem drinking. Our governments' addiction to this non-taxing revenue stream is something that will be broken only by public pressure. And that's a challenge, since most of us ignore the problems bred by gambling, thinking the issue has nothing to do with us.
The thing is, when we rely on some poor fellow's misery to build our kids' elementary schools, we're all implicated. The commission offers some good thoughts on how to begin taking responsibility.