I really thought I knew how to play poker. Then I went to Vegas. It was just 10 days ago now. I sat at the lowest-stakes table in the casino ($1/$2 Texas Hold ’em). I should have known I was in trouble when half the guys at the table started shuffling their sizable stacks of chips with one hand, a sure sign that this was not their first game of poker. It didn’t start well, didn’t end well, and wasn’t so great in the middle. Where at home I am used to cleaning up with a couple of buddies, about 60 minutes in I had taken enough punishment to prove the point. “Excuse me fellas,” I said. “I’m going to go over to the blackjack tables so I can lose money a little more slowly.” And that I did.
After playing 21 for a couple of hours, I just wandered around for a while before calling it a night. All I could hear was the giant sucking sound of people losing money. Systematically, hour after hour. This has got to be the stupidest thing I have ever seen, I thought to myself. Most of the people I watched forking over hundred dollar bill after hundred dollar bill really didn’t look like they could afford a cup of coffee.
Massachusetts, like most states, is in financial ruin. State lotteries are not enough. Nor is income tax. So my home state, perhaps the most liberal in the country, has approved three new casinos, one for each region of the commonwealth, to raise pay the government’s bills.
In Florida, the state also has been considering casinos. But then Disney got into the act, making clear that taking tourist dollars away from Magic Kingdom would never fly in a state built on Mickey Mouse.
I watched the Ken Burns documentary about prohibition. I found the description of male drunkenness astounding. And the role of women fascinating. But what nearly knocked me over was the role of the U.S. government economically. Before prohibition the whole federal government was supported by taxes on booze. We never had an income tax until Prohibition. The income tax was created to replace the liquor tax.
Cigarrettes kill even more people than booze. The Federal government in 2009 raised the tax to $1.01 per pack. Local and state governments levy heavy taxes. Phillip Morris currently lists all taxes, including federal, state, local, and sales taxes, as 56.6% of the total cost of a pack of cigarettes.
Like booze and now gambling, tobacco is a major source of economic viability for state and federal governments. We need people to drink, smoke, and gamble to pay our bills. And we are not ashamed to promote those activities to do so despite the lethal consequences and the highly regressive nature of their impact in terms of income levels.
I was sitting with a brilliant investor who happens to be one of the most politically conservative guys I know. He likes to lecture me because he knows I am a liberal democrat. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t think the dollar is going to hold up much longer, has stockpiles of gold, and got upset with his wife when she went out to buy massive quantities of food for the coming riots because she got frozen rather than canned goods (when the shit hits the fan, there will be no electricity either).
“The U.S. government is just the Cosa Nostra with a bigger army,” he started up with me.
“What do you mean?” I said, playing dumb.
“The government makes more off booze and cigarrettes than the guys making those products,” he pointed out. “And back when the mob was running numbers on every street corner at least you got decent odds. The state lottery is a sham. It’s just stealing. Same with all these casinos.”
He had begun winning me over by that point, despite myself. Then he brought down the hammer.
“The mob would enforce their rules by breaking your leg or shooting you in the head. The U.S. government is much more sophisticated. They have an armed police force to round you up and throw you in jail.”
I had to admit that his argument made some sense when even the most liberal politicians have started to support an increase in formerly illicit activities, purely as a business proposition for their governments to try desperately to save themselves from mounting debt. It’s not like Governor Patrick thinks casinos are an inherently good idea or helpful to Massachusetts citizens. It’s purely about one thing: the money.
As I have written elsewhere (“Legalize Sex and Everything Else“) I am not for prohibition or criminalization of our sins. Quite the opposite. If it were up to me I would legalize everything: sex, drugs, gambling of all forms (including online poker which was just banned again for no good reason), booze, tobacco, and just about any other way you want to ruin your life. But, I would do it specifically to make it as safe as an inherently insane behavior can be made. Give prostitutes medical care. Allow drug addicts clean needle exchange. Make gambling so readily available that no one has a monopoly. Eliminate street drugs and the drug cartels who deal in violence. Ensure that anyone taking drugs actually knows what they are ingesting instead of playing Russian roulette with a product that has changed hands a dozen times before the clandestine buy.
But here’s the real point: don’t allow government at any level to get in the business of–to actively make money from–killing people through drugs, alcohol, and tobacco or the systematic economic robbery of the poor through gambling. We shouldn’t be balancing our budgets, or paying for our schools, based on our economic participation in those activities. If we do we are no better than the mob. And potentially even worse. At least they were honest about being bad guys.