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Bad Odds

Late one evening in mid-January I got a call from my most rational, economically informed friend. He usually gives me sound advice on the value of doubt, the power of randomness, and the rough justice of markets. But on this particular night, my buddy Paul Solman, the esteemed business correspondent for "The Newshour With Jim Lehrer," had gone slightly mad. He was utterly convinced that his New England Patriots, everyone's Super Bowl underdog, were bound to beat the 14-point spread. No matter what the Vegas, London, and sports bookies thought, he simply knew his team was a great bet. I saw the chance to make a smart friend look like a sucker, and, like a good American, I took it.

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You might think an editor who would attack the gambling industry would lead a more puritanical personal life. But, like many Americans, I like to play games and win. It's not that I'm addicted to blackjack or that I believe the big win will transform my life. It's just that I'm an optimist, and I relish the chance to confirm that good fortune is on my side.

Many Americans enjoy gambling for a similar reason. The gambling explosion happening on riverboats and Indian reservations, in obscure suburbs and rural towns (in addition, of course, to Atlantic City and Las Vegas) isn't being fueled by a sudden surge in national masochism. Ours is a risk-taking culture -- that's why a prohibition of gambling won't work. Besides, we already learned in the '30s that prohibition leads to more corruption. Since people will gamble anyway, it's better to regulate this industry than to cede control of it to organized crime.

Regulating the gambling industry, however, raises tricky political and moral questions. Although the gambling boom may not pose obvious problems today, it signals the spread of a corrosive social disease -- one that goes beyond lotteries, casinos, and horse racing. It is a bitter irony that the people likely to lose the most as the industry expands are the very people who can least afford defeat, people who are already losing their slots in the winner-takes-all global economy.

Already those in low-income brackets spend four times as large a percentage of their income on lottery tickets as those in the highest income group, according to Robert Goodman, author of The Luck Business. A study done by Harrah's in its own casinos showed that the yearly income of the most frequent casino visitors is $39,000 and that slightly less than half of those players have no college education. No longer confident that steady effort in the workplace guarantees success, people seek economic advancement in temples of pleasure that hold out the promise of the redemptive jackpot. Before our eyes, Calvinism is transforming into casinoism.

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