Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Castles in the sky

Our lieutenant governor, elected in 2006, made the inauguration of a state lottery the centerpiece of his campaign. Now that he's in office, he's spearheaded a petition drive that will put a constitutional amendment on this year's ballot -- Arkansas has a constitutional prohibition against gambling (with exceptions for the Oaklawn racetrack and West Memphis dog track, and a recently-crafted one for charitable bingo).

Evangelical forces have always been able to block lottery proposals in the past, but it looks like their ability to mobilize against it on the grounds of personal morality have been crippled by the economy, continuing news about education in decline, and the belief that millions of Arkansas dollars are flowing into border states with lotteries.

I was heartened today, however, to see that the United Methodist Church in the state announced its opposition to the lottery -- not because gambling is a sin, but because (a) it's socially irresponsible and (b) it doesn't deliver on its promises.

My own opposition to state-run lotteries was solidified while I was living in Virginia and read an illuminating newspaper series about the disappointments of its lottery. Here are the dirty secrets:
  • Lotteries earn impressive profits when they are new, but the revenue plateaus after a few years. The only way to goad the public into buying more tickets (to meet the projections of ever-growing revenue on which budgets have already been based) is to raise the payouts and introduce new games. Soon the enormous jackpots start eating away at the cash that's supposed to be flowing into the state coffers. Once it's joined a multi-lottery coalition, like Powerball, the state has just about run out of ways to finance the outrageous jackpots that motivate players to spend more. Georgia's lottery, always touted as the success story on which other states model their pitches of scholarships for all, forever, cut its scholarships several years ago and proposed tightening eligibility requirements for them because of declining reserves.
  • In order to get people to play, the state must advertise. Those who live in states with lotteries are inured to the constant promotion of the games in all media; it's a fact of life. Yet the state thereby becomes a gambling promoter, hustling as hard as it can to get people to ante up. My moral objection to the lottery is that the state should not be hawking snake oil. Sure, I know that the state isn't always on the up and up with its citizens. But a program that puts the government in the position of a carnival barker, desperate to fleece as many people out of as much cash as possible just to make its nut, is demeaning at best and close to fraudulent at worst.
  • And of course, it's been well known for decades who plays the lottery -- poor people. Maryland's lottery is funded at a rate of 3 to 1 by people with incomes below the poverty line. Just ten percent of the players produce 50% of the revenue. You can argue about voluntary taxation all you want, but combine the state promotion of effortless wealth with a group of people in desperate need of said wealth, and who exactly were we expecting to play?
Slowly but surely, basic functions of government are being moved off-budget, and the burdens to finance them are being placed disproportionately on the people who have the least ability to pay. If the lottery revenues are used to finance college scholarships, as its Arkansas proponents propose, what's bought with that medicine-show money will go to the middle and upper classes far more frequently than the poor. Now that's wealth redistribution with a vengeance.

Lotteries are not mysterious, untried enterprises. There is ample data. Yet most of the debate rests on appeals to common sense, hope, and fear (people are going to play anyway -- they should spend their money at home; we can give scholarships to everybody; without lottery money our education system will inevitably fail). When nobody's talking about the facts, you can bet that the facts aren't on the side of public opinion -- the one thing nobody wants to be against.


W.E.B. Adamant said...

I'm frankly more worried about the ban on unwed couples adopting than I am about the lottery. However, I didn't sign the petition for the lottery when I had the chance.

Adam Villani said...

Just writing to say I agree with you 100%. The notion of running a lottery being a legitimate state purpose is absurd.

the secret knitter said...

The casinos are back on the ballot again this year. (They've been rejected statewide at least three times, including two years ago.) The economic climate and gas prices are considered to be in their favor for passage this time. For that matter, the state just approved keno in some places.

The money to help fund the state's schools has never been what was promised, obviously. (Although it's unrelated, add in that the school funding system was declared illegal about a decade ago.) Then there was Powerball. Now keno. If this is how the state needs to keep it's budget on target, it needs to figure out another way.