Sunday, May 17, 2009

Keno and the Shitfaced Gambling Addict Junior High School

There was a big night in Boston sports last week. The Celtics and the Bruins were both in the playoffs, and both games were being broadcast at the same time. So I went to my favorite bar down the street (I still don’t have a TV) to check out the action. 40% of the bar was focused on the TVs showing the basketball game, about an equal percentage was staring and yelling at the TVs with the hockey game, and the last bunch was transfixed by the colorful, bouncing balls on a smaller TV tucked away in the corner – the Keno screen. Keno is a Massachusetts lottery game piped into bars across the state. Every four minutes from 5AM until 1AM, you can choose numbers by filling in bubbles on a card, which you give to the bartender, along with some cash, to process. The more numbers you’ve chosen that correspond with the numbers on which the bouncy balls on the TV land, the more you win.

So I’m still on the fence about whether this next story makes me a kind, public-service oriented good Samaritan or a horrible, despicable bastard. I’d be interested to get your input. Suppose two women sitting next to you at a bar have been obsessing for hours over Keno, one gets up to go out for a smoke, and the other asks you for help filling in the bubbles on her Keno card because she’s too wasted to do it herself. Do you lend her the benefit of your relatively unimpaired motor skills and help her chase the dream of riches and fame? Or do say, “lady, you know, you might be kinda throwing away your money here, and maybe you should just go home.” I ended up helping her out (not to brag, but after the SAT, LSAT and bar exam, I'm a pretty damn competent filler-inner of no. 2 pencil scantron bubbles). But I couldn’t help but think that this whole setup was just so, so wrong.

Here’s why it’s so wrong. It’s not just the gambling part. That gambling, while sometimes a genuinely rational, fun way to spend time, is often way over on the other end of the manipulating-human-psychological-frailty end of the spectrum, egging people on to make irrational decisions that they know deep down (or maybe they don’t) are really not in their best interests. And it’s not even the gambling combined with drinking part. That however rational or irrational gambling may be on its own, I’m pretty sure people don’t generally become increasingly appreciative of the odds of the game when they have the benefit of 15 Bud Lights on their side. What, to me, makes it so, so wrong is the fact that the whole thing is run by the very institution that’s supposed to be taking care of us – the government.

I know that, very often, when you hear people start talking about the government trying to manipulate us, you’re getting into that nutty (though sometimes quite amusing) conspiracy theory realm. If you think the government is listening to your phone calls or brainwashing you with chemicals in the drinking water, there’s a pretty good chance that the issue is actually based on just a wee tiny bit of your own emotional baggage. But the Massachusetts government conspiracy to take away peoples’ money through lottery games is all spelled out very matter-of-factly, and with nice color slides to boot, in the 2008 Massachusetts State Lottery Commission Information Packet.

The information packet notes that over the past three decades, the Mass lottery, which is charged with coming up with “innovative games with entertainment value to players in order to further grow revenues available to the Commonwealth’s cities and towns,” has “returned” over $15.3 billion dollars to the Commonwealth. The returned dollars were used for “everything from improving roads and schools to hiring police and firefighters.” The bar where I helped my shitfaced compatriot fill out her Keno card had a colorful certificate from the lottery commission hanging on the wall congratulating the bar patrons for having won a total of over $260,000 from Keno last year.

So what what’s so horrible about the government providing entertainment, which returns money to the Commonwealth to be used for hiring firefighters? What’s wrong is the how and the who. The how is by taking advantage of people who are drinking and gambling. Whatever you think about why people gamble, as any psychologist, sociologist or addiction counselor will tell you, it is almost never simply because people simply enjoy innocent “innovative games with entertainment value.” The who, in a nutshell, is poor drunk people. There are, of course, hoards of rich, non-alcoholics who go to bars and play Keno, but I know from my years of extensive research – sitting in bars and checking out what the folks around me are up to – that the affluent, sober crowd is not, by and large, the one “returning” its money to the firefighters.

The crux of the main argument in support of taking money from poor drunk people is that it’s their choice, they’re going to spend it anyway, and if the government doesn’t do it, someone else will. And this may well be true. But there is a fundamental difference between the government and other people. As individual actors in a capitalist society, we’re all playing the same game with one another: trying to come up with clever ways to get other people to give their hard earned dollars to us while, at the same time, being vigilant in not giving up our own dollars except for the things we think will provide the most value to us. We know that other people want our money and that we have to be careful not to give it to them irrationally. The government is different. Reasonable people can disagree about how much government is the right amount of government or how active or passive the government should be. But I don’t think anyone would agree that the government should be in the role of preying upon human frailties to manipulate people into giving away their money. Old ladies who walk around bad neighborhoods at night may get mugged. If it’s going to happen anyway, maybe the government should mug old ladies itself so that at least the money will be put to good use.

The lottery certificate at the bar talking about how much people won last year is a manipulative statistical lie – a purposeful substitution of top line for bottom line, gross for net. People at the bar “won” $260,000 in the same way General Motors “earned” $149 million in fiscal 2008 – i.e., by spending exponentially more in order to bring in that amount. I understand why the lottery would not want to highlight how much was spent to “win” the $260,000, but the $15 billion “returned” to the Commonwealth was not made from net winnings at every bar.

If this is really how we want our government to treat our fellow citizens, then so be it. Voters in a democracy can decide to tax whoever they want and redistribute wealth in any way they like. But if this structure is really what we want as a society, then the concept should be explicit and voted into the tax code. Describing Keno in friendly, market-driven terms and decorating bars with purposefully misleading numbers is not the way to go. If we want more good things like schools and firefighters, and we want the poor, the drunk and the gambling addicted to pay for them, we at least need to be clear about it (maybe even name things after them: Shitfaced Gambling Addict Junior High School). Then, at least the next time the person on the stool next to me wants to “return” some cash to the Commonwealth but is too trashed to do so on her own, I’ll be able to help out with a clear conscience.


mediaslinger said...

Gambling (and it IS gambling, NOT "gaming") is evil in my mind for one big reason. More money is made off of nickel slots than dollar slots. The people who lose the most are the ones with the most to lose. Or least to lose - depends on how you look at it. Here in NM the issue is complicated in one big way, and that's that a large amount of the state revenues go to college scholarship funds for people who otherwise couldn't afford to go. It feels like I want to turn someone in for a crime, but if I do the puppy that they take care of is going to die. AAAARRRRGGHH. Stop helping drunk ladies blow their cash. It's the right thing to do.

Rich said...

The Massachusetts Lottery (including Keno) is a regressive transaction tax. But as with everything in politics, if you can raise revenue and not call it a tax you do it, because the word "tax" gives people fits, while the word Keno gives them boners. And Grover Norquist doesn't play Keno so he doesn't give a shyte.

Patricia Harrison said...

In Australia, where gambling is very big, the gambling operators put small machines next to the entrances of grocery stores. Once I saw a man standing there with a terrible look of despair - he had gone to buy food for his family but couldn't resist the siren call of the keno machine, and he had lost the food money. I don't think gambling is intrinsically wrong, but I'm sure that putting machines next to grocery stores is ethically wrong. in the US, I don't think the govt should be promoting this, or worse, relying on it as a source of funding for, say, state education. Ethically, yuk.