Thursday, September 05, 2002

The Lottery. Warning: Explicit Political Content!

The lottery fight is heating up, according to the Commercial Appeal. The church-based anti-lottery forces are heading out to block any success State Senator Steve Cohen and his allies hope to have. The story itself is fairly even-handed, focusing on James Porch, the Tennessee Baptist Convention and the Gambling Free Tennessee Association. The article also quotes Cohen.

But I wanted to write on the idea of the lottery itself. The libertarian in me says, "So what? Go ahead. But it would be better if the State wasn't involved at all." The concerned citizen in me says, "No! Stop it. It does no good for anyone except the company selling the tickets."

Frankly, if any company, group or individual wants to sell games of chance, that should be fine. Lotteries, casinos, betting pools, off-track betting, whatever. As long as the State regulates it as commerce, protecting the public from fraud and crime, that should be the end of it.

But we live in the real world. Tennesseans aren't the brightest bulbs in the marquee, many of them. Far too many will voluntarily pay the "tax on stupidity" because they don't understand the sucker's game. Most folks don't add up the losses, or they ignore them. They only focus on the big payout, which they never seem to get but believe that they'll one day snatch. Study after study has shown that it will be the poor and working poor who will buy most of the lottery tickets, exacerbating their situation.

Normally, the libertarian in me wouldn't worry about that. If they want to suffer and not get ahead, fine. Learn your lessons the hard way. But we live in a state full of socialists and other moral busybodies, who will see the problems and want to throw more government money at it -- your money and mine. So I pay as well for their bad judgment. In fact, we already are, but we can't see the costs yet because they're hidden in other states. Shelby County is right next to the Tunica, Mississippi, casinos and I've seen firsthand the people who regularly travel down there to drop their money in the hope of the Big Payout. But Shelby County hands the problem to Mississippi, where the casinos are. Bringing the lottery to Tennessee will bring the problems home, and you'll see the big-government types wanting to address it in the only way they know how -- more programs, more bureaucracy and more money.

Then there's the supposed "education benefits." We are told that the legislation for a lottery is designed so that the money raised will first go to scholarships for poor students who might not otherwise be able to attend college or university. However, a recent study in Georgia found that most of the money raised by their HOPE Scholarship Fund goes to middle- and upper-class whites who were already college bound! Does Tennessee need a further widening of our racial divide?

All this supposes that the lottery will raise the amount of money projected. Already in surrounding states, they are seeing revenues fall as more and more states try to retrieve their own citizens' money from the original lottery states. Everyone is slicing the same pie into narrower and narrower slices. Expect the same for late-for-the-game Tennessee. We'll get back our own citizens and a small fraction of out-of-staters (hoping to maximize their chances by playing as many different lotteries as they can), but nowhere near the numbers that the original lottery states got, because they drew from numerous neighbors.

And then there's the Legislature. When the next budget crisis comes, and it will very soon, where do you think they'll look for more money? To the "sinful" lottery, gushing new money. To sudden "excesses" of funds they'll find there. Take recent history as your guide. Even though the Department of Transportation was sitting on more than a billion dollars, the Legislature was cowed and left that money alone. They did, however, make cuts to needed education programs, gave meager raises to teachers and delayed lots of construction and maintenance projects at universities around the state.

This doesn't even begin to address the corruption and bribery that a huge money fund like the lottery can produce. We've already seen the toadying, politicking, payouts and quid pro quos of the regular State revenue streams. Look, again, at the Department of Transportation, where roadbuilders and developers hold sway over legislators. Look, too, to the Child Welfare Department, where State Senator John Ford has a lucrative and protective hand in things.

The downsides of a lottery are real and corrupting. No doubt. The upside are questionable at best and easily debatable. So, while the libertarian in me quails, the concerned citizen wins out and votes "No."

Until next time,
Your Working Boy

No comments: