Kyle Eller: Bet against casino for fixing budget difficulties

Some in state government want to up the ante on Minnesota gambling. A little booklet refuting the idea put out by CAGE -- Citizens Against Gambling Expansion -- catches the eye.

Some in state government want to up the ante on Minnesota gambling. A little booklet refuting the idea put out by CAGE -- Citizens Against Gambling Expansion -- catches the eye.

It's called "Minnesota Nice Meets Vegas Nasty," and its pages are illustrated with sometimes lurid stick figure cartoons. For instance, one page contrasts napping Las Vegas style versus napping Twin Cities style. In the Las Vegas frame is a figure laid out in a coffin, an "X" where each eye should be. Opposite is a fellow lounging in a hammock, eyes closed and a smile on his face. It's meant to highlight higher suicide and murder rates in Nevada.

The booklet's text is also blunt. Under the headline "Prostitution is 'Respectable,'" the booklet has a quote from a Time Magazine story last year: "To someone from Minnesota we're sluts, but in Vegas this is a respectable job to the locals." That's from a 33-year-old prostitute.

All this may seems a little over the top, and if you are looking at the booklet with an analytical eye, you'll find some flaws.

But the expansion of gambling in Minnesota is a big issue that raises big questions.


CAGE's main argument seems to be that gambling connected to Vegas brings with it all the ills associated with Vegas: raunchy sex clubs, suicide, prostitution, violent crime, organized crime, political corruption, alcoholism, poor educational standards and the flight of both families and family entertainment.

That may or may not be true. My guess is that it varies depending on the vice and is more true than we would like to believe and less true than this book would have us believe.

The argument's heavy reliance on correlation weakens it. The extent to which other vices flourish with gambling may relate to cultural third factors absent here.

But it's enough to justify concern. And proposals to create more casinos and use them to fund state government raise other questions, some asked by CAGE.

At the top of the list is the societal cost (and human toll) of gambling. Substantial amounts of casino revenue come from gambling addicts, people whose obsession with gaming leads them to financial difficulty and often ruin. In a state inclined to help the needy primarily with government programs, this means added costs on the back end.

As a result, a credible case can be made that gambling revenue will ultimately harm the state budget rather than help it.

Gambling addiction itself does lead directly to increased crime, with all its human and material costs.

One can also add that young people, the poor and the elderly can be particularly devastated by gambling. Retirees on a fixed income can squander away a life savings that is irreplaceable. Young people can destroy credit ratings and create a rocky start. Poor people lured by the prospect of a quick solution to financial problems are exactly those who cannot afford the risk.


On all these pragmatic grounds, gambling expansion is a bad idea.

A deeper moral question clarifies things. It relates only tangentially to the morality of gambling itself, a somewhat controverted question. Some believe all gambling is immoral, others don't. But at the very least, it is obviously immoral when it endangers one's ability to feed one's family or when it becomes a debilitating obsession.

A case can be made that gambling should be legal. Not everything that is morally wrong can or should be made illegal, and gambling seems to be in a gray area.

But that doesn't apply here. In this case, a state would not merely permit a vice, it would actively encourage it in order to profit from it. That's wrong.

This is distinct from things like traffic tickets, which also generate government revenue from misbehavior but do so by penalizing it.

The same problem lurks behind municipal liquor stores and even government investments in tobacco companies. It challenges tribal governments, many of which are dependent on income derived from other people's misery.

Do difficult economic circumstances justify wholesale investment in such an industry?

I don't think so.


At the very least, we ought not add to the list of things like this we do. It's no good to say "people will do it anyway." People do many things we wouldn't want to encourage the state to profit from.

We ought to reject gambling as an answer and find other ways to meet our state budget.

Kyle Eller is features editor for the Budgeteer News.

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