Episode 63: Gambling and Neoliberal Rot - How Our Most Regressive Tax Flies Under the Radar

Citations Needed | January 23, 2019 | Transcript

Citations Needed
48 min readJan 23, 2019
M. Faroqui, left, who sold the winning Powerball ticket at a 7–11 in Chino Hills, CA, reacts with the crowd in the store on Wednesday, January 13, 2016. (credit: Grand Haven Tribune)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Thank you, everyone, for listening this week. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and support us through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. That is us and all of your support is so much appreciated, it helps the show keep going. If you haven’t joined up, please do. We really do appreciate all the help that we can get.

Adam: And now that you’re feeling up, let me take you back down.

Nima: Because that’s what we do on Citations Needed. Uh, so here we go. As more and more states turned to casinos and lotteries to quote, “fill the gap” in state budgets, the predatory and regressive nature of gambling as a replacement for increasing taxes on the rich avoids virtually any media scrutiny amongst centrists and liberals. Surprisingly, even the Left has mostly ignored the issue ceding criticism of our most regressive tax to the Christian Right, who largely oppose gambling for all the wrong reasons.

Adam: In this episode, we want to explore how lotteries and eventually full blown casinos came to represent the last throes of neoliberalism’s false promise of quote unquote “jobs,” quote unquote “growth.” In much of the United States, specifically the rust belt and Midwest, casinos and prisons are increasingly the only growth industries marking a shift away from an economy that has traditionally built actual things to one that exclusively prays on the poor and desperate in a never ending race to the bottom. Beyond the glitz and easy “tax revenue” lies a massive transfer of wealth from the poor, black and elderly to the super wealthy, all done, slowly over decades, with zero sustained criticism from the media.

Nima: Today, we’ll be joined by two guests. The first is John Balzarini, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Delaware State University.

[Begin Clip]

John Balzarini: Although of course somebody can be addicted to craps or poker or something like that, the real money and the real addiction is this small time gambler, the small amounts of money, multiple times a week very quickly through slot machines. So it all kinda ties back to even the way the tax policy works, at least in Pennsylvania where, okay, the most addictive form of gambling, we’re going to tax the hell out of that. That’s where we, okay, we know exactly where the money’s going to come in and that’s where we’re going to extract it.

[End Clip]

Nima: We will also speak with Les Bernal, National Director of Stop Predatory Gambling.

[Begin Clip]

Les Bernal: When we talk about predatory gambling, we’re talking about very powerful corporate interests that are partnered with state governments across United States to bring in for profit gambling, commercialized gambling into every home, into every community in this country. There’s been a huge national debate over the last several years about the rising unfairness of opportunity in our country and particularly on the left, like we’ve ignored the issue of government sanctioned gambling as a core factor behind this unfairness of opportunity.

[End Clip]

Adam: First, I want to talk about lotteries which have been around much longer than casinos and are far more popular in states. Recent studies show that America spends about $70 billion on lottery annually. By way of comparison, they spend about $11 billion going to the movies. And this is largely helped along by a local news media that constantly does two things, it has the lottery numbers every night. This is something that’s sort of standard, um, and like a lot of things on the show we would like you to question why this is standard and this is peppered nonstop with stories about one off winners who make it big, giving the viewer the impression that their ticket could come up at any moment.

[Begin Clip]

Man #1: And Mega Millions lording. Lottery fever gripping the nation.

Woman #1: Tonight, one of the biggest lotteries in world history. Everything you need to know about the Mega Millions.

Woman #2: We’ll explain this lottery fever.

Man #2: About half a billion dollars and this morning my eyes are green. Do you see that? Green for money and green for cash.

Man #3: Just about everyone has that lotto fever.

Woman #3: Now to our other big story this morning, the Mega Millions Jackpot.

Woman #4: Lottery fever.

Man #4: Mega Millions and Powerball drawings. The powerball jackpot rolled over again after no one matched all the winning numbers last night.

Man #5: And lottery fever.

Woman#5: It’s Tuesday and you could win $375 million. How does that sound?

Man #6: Pretty good.

Man #7: That hasn’t stopped lottery fever from spreading across the US.

Man #8: Well another big story this morning. One lucky person beat the odds and is waking up this morning more than a billion dollars richer. Crazy, right?

[End Clip]

Nima: As we do often on Citations Needed, we like to establish the stakes of what we’re talking about and, in this case, when it comes to casinos and lotteries, the data is really compelling and also pretty horrifying. What so many researchers and reports have found is that, unsurprisingly, people that play lotto, who buy lottery tickets consistently, are disproportionately poor and also usually addicts. According to one report, 54 percent of lottery sales come from a mere five percent of players. Considering about 50 percent of the US adult population plays the lottery, that basically breaks down to more than 50 percent of who pays into the lottery comes from only 2.5 percent of the US population.

North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries (via Huffington Post)

Adam: So pathological gambling, which is something that lotteries target directly, it’s classified by the American Psychiatric Association as an addiction. It affects about 1.7 percent of American adults, but the rates for the poor who have gambling addiction are about 2.6 percent, so they’re almost twice as much. Uh, for people in households making between $15,000 and $30,000, 2.8 percent of them are classified as addicts. Problem gambler demographics break along class lines pretty clearly. Those under $15,000, as I mentioned, have a gambling addiction rate of 2.8 percent, whereas those who make between $100,000 and $150,000 have a gambling rate of 1.2 percent. And uh, again this is in contrast to 1.7 for the average.

North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries (via Huffington Post)

Nima: So there’s this idea that money spent on gambling by the poor isn’t really a regressive tax because ‘hey, they would have spent that money on some sort of so-called vice anyway’ right? Drinking, smoking, shitty food, soda. But that’s really kind of a canard. The data does not bare this out. Between 1982 and 1998, 21 states introduced the lottery into their state system. Nearly all of the lottery gambling was paid for by spending less on non-gambling items, so the people who started playing lottery, didn’t like transfer what they would have spent on booze into their scratch off tickets, no, instead what they did was they stopped buying clothes or food to survive on and also their rent. So while lottery spending on lotto like increased by $162.20 per year on the average, payment on food went down an average $8.71 while spending on housing went down $72.61.

National Bureau of Economic Research (via Huffington Post)

Adam: There’s a lot of data points that bare this out. So you can look at a map of North Carolina’s poorest counties and in all but twenty of the poorest counties, eighteen of the twenty poorest counties in North Carolina, one study showed that these bottom eighteen were the top eighteen highest selling counties in terms of lottery tickets. People in households earning $40,000 account for 28 percent of South Carolina’s population but made up 54 percent of frequent lottery players and people without formal education made up a disproportionate share.

Nima: So, what we’re really trying to get at here is how the lottery system that are run by states, that are pushed all the time, I mean the amount of media given to lottery marketing is completely obscene. This winds up being one of the most detrimental regressive taxes that we actually have already. It is all around us, it is already implemented and fully functioning where those who are already the poorest, who make less income than most other people, are paying for this.

NC Policy Watch (via Business Insider)

Adam: So yeah. What we’re trying to drive home is that, before we go on, we want to establish how regressive of a tax this really is, which is to say how much of a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich it just subjectively is. So a few more data points here. One study showed the highest concentration of Connecticut lottery players were in its poor cities — New Haven, Hartford and Bridgeport. Of the six neighborhoods studied on the west side of Chicago in 2008, the two with the highest unemployment — Bellwood and Maywood — also generated the highest per capita sales of lottery tickets.

Nima: A 1994 study from Indiana University found that from 1983 through 1991, lottery sales tended to rise along with unemployment rates. And in 2008 during the height of the recession, at least 22 of the 42 states with lotteries — including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — set sales records.

Adam: So we can read these stats all day because there’s so many states for so many decades, we have mountains of data which will be in the show notes showing you that there is no more consistent transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in the most stark way possible than there is in lotteries and casinos, which we’ll get to later.

Nima: Max Galka, an adjunct lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, and a contributor to The Guardian Cities vertical, has noted that state lottery and gaming commissions are exempt from Federal Trade Commission Regulations regarding truth in advertising laws. The marketing firms that do lottery advertising deliberately target poor and African American communities. This is a deliberate attempt to extract wealth from the poorest in our society and transfer it to the wealthiest.

Adam: For example, the state of Ohio hired a marketing firm to promote their SuperLotto game and in their internal collateral they said that advertisements should coincide with the receipt of “Government benefits, payroll and social security payments.” And then there was a document that was from a California lottery agency, they had an RFP for a marketing firm to help them, uh, with its quote, “African American Consumer Market Advertising Services.” And in one blighted neighborhood in Chicago, “blighted neighborhood” being their words —

Nima: That’s how it was described by the state.

Adam: The Illinois Lottery Commission put up a billboard that said, “This could be your ticket out.” Uh, the implication being this is sort of a way out of poverty and you see this time and time again states either directly themselves or through marketing firms target lottery to poor and African American people and the elderly, uh, they try to time their advertising with the receipt of social security checks and the like. And this is, they can look at marketing data as you and I can. They know their market.

Nima: Exactly. They know the demographics, they know who is most desperate and they are going to pray on that rather than try to alleviate the desperation and maybe change things. So as a result of all this targeted marketing, African Americans spend almost five times more than whites on lottery tickets nationwide.

Adam: And this is why it’s so popular. So what we want to do before we go on is we want to put it in its proper context. This is not a story of predatory gambling for its own sake. This is a story about neoliberalism that’s in its last throes. That neoliberalism has nothing left to offer and that it’s promised, that sort of ambitious promise of the eighties and nineties of infinite growth and infinite jobs has not come to bear. We see the free trade agreements we’ve made in this country. They move jobs to Mexico, they move jobs to the Global South and there’s nothing really left to offer. And so the only thing really that you see replacing these jobs is state lottery commissions and increasingly, which we’ll talk about in our interviews, is these casinos. The rate of casino growth over the last 15 years is exponential and it parallels directly with the neoliberalism running out of ideas. The only thing that it has left to really offer is these sort of gimmicks.

Nima: The very first episode of Citations Needed took a hard look at charter schools and how, in the wake of natural disasters, the growth of charter schools and the kind of promise of charter schools goes hand-in-hand with recovery efforts. Now I think we can add something to that. That in post-disaster regions, not only are they targeted by charters, they’re also targeted by casinos.

Adam: Yeah, and so a lot of these places already have casinos or they have sort of limited slot machines. But then once there’s a natural disaster, there’s a rush to kind of introduce them even more so. So New Orleans had gambling before Katrina, but after Katrina there was way more of an emphasis put on building casinos downtown, as they displaced African Americans. And that, as we’re seeing increasingly as well, we’re going to read you a couple headlines just from November of 2018, “Puerto Rico Tax Shift to Legalize Slot Machines Outside Casinos.” And then there’s another headline a week prior on November 8th, “Puerto Rico Could Move to Legalize Sports Betting.” And so again, we’re faced with this idea of like how do we provide some sort of distribution, instead of giving aid and providing actual jobs where you build actual things, again, you see these kinds of gimmicks where it’s just, let’s just extract money from the poorest of the poor, which this of course will invariably do.

Nima: Right. And to also rely further on a service economy that has some sort of promise of tourism in some way and yet, and yet always winds up just extracting more wealth, more and more wealth from the local population.

Adam: We’re not going to touch on Native American casinos for the purpose of this episode because it’s sort of its own separate thing. And we don’t think we could do it justice, but it is not a coincidence that when you don’t want to take money from the rich, which I think is the core axiom of neoliberalism and you can’t, that’s not even something you could even consider, one of the first things you do is you go to the monetary trickery of lottery in casinos, which again is a way of taxing the poor without outright coming out and saying it’s a shell game.

Nima: So being a media criticism podcast, we do want to really hammer home how local news, one of our very favorite targets here, local news often winds up being a nonstop commercial for the lottery. There are constant puff pieces about lottery winners, about how desperate people were and then luck would have it their numbers came up. Um, so there’s an article in Philly.com from 2016 where it says this, quote, “Pearlie Mae, now 72, credited divine intervention with providing her with the numbers in a dream. Family members were stunned to learn that they were the sole winners of what was then one of the biggest lottery jackpots.” End quote. New York 1 meanwhile, in 2017 said this, quote, “Mohammed says he plans to buy a new home and a sports car. Pittam says she will retire from one of her three jobs and take her kids to Disney World.”

Pearlie Mae and family (via Philly.com)

Adam: Washington Post: “He returned his orange juice to save money — and picked up a winning $315 million lottery ticket.” “Dreaming about the jackpot? A 7-time lotto winner shares his secrets.” This was on The TODAY Show. What the media does as well is that when there’s debates for bringing in casinos in states, which are always somewhat contentious because it’s usually requires a change to the state Constitution, they constantly reinforce this idea, and this happened in the seventies and eighties with lottery as well, they constantly reinforce this myth that tax revenue will go to fund education, which is almost never true. We now know this because we have decades of data when it comes to the lottery. When they opened up state sanctioned casinos in states they make the same argument because everyone wants to fund education right? Now what are you not funding, you know, what tax revenue are you not taking when you’re funding education, right? You’re not increasing property taxes. Again, this is why the rich love it because the rich are far more likely to own lots of property and have lots of property taxes. And then there was this 2007 survey that went back and reviewed all the states that had made promises about education funding and found out that in 24 states where they promise their introduction of a lottery would lead to additional funding for education, 21 of them it did not. Or they had negative education funding. So only three out of 24 states actually slightly increased their funding because in most states, and in most scenarios what you’re doing is you’re simply offsetting another tax, uh, you were taking this regressive tax, this tax on the poor, this tax on African Americans and you’re not taxing wealthy homeowners.

Nima: Right? So, the New York Lottery had a marketing campaign where they were really targeting the middle class and making lottery sound like it was this socially conscious thing to do. Not only a fun game, but you’re also really helping your fellow citizens. So there was this campaign featuring “thank you for being a friend.” The voiceover said this, “Every time you play a New York Lottery game, a portion of your sale goes to aid New York state school children.” Well, that sounds great. So, I don’t think of that as a tax anymore. I don’t think of that as the, as the state government taking more of my money where you know, a lot of the people who would complain about taxes in general, just like as a narrative in their lives is like, ‘Oh, the government keeps taking more of my paycheck, blah blah blah.’ These oftentimes are the same people who will willingly just buy lottery tickets or go to casinos and yet the connection is not made between the state is still extracting that from you. This time it’s like under the guise of actually using it toward education, which should be a good use of tax money in general, but it’s not even happening. Like, the states are not even using it for that.

Adam: Well, one thing people like to say, there’s a very, very popular cliché that lotteries and casinos are taxes on stupidity or taxes on lack of education, right? This idea that, ‘Oh well, they’re just dumb.’ It’s sort of a moral failing. If only they sort of read more books. But of course it’s not a tax on, on the stupid per se. It’s a tax on addicts and the poor who are viewed somewhat, not unjustifiably, playing the lottery as their only real means of getting out of poverty since they’re stuck in dead end jobs, have no unions, no wages and you see this trend with how casinos have expanded in the past five years as well from slot machines to increasingly the table games, which we’ll get into with our guests, but they are ergonomically designed to prey on the most addicted and the elderly.

Nima: To really hammer home some of the data on this, we just wanted to point out one more piece of reporting done by Kate Pastor in City Limits back in 2013. She reported that while the New York State Lottery’s revenue is up nearly 146 percent since 1995, in that time, per pupil spending has dropped dramatically.

Adam: So yeah, typically lottery replaces instead of augments education spending. So the proportion of New York education spending covered by the lottery in 1999, it was 5 percent, in 2008 it was 14 percent and by the end of 2013 it was about 14.5 percent. So again, all the lottery revenue is doing is just preventing the increase of other taxes otherwise known as progressive taxes.

Nima: So, while New York State Lottery revenues have risen since 1995 by nearly 146 percent state spending on schools has not kept up with that growth. So the growth in state spending on schools doesn’t even hit 120 percent in that time in the past about 20 years. To kind of see the difference that lottery is taking more and more money from the population, but it is not necessarily going to the places that they say it’s going to go.

Adam: All this has happened, as we mentioned, with basically no media scrutiny. When it comes to the lottery and it comes to casinos there’s a focus on winners and jobs. This idea that there’s jobs, the quality of the job, the union status of the job, what the net effect to the society is, is all secondary to this idea of, oh, we have these glitzy new jobs. Um, and then when it comes to lotteries, it’s always the 94-year-old grandmother who won and let’s profile her story even though it’s, you know, you stand a better chance of being killed by a vending machine.

Nima: (Laughs.) That is actually true. The chance of winning, like, a massive jackpot in the lottery is about 1 in 176 million while the odds of getting crushed by a vending machine are about 1 in 100 million or like a little harder to do than that, but not much. Meanwhile, apparently the odds of becoming president are only about 1 in 10 million. So, you know, go figure. So with that we will speak with our first guest, John Balzarini, Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Delaware State University. He is going to join us in just a sec. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by John Balzarini. So great to speak with you today on Citations Needed, John.

John Balzarini: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Adam: So you’ve studied the sociological aspects of how casinos affect communities frequently for the worse. My question is what does the data suggest overall because we don’t want to engage in kind of baseless moralizing, you know, it’s an awkward conversation to have without coming off as a Baptist, but we want to talk about the ways in which casinos and lotteries overwhelmingly tax the poor and harm the poor. Can you talk a bit about what other harmful effects and what the net effect is of casinos once they establish in these cities?

John Balzarini: Well, like many things, it depends on who you ask. And in terms of the negatives on communities, it is, you know, as you’re suggesting here, casinos are very much a regressive tax. They rely very, very heavily on low income gamblers and they rely very heavily on gamblers who are routine and recurring. The research really establishes this and in rare cases, even casino operators and company spokespersons will admit that they make a lot of their money from people playing slots two, three, four times a week. So what we’re talking about is a business that really relies on, in the business model indeed relies on people gambling a lot with a little bit of money and the research suggests anywhere between 30 to 60 percent of revenues will come from these folks at the bottom. So you know, it’s this regressive taxation that’s really a downward pressure on low income communities. And on top of that, when we’re talking about recurring gamblers and the kind of consistent gamblers, the rates of gambling addiction kind of increase, you know, and I totally get what you’re saying. This idea of, like, you know, we don’t want be moralizing about gambling and people’s freedoms to make their own choices, but when we’re talking about casinos and especially in the case of casinos that are in place, not just for business, but for a government to extract tax revenue from the population and balance budgets or whatever else they’re, they’re saying they’re going to do with it, we’re talking about a business model that relies on addiction and promoting addiction and enabling addiction and exploiting addiction. So when you get into that, then there’s all sorts of issues and problems with, you know, people losing everything they have, committing crimes to feed their addiction, families breaking apart, lacking the resources to even get help as is the case with many addictions that people suffer from. So it becomes a very kind of strange policy for government because it’s, you know, using a business as a means to extract revenue. That very business model relies on stuff that is, you know, fairly destructive and harmful under the guise of free choice. And ‘oh, but gambling is fun’ and ‘what’s the harm, less risk’ or something like that. But indeed there are deep harms related to all of this.

Nima: Yeah. It appears that it’s a state-sanctioned policy that relies on something extremely unhealthy to be promoted. You know, it’s like the antithesis of “buckle up” or “don’t drink and drive.” It’s like, ‘No, no, no, like, feed your addiction and then we will extract what meager money you may already have.’ Can you tell us about how this is generally sold to the public? Where these revenues are expected to go or said to go and then maybe who they actually benefit?

John Balzarini: Yeah. So state to state it really depends. Most of the research I’ve done has been on Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia casino kind of conflicts here. I live in Philadelphia so that’s where I’ve studied the most. And in Pennsylvania the taxes are extremely high. In fact, the taxes on gambling are the highest in the United States. And as a result, Pennsylvania has collected tens of billions of dollars in tax revenue since 2004 when gambling became legal in Pennsylvania. And slot machines are taxed at a 54 percent tax rate and table games are taxed at a 16 percent tax rate. And I think something is there to kind of tie me back to what I was saying before, which is that, you know, slot machines are the things that casinos rely on so much. It is a big part of their revenue is just people gambling relatively small amounts of money on these recurring kind of push the button and more money going through the system. And connected to the issue of gambling, the big part of the business model has been revolutionizing, you know, how slot machines work and to make them quicker, no more pull down lever —

Adam: That’s way too many calories you’ve got to burn.

John Balzarini: Too many calories, too much time. And it’s kind of the classic thing any business would do if you can shave down seconds on a process over the course of a year, you know, that’s where you make a lot more profit. Well, casinos have figured out how to do this on slot machines and there are entire companies that are about designing slot machines that are to enable the experience to be faster and faster and faster. You know, it’s not that old fashioned thing anymore where you put in the coin and you pull the lever down and you wait for it to spin and hopefully there’s three cherries right there. It’s you put in a card, that they’ve already advertised to you and maybe given you some incentives, even some money put on that card. You pop the card in and then it’s just a bunt and you go very, very quickly and this is all part of not just extracting the money as quickly as possible, but to enable the addictive kind of experience that is part of slot machines. And when you look at the revenues that, Pennsylvania for instance, has collected annually, it is astronomical how much the slots collect as compared to table games. If casinos were just about table games states wouldn’t be pushing for this. They wouldn’t be pushing for it because although of course somebody can be addicted to craps or poker or something like that, the real money and the real addiction is this small time gambler, the small amounts of money multiple times a week very quickly through slot machines. So it all kind of ties back to even the way the tax policy works, at least in Pennsylvania where, ‘okay, the most addictive form of gambling, we’re going to tax the hell out of that.’ That’s where we, ‘okay, we know exactly where the money’s going to come in and that’s where we’re going to extract it.’ And it’s always sold, it’s such a trope at this point in time, it’s jobs and taxes. That’s it. ‘No, no, we build casinos because this will be jobs.’ You work at the casino or you’re part of a labor union that helps build the casino and it will be the tax revenues to starved municipalities, starved cities, starved state budgets, etcetera. So really that’s the justification that’s constantly served. In fact, it’s such a kind of paradigmatic justification that nobody even questions it. For you to even question like, ‘Well, do we need a casino here?’ It’s like, ‘What are you a dummy? Taxes and jobs! How dare you! I mean, the carpenter’s union, there’s jobs right there and there are people who need work,’ and you know, it’s sold that way that where even a kind of constructive conversation about the costs and benefits for a society or a city or a small town or whatever really are just tossed out and it’s just like its just assumed like you’re going to have this net gain. And then in Pennsylvania, a lot of it, interestingly enough, goes to offset property taxes across the state. So you’re taxing in one place to offset some of the tax burden somewhere else. And of course some goes to the general fund, some goes to the local municipalities and the distribution is kind of following that path right there. But yeah, it’s really, it’s sold as this, you know, just kind of blindly accepted good. Jobs and revenue. And if you’re interested in creating a new tax base, it’s not exactly a new tax base, but if you’re a new way to extract taxes, casinos work really, really well. They work well. They do, they do the job.

Adam: I’m fascinated on casinos and lotteries, not so much as a disease, but a symptom of a broader disease and that broader disease we’ll sort of broadly define as neoliberalism, a term that sometimes I think can be misused, but it’s perfectly applicable here in that it’s, there’s a couple core assumptions that the media especially sort of just parrots without much thought. The first is that we can’t raise taxes. You can’t really raise taxes in any meaningful way because of this race to the bottom mentality that if we raise taxes, they’ll all move to the state next to us. And so the whole thing is totally degenerate. And then the second axiom is that there’s this kind of libertarian thread which is a subset, I think, of a lot of neoliberal ideology that it’s about freedom of choice, which kind of sounds romantic and definitely sounds like a good thing, right? People have agency, people have choice, but I think as materialists as people who sort of look at the net effect of things as opposed to what I would view as these kind of libertarian concepts of agency, there is not a single example of institutionalized gambling that isn’t just a massive regressive tax. No matter how much you want to frame it as something like choice, with an understanding that you don’t want to, you don’t wanna like throw people in jail for petty poker games and such like that, but in your mind, where does the reliance, the hyper reliance on lotteries and casinos in the past 30 years, which has grown exponentially, how much of that parallels or correlates with the rise of neoliberalism as an ideology?

John Balzarini: It’s very much correlated. It’s part and parcel of it. In fact, it is only because of some moral arguments made about gambling that certain groups, especially religious organizations have made over the years that this is a morally wrong thing for people to do, that it’s even been slowed down. You know, this is big business and the big business folks have been foaming at the mouth to kind of unleash this monster and neoliberalism is a process that just greases this state after state after state. So yeah, no, in my mind, your right on. Neoliberalism has generated this kind of field where cities and states are forced to compete for new types of tax revenues, tax revenues that at one point were there in some way at least in some kind of sustainable way, but because of various things like the outsourcing of businesses, especially from cities across the country, especially in older cities like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh or Harrisburg or Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. You know, you’ve had this kind of outsourcing of jobs to other parts of the United States where there was less union representation and where businesses could get away with paying people less money. And then more recently because of technological innovation and various trade deals the outsourcing has gone overseas for all sorts of different types of jobs and what replaced a kind of manufacturing economy that was stable and had a lot of union representation and workers had rights and they had the ability to collectively bargain and all those things get stripped away and they’re replaced with this kind of part time, low wage, sticky floor jobs in the service economy. So those jobs don’t generate enough tax revenue through sales taxes or through income taxes or things like that. So that becomes kind of overtime a burden and then as jobs leave a city or a state they are not paying the taxes as much anymore. So it, it, it creates this kind of cash strapped spatial environment. And then of course during the Reagan administration, the 1980s, you know, he and his administration were very active in cutting off federal support to cities across the country and to some degree states, but especially to cities. And the game was this, it was, ‘Hey, we’re stepping out of this. You guys want to have unions there, fine, you compete with the cities that don’t have unions and if you want to pay people more, fine, you compete with these’ and it really, it just is creating a game that can’t be won. It’s regressive. It’s a race to the bottom, as you said, and ultimately you have over time, cities and states scrambling to try to figure out how to, you know, fill the gaps that were created in this lost revenue.

Adam: Because there’s nothing that’s being added really. Right?

John Balzarini: Yeah there’s nothing being added. There’s nothing produced.

Adam: And each state thinks they’re clever by saying ‘we’re going to expand gambling to X or Y’ and it reminds me of the scene in There’s Something About Mary when he does the, ‘Have you heard of of eight minute abs?’ He’s like, ‘I have this huge new twist on it. Seven minute abs.’ What about casino gambling table games, or what about having more slots or what about it’s like —

Nima: Or doing it at diners or doing it at preschools.

Adam: Right. And the whole thing is just so, it’s so fucking degenerate. There’s nothing being added.

John Balzarini: There’s another being added, there’s nothing being produced, right? It’s this illusion of competition too is so kind of crass because it’s not dissimilar to the way cities go and chase, you know, big businesses to come to their towns like more recently with Amazon, it’s one of these things where ‘we’ve got to do this.’ ‘No we would be crazy if we don’t legalize gambling because over there next door in that city they’re going to do it and they’ve already done it and they’ve already done it.’

Adam: It’s just bum fights. Like we’re just fighting over the scraps.

John Balzarini: (Laughs.) That’s really apropos, right? It’s bum fights and every time it becomes the situation then where, you know, if you lived in Philadelphia 20 years ago, you traveled to Atlantic City and Atlantic City, you know, got the benefit of gambling revenue, but now that Maryland and Delaware and Pennsylvania and there’s still Atlantic City and New York, it’s like, why leave your local area? Right? So it just becomes this extraction of tax revenue that’s very localized. And indeed they set the casinos up so they don’t even compete with each other. They don’t want them to close because it’s not actually a market, it’s a highly controlled kind of situation meant for extraction. They don’t want the casinos competing with one another because then there’s one less casino extracting revenue, so it’s just like, how do we get the people who live in this place where we’re going to build this casino, how do we get them to gamble as much as possible.

Nima: It’s like, this is, this is my corner to mug you on, so I don’t want anyone close to that. (Laughs.)

John Balzarini: Yeah, exactly. And the neoliberal part is like, it’s taken for granted in this day and age. We’re long past where there’s any kind of real socialist, and I’m saying real broad based socialist argument, we saw a little bit of this with Bernie Sanders, but there’s really no debate over neoliberalism, whether it’s a Republican mayor or Democratic mayor, whether they lean left or center or whatever. It’s just assumed you’ve got to get Amazon in your city and you’ve got to cut taxes and it’s just assumed you’ve got to. If they’re going to build casinos, we gotta build casinos. They have a lottery, we need a lottery, you know, and then, you know, over time it, it just lessens everything. Every city won’t tax Amazon, every city will have casinos.

Adam: One of the things we found interesting in our research was the degree to which the Left and left-wing publications have pretty much not talked about this issue at all. And one theory I suspect as to why is because it is kind of, it’s very, very subtle. You know, if I went to your average leftist or socialist or even I think progressive or liberal and said I have this tax where we’re going to transfer all this money from the bottom 10 percent and give it to the top one percent people would rightfully oppose it. But if I launder it through this idea of gaming, uh, this kind of benign sounding concept of gaming, it kind of slips under the radar.

Nima: You get to have fun while that’s happening.

John Balzarini: Yeah, I think that’s it, right? I mean, at the end of the day, for many people, this is a fun activity. It’s an activity that is connected to people’s kind of cultures and their families. The poker game over Thanksgiving or Christmas when everyone gets together or the annual trip to Atlantic City or Las Vegas or things like that, because for many people, you know, gambling won’t be a problem and many people don’t know that the business model is about targeting everyone else. The people who it will be a problem for and about targeting people at the bottom. It’s one of those things, it’s just not really talked about because, like just the way we started this conversation, it’s kind of complicated because you know a lot of folks might be very liberal about the freedom to gamble if you want to legalize drugs to mitigate other problems or other, these types of things that will, some people call it like sins or these programmatic things we do. A person might say, ‘well, people ought to have the right to do it and you know, then you get rid of black markets and government regulates and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.’ But here again, the business model is really just designed around, to the best of the research right now, around addiction and about this kind of what David Harvey calls accumulation by dispossession is, you know, what we’re calling a regressive tax. It goes for folks at the bottom and I just don’t think it’s ever really talked about. And I think the one two punch of jobs and taxes is a very hard thing to argue through. I mean it’s just the editorial boards of local newspapers when a casino is proposed it’s just this, folks, if they don’t like it, they usually don’t want a casino around for kind of nimby reasons. They don’t care. They just don’t want them. They’re worried about the crime that might bring for them or if it will bring down their property values or something like that. But if it was located 10 miles away it wouldn’t be enough for them to be agitated about. So it becomes this thing that, you know, if you want to do it’s, it’s, it’s been a pretty good way for governments to extract more tax revenue in a way that doesn’t seem very sustainable to me.

Nima: Well, I think there’s something really fascinating about the difference in revenue generated from slots versus table games because I think table games have that aura of community and fun and oh you’re going to, you know, oh there’s that glam of getting rich and yeah it’s super sexy and glamorous and in movies and TV shows like slow motion shots of the dice on a craps table. Right? Like everyone cheering. Then you get to have a tragic element to it. But if everyone understood casinos as raking in so much of their money from just people pushing a button sitting on like a tall chair, it’s not even like the gaming satisfaction that may have come from like a bucket of quarters. It’s not even that anymore. And so the idea of even taking the game out of gaming just to be even more extractive as something that struck me about all this.

John Balzarini: Absolutely. Well, even calling it “gaming” is part of the rebranding. Right?

Nima: Yes.

John Balzarini: Don’t say gambling because gambling triggers something in some people. Gaming as part of this kind of strategic rebranding to make it more palatable to the public, especially for a public who may not be interested in even going to a casino all that much. Gaming doesn’t sound so bad. But yeah, when you read some of this stuff about, you know, the slot machines and the cleverness, it’s, it’s honestly very clever. It’s, it seems like just criminally evil sometimes, but to make the chair’s more comfortable so people don’t have to move and then of course you bring them the drinks, you bring them the food and —

Nima: There’s no clocks.

John Balzarini: There’s no clocks, there’s no windows and you know, I had somebody explain to me, you know, why the seats are plastic because some people have wet themselves because they refuse to get up because they believe they’re on a hot machine and if they get up somebody else will sit down and then that’ll be the strike and it’s just these are really problematic issues and they become pathological at certain points and that’s the plan and that’s the goal. Years ago I followed a group in Philadelphia called Casino Free Philadelphia and they did a direct action at a casino in Chester, Pennsylvania and they called it “Beat the House” and they went into the casino and they put, I don’t know, it was like five bucks or ten bucks into slot machines and they all sat at different parts of the casino and they just put the money in and sat there. They didn’t play it and the whole idea was let’s, you know, it’s a direct action, let’s agitate these folks. Let’s kind of show what this is actually about and it’s not about being there. It’s not about hanging out. You could go to a mall and hang out not buy something. You can go to a lot of places and not do what they want you to do there, but if you go into a casino and you sit too long even with money in the machine, there’s going to be this kind of like, ‘hey, you got to bet or you gotta to leave.’ You know, you gotta you have to get into the game, so to speak, pun intended I guess in this case. So you know, I remember being there watching them as I was doing research thinking, well this is really, really, really clever stuff here. You know, it’s so simple to just expose the actual agenda of ‘you sit there, you don’t move and you have the bed and we’re going to make it as easy as possible for you to do it.’

Nima: Right. It’s like if you were at a bar, nursing a beer and they’re like, ‘Yo, hurry the fuck up and order five more.’

John Balzarini: Yeah, right. ‘You’re drinking that beer too slow. Here are two shots of…” Well, it’s like you need to get drunk so you buy more beer than you actually want or need. Yeah, that’s right.

Nima: John Balzarini, Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Delaware State University. It has been so great to talk to you today on Citations Needed. Thanks so much for joining us.

John Balzarini: Thanks a lot. It was fun.


Adam: That was great. It’s interesting to put it in terms of sociology in the development of cities and what that looks like because that’s not the way of course we talk about it. The media doesn’t really put those things in context.

Nima: Yeah. So we will shift now from the academic to the more advocacy side of this and so we will be speaking now with Les Bernal, National Director of Stop Predatory Gambling, a broad coalition that has filed lawsuits alongside progressive groups such as the Center for Popular Democracy, United for a Fair Economy and the Public Health Advocacy Institute. Les is going to join us in just a sec. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Les Bernal. Uh, it’s so great to have you with us Les. Thanks for joining us on Citations Needed.

Les Bernal: Thank you.

Adam: So you obviously run a pretty self explanatory organization. Your goal is to stop predatory gambling. What in your view is the net harm to widespread gambling as we’ve seen it increase over the last 30 years, even more so the last five years, what are you seeing on your end is the net harm that’s been done?

Les Bernal: Do I think it’s important for your listeners to understand the difference when we talk about predatory gambling, you know, we’re not talking about social forms of gambling, say you have a Friday night poker game with your friends or you have an office Super Bowl pool, no, or even a March Madness bracket with some of your friends from college, like that’s not what we’re talking about. When we talk about predatory gambling, we’re talking about very powerful corporate interests that are partnered with state governments across the United States to bring in for profit gambling, commercialized gambling into every home, into every community in this country. There’s been a huge national debate over the last several years about the rising unfairness of opportunity in our country and particularly on the left, like we’ve ignored the issue of government sanctioned gambling as a core factor behind this unfairness of opportunity. And in gambling it’s also important to understand what makes gambling different than any other business or commodity, including those involving vices like alcohol and tobacco, is that commercialized gambling at its very essence is a big con game. It’s a con. Citizens are conned into thinking that they can win money on games that are designed literally, literally designed in the end to get them fleeced of their money. So if you pay for a book, if you go out for a glass of wine, you go pay a ticket to a sporting event, you know that’s what you receive in return. In the world of commercialized gambling that’s sponsored by states across the country, what you receive is the lure that you might win money in a game that’s mathematically stacked against you and inevitably you’re going to lose in the end, especially if you keep gambling. So whether it’s Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or these other political leaders who stand up and say, you know, ‘our economic system is rigged against ordinary citizens.’ Exhibit A in that argument, in that fight should be the role of government sanctioned gambling. It’s become the public voice, you know, through its marketing and advertising, gambling is now the public voice of government to most citizens across United States. We don’t, it’s what we advertise more to than anything else in our country.

Nima: Who do you think is preyed upon most? I mean, I know there’s this broad notion of working people, working-class people. Are there any more specific targeted victims when it comes to this big business of predatory gambling?

Les Bernal: Yeah, so I come from Massachusetts and I live in, the last 20, almost 25 years now, I’ve lived in the poorest city in the state. The city of Lawrence, Mass. Almost on every street corner there’s lottery retailers selling $30 scratch tickets, you know, across the country states like Indiana and Texas they’re selling $50 scratch tickets in the poorest neighborhoods of the state. State lotteries particularly are the biggest player in this world. They’re exempt from truth in advertising laws. So we talk about who they’re going after like you have, you know, whether it’s regional casinos, state lotteries, and now these potential online gambling operators that are trying to force in sports gambling like they do incredible market research about who, who they can lure with this stuff and like they literally do market research about, ‘How do we get more minorities to gamble in our country, to play these rigged games.’ ‘How do we get more working class women involved in our state sponsored gambling operations.’ They’re doing market research about how to, how to market this stuff more aggressively and because they’re exempt from truth in advertising laws, they can market it essentially free will because states are in the business. Every state attorney general for the most part would weigh in if you’re doing predatory lending, they’ll step in and say, ‘we’re going to shut you down,’ or you know, if you’re doing a predatory credit card practices or whatever states now it’s trendy for attorney generals to step in and shut down those practices. When it comes to state sanctioned gambling, predatory gambling practices, the, our entire political infrastructure, you know, all of our public officials regardless of party, to shield their eyes and look the other way and let these business practices continue to happen because we’re doing this, at least in theory, to raise money for public services and it’s the ultimate budget gimmick. So in all these states we saw in recent, you know, last year or two with these big teacher strikes like Oklahoma, in West Virginia, not coincidentally, okay, both those states were states when they brought in big time predatory gambling was supposed to fund education, you know, so who’s winning in this? It’s these big powerful corporations and a handful of public officials from both political parties who are getting enormous amounts of political contributions to fuel their, their machines. That’s what it’s about. If this is really a benefit, wealthy people, this wouldn’t be happening like you wouldn’t, you know, wealthy people are investing their extra dollars in 529 funds, college funds for their kids. They’re investing in IRA, Roth IRA funds to have a secure retirement, you know, half the nation has negative or zero personal net wealth and the biggest pusher bringing these folks, instead of encouraging people to build assets, we’re pushing them down the road of losing their money on these rigged games. So this about who did the games are targeted to. You can tell who the audience is for this. You can even walk into a regional casino, the big money maker in the regional casino business, regardless of what your state is, are these so-called penny slot machines. Some high roller coming in from overseas, you know, supposedly that, when they market this stuff to get the public to approve it they’re saying, ‘well, we’re going to track all these overseas folks.’ No one’s coming in from overseas to play penny slot machines. That’s getting people to come in, you know, four to five times a week into the casino to lose 100 bucks, 200 bucks a pop playing these penny machines.

Adam: What do you say, cause I think we’re going to probably have some listeners to this show who are libertarian or kind of libertarian left, if you will, um, and I don’t mean that as a pejorative. I mean that there’s a kind of broad label, whose instinct is to say, ‘okay, we don’t want the government to regulate things.’ But then maybe what you’re saying is that the government isn’t just not regulating it. It’s actively endorsing it and promoting it and has a monopoly on it.

Les Bernal: Yeah. You said it perfectly. I mean, just to make this distinction, so you and I, there’s nothing to stop, you know, the group of us here on this call, on this podcast, to have a Friday night poker game. You know what I mean? We could have our own, we can gamble with each other. You know what’s been illegal historically in our country is gambling when there’s a house involved. Okay, so if you and I are on a golf course and we have a friendly wager with each other, there is no, no laws prohibiting that. No one’s going to shut us down or arrest us for those types of things. But historically it’s been illegal to run commercialized gambling operations in our country, which means when it’s commercialized, that means there’s a House. So when you’re at, there’s a so-called House involved, the House doesn’t care like how much you wager or who’s wagering. They get a cut regardless of what happens, you know, they’re going to win no matter what.

Adam: The House always wins.

Les Bernal: Yeah, exactly. It’s been a cliché now in our society, but historically in our country it’s been illegal to cheat and exploit citizens on any kind of financial product that’s rigged against them because historically that’s been the case. So now states have allowed this to come in. Public officials from all parties, particularly on the left just shield their eyes and continue to bring in more and more extreme forms of gambling even though it’s literally the huge-ist con in our society today.

Adam: So, what do you say to those who would say, (a) it’s their choice and (b) I know this is one argument that’s been advanced, is that it’s happening anyway, this just kind of brings it into the light. This is a very common rejoinder. I’m sure you’ve heard a million times in your job that gambling is happening anyway. We just need to tax it and regulate it.

Les Bernal: So, someone can be a libertarian on this, you know, at the same time, believing that we cross an unacceptable ethical line when we go from allowing individuals to gamble to allowing our government to set up a partnership with these powerful corporate gambling interests to set up a massive marketing and distribution scheme, encouraging people to play these rigged games. Most libertarians are actually with us on this because this is the ultimate form of crony capitalism when they bring in a state lottery or regional casinos, like, there’s no free market here, this is, you and I can’t go run our own casino, we can’t go open up our own state lottery. These guys get monopolies and these gambling interests, depending on your state, states like Ohio, they literally went in and rewrote the state Constitution to give them a monopoly in the state Constitution. Go out and drop like $50 million in a statewide referendum to ram it through, you know, promising people it’s going to change the Ohio economy, you know, knowing the most desperate places in our country market this stuff as if it’s a cure all, you know, it’s the biggest con in America, you know, and, and they become really some of the most powerful things. It’s not an accident. You know, the, the irony here is, you know, during the presidential campaigns you had both candidates on the Democratic side, you know, prominent ones Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, they both did press conferences in Atlantic City against Donald Trump. Okay. But instead of standing up and challenging him for running the most predatory business in the United States, in terms of the casino business, the ultimate con game ripping billions of dollars out of the pockets of ordinary citizens. Instead of hammering him for that, they actually criticized him for making his casino go bankrupt. You know, think about that. It’s amazing how the left should be challenging this public policy for the financial harm it does and instead they just keep shielding their eyes saying, ‘well, we know we should be protecting the people that work at the casinos’ instead of challenging the actual, you know, even though a job at a casino is the equivalent of throwing your money into the street and paying someone to pick it up, it’s just as a sterile transfer of wealth ultimately into the hands of a very privileged few who operate these casinos, who own the casinos.

Nima: So it’s like wagging their finger for Trump not being successful enough at extracting even more wealth from those communities.

Les Bernal: And you know, this will not be a surprise to your listeners, but like Hillary Clinton had, you know, some of the most powerful casino operators in the country right on her finance team. Like she’s no friend, even though Trump was a former casino operator and preyed on ordinary citizens, I mean Hillary Clinton was a huge supporter of predatory gambling herself. So unfortunately for people who get this issue and understand its role and the financial harm it causes, it was almost like a lose-lose for us in that presidential race.

Nima: I’m actually really curious, Les, if you can dig in a little deeper on this bait-and-switch that tends to happen. How gambling in the form of casinos, in the form of lotteries, are sold to the public as they’re going to be a benefit, they’re going to help out education or they’re going to fund this, they’re going to fund that. Can you tell us what then happens in reality with that money?

Les Bernal: So that is a core, a really important question. And I think it’s something that keeps the left on the sidelines in this important fight because, you know, even though they know how predatory it is, they’ll kind of shield their eyes and be like, hey, you know, this money’s coming in and they can say like California when the lottery is brought in it was supposed to pay for education, K-12 education, you know? And, and that was in the mid-1980s. That was the big promise that the California Lottery was going to be this big funding source for education. The California Lottery brings in roughly one percent, one percent of K-12 education funding in that state. Who are we doing this for? You know what I mean? Instead, it’s this massive transfer of wealth from the poorest, most financially desperate citizens in our society, into the hands, most of the gaming operators that run the games and it goes right into the state coffers, which in theory is supposed to be used for these noble purposes. But what it does, it’s really a budget gimmick because when all these people lose their cash, you know, we make this big lobbying push to have healthcare for all you know, to provide housing vouchers for people so they have a place to live, right? Food stamps, food subsidies for folks to get to help them get out of poverty. You know, government sanctioned gambling, predatory gambling is a backdoor attack on all those programs that we are trying to fund to help people get out of poverty. Yet people are using food stamp dollars to buy lottery tickets. It comes in right on the back door. This is the chance. Cornell University that has done the best research in the country about how financially desperate people are playing the lottery, not for fun, like the way the lottery market it, they’re playing because this is their best chance to change their lives. We’re putting all this money into education and so forth to help people get ahead. And this has become the answer for people to have these rigged games. We focus a lot on, you know, raise the minimum wage to $15 bucks an hour, all of which, I get, that’s important. We need to be pushing increasing wages in our country for ordinary citizens, but at the same time we ignore the fact that it’s not enough just to make a new higher wage. We have to be encouraging people to build assets. You can’t build a middle class and help people get out of poverty in our country if we’re not helping them build assets, and the biggest way you build assets is by saving money. You know, and by encouraging people to buy lottery tickets in all these poor neighborhoods across the country, you know, as your ticket to change your life, all that money that’s supposed to be bringing it in to fund all these things it’s a huge failure. The ultimate budget gimmick and your listeners need to know that for the the two thirds of citizens who never gambled, probably most of your listeners probably never touched the stuff, like you’re paying for this whole racket. This is supposed to be this huge revenue source. If anything what the research shows — and this is right out of Lucy Dadayan, and it is really the best researcher in the country, so now at the Urban Institute, best researcher in the country around government revenues from gambling — and it shows that over the long term that government revenues from gambling, they worsen state budget problems. So here you have all these states that have gone down this road of, big time states, gone down the road of predatory gambling, Illinois, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, California. You know, you name it. There’re also the states in the worst financial condition, billions of dollars is coming in, being lost by citizens in our country to government sanctioned gambling. And it’s worse than the state budget problems. So who do you think bails out these budget problems? Who ends up paying higher taxes for less services? In the end, you have the non-gambler, you pay even if you don’t play.

Adam: What does the politics of this look like? You had mentioned offline that there’s a kind of implicit neoliberal agreement between Republicans and Democrats to kind of look the other way while this serves as a budget gimmick, which I think is fair to say that it is, but who are the forces pushing against this? I know that you have your group. I know that you guys are nonpartisan. You work with a coalition that you describe as left and right. In your estimation, who are the forces that are pushing against this and what does that coalition look like?

Les Bernal: Yeah, so so early on when this issue started to explode in the 1990s, there was a very intense pushback from liberal social justice groups that run the gamut. Many of those groups still care about this, but it’s just not, you know, because these gambling interests have become so powerful in states, that they just throw up their hands and be like, ‘I’m not sure if we can make a difference on this.’ So but they still care. So many of the groups that are involved in economic and social justice issues at the state level have been involved. Good government type groups like League of Women Voters, common cause type of groups. And then on the right you have many conservative faith groups will stand up and oppose this because they see the harm it does the financial harm and the social harm it does to families.

Nima: Can you tell us before we go about your American Declaration on Government and Gambling?

Les Bernal: Sure. So what we try to do is, is to put together kind of a statement of principles about why it’s time state governments pull themselves out of the gambling business and got back on the side of citizens, back into the business of improving people’s lives rather than pushing them into deeper poverty and pushing addiction on them.

Nima: I think that’s a perfect place to leave it. Les Bernal, National Director for Stop Predatory Gambling, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Les Bernal: Thank you for your work.


Adam: Yeah, that was great. It’s such a weird spot to be in because you have to sort of have very strange bedfellows and we wanted to just do a little ideological housekeeping here because we were worried that we would come off as being Baptist. Cause I go to casinos now and then. I think that’s not really the issue. The issue is in the aggregate, are these things good? Are these healthy taxes, are they, are they taxes that prey on the poor? And I think it’s clear that they are taxes on the poor. Um, and I think it’s clear that if I went to your average progressive or leftist and said I have this idea for a tax where, you know, the poorest 18 counties in South Carolina pay for 50 to 60 percent of it, I would be run out of the door.

Nima: Yeah, they’d be like, ‘That’s not really a good idea, Adam.’

Adam: Right. But if I, but if I launder it through these things like lottery and casinos suddenly it’s okay. And I think that’s one of the reasons that the left hasn’t really articulated a vision on this topic is because it is kind of abstracted out. And I also think there’s kind of a libertarian thread that has been in the left since kind of the George Carlin days where like, ‘you do you man.’ And I think that’s mostly a good instinct. I also think that you have to understand that once these things become quote unquote “legalized” that very large and evil corporations take them over and we need to figure out what that looks like when you’re not, especially when they have state sanctioned monopolies where you’re not just quasi-legalizing something and then just using it as a way of generating tax revenue on the backs of the most vulnerable and I think it’s something we have to kind of deal with because it’s grown so much even the last five, six years. But the, you know, the impetus for the show is, was like we talked about offline was, you know, just taking, not to be Thomas Friedman-y about it, but just going up and down the state of Illinois going through Joliet, going to Springfield, Illinois and this is a state that legalized slot machines a few years ago. Then you see, you know, rampant drug abuse, factories moved out, large state prison in Joliet as pretty much the only major employer there anymore and there’s a new casino there that it was supposed to kind of offset a lot of the jobs that were lost from deindustrialization. So you know, it’s just this stop gap. It’s this gimmick to prevent facing the fact that we have an elite that has nothing to offer people.

Nima: And meanwhile bringing these businesses into communities, as you just said, Adam, that are so desperate and dangling this idea of jobs, dangling this idea of tourists coming, high rollers coming in when meanwhile as our guests were saying, the slots are what take the money from people and it is the poorest who go and do that and they traffic on this idea of hope and they just feed their money into these machines again and again and again. And so the promise of jobs, the promise of this new industry coming to communities that are desperate is really just a way of then taking more money out of those communities rather than building up any sort of wealth within them.

Adam: Yeah. And we used the word lottery as a metaphor for our lottery-ism episode about Amazon and sports teams and the way they play the population off each other. Uh, and this is the same thing. It’s obviously not a metaphor, but it’s the same principle, right? You sort of keep people dancing. They’re jumping from one square to the next, trying to stay afloat and there’s this constant specter that you too can get rich, you too can win the Amazon HQ, you too can get a sports team, you can win, you can be a winner in this economy, you know, there’s no sense of sustainability. There’s no sense of are we building things? Are things being actually built? Are we making, you know, a longer lasting light bulb or a medical center that cures disease? Um, no, we’re moving money around, you know, we’re churning the butter until the cream rises to three counties in Connecticut and New York and Virginia.

Nima: This really reminds me of the Shirley Jackson story that was published in 1948 in The New Yorker, one of the most famous American short stories, called The Lottery. There’s a reason why that story is not only so compelling, but also sparked so much outrage. The New Yorker was sent, like, hate mail, subscribers freaked out, readers freaked out after reading that story. It’s about this town that has a lottery and throughout the story you think that a lottery is a good thing, like, you don’t realize what’s going on here until the end and then you realize that it’s about whoever wins the lottery gets stoned to death. And that’s kind of like also what happens in our own society with lotto, with casinos, that there’s this idea of something that sounds so good, that sounds so hopeful, ‘Oh, your life can change so much, it’s such a positive’ and yet undergirding it all is something very, very deeply disturbing about our society and about who benefits from these things and who winds up continually paying more and more money that they don’t have.

Adam: Yeah. And the way I look at it as like, look, if you want to tax the poor, just say you want to tax the poor. Spare me the whole like gaming pretense.

Nima: But it’s fun, right?

Adam: Yeah, sure. But that’s not really why you’re doing it. So, anyway.

Nima: Yeah. So that will do it. Thank you, everyone, for listening. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed. You can become a supporter of the show, which would be really wonderful, please do that if you can, through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. And of course an extra special shout out goes to our Critic-level supporters on Patreon. Thank you again all of you, and everyone for listening. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam of Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. Associate producer is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. We’ll catch you next time.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, January 23, 2019.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.