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The Luck Business: The Devastating Consequences and Broken Promises of America's Gambling Explosion.

The Luck Business: The Devastating Consequences and Broken Promises of America's Gambling Explosion

Robert Goodman Free Press, $23

The "nice" side of town in Atlantic City is a stretch one block wide and less than 10 blocks long. This is what tourists see: velvet-soaked casinos, a Boardwalk lined with shops and concession stands, faux-everything. The rest of the city is a ghetto--cracked concrete coated with broken bottles and refuse. With the exception of pawn shops, which are plentiful, storefronts are mostly boarded up.

Casinos were supposed to revive this faded resort town. Instead, they hastened its decline. Rather than acting like a sponge soaking up visitors' money, as in Las Vegas, Atlantic City's casinos became more like rats, gnawing away at the remains of small restaurants and hotels. Out-of-state magnates like Donald Trump built self-enclosed fortresses along the beach. Jobs went to out-of-staters, and the problems of gambling addicts and increased crime stayed right at home.

You might expect this story to serve as a cautionary tale for towns attracted to the flashing lights of slot machines. Instead, casinos are enjoying unprecedented popularity among politicians and urban planners. Cities in rural South Dakota and Colorado mining country, in Louisiana and dozens of other states, have turned to gambling for a jolt of economic energy. They keep chasing the dream of Las Vegas, only to find themselves in the nightmare of Atlantic City. The big-spending tourists rarely come. Little new money enters the economy. The money that is spent is diverted from other area businesses.

Why do so many towns--from New Orleans to Joliet, Illinois to Davenport, Iowa--keep falling into the gambling trap? As Robert Goodman explains in The Luck Business, it's not because citizens are clamoring for more opportunities to gamble. In fact, every state-wide referendum to expand gambling since New Jersey's in 1976 has failed. The casino boosters are the industry itself and its eager followers--politicians seeking quick-fixes for deep-seated economic woes (and, sometimes, campaign contributions as well).

The pattern is depressingly familiar. It starts with vast promises: "This may be as important to Davenport as the Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta," one Iowa official said of Davenport's first casino license. "Riverboat gambling will start a rebirth of Joliet's center," predicted that Illinois town's city manager in 1992. "It will save us five years in developing our downtown."

The cities spend millions in infrastructure-readying the docks for riverboats, building access roads, expanding water and sewer systems. Next comes a high-profile media spectacle as the ribbon is cut, and the first gamblers throw their dice. Finally, after the hype comes the crash of unrealized expectations. Consider the case of Joliet. Like Atlantic City, Goodman reports, the town saw "a continuing stream of day-tripping gamblers, who stayed at the casinos and then left." No hotel was built. No new non-casino businesses were created, with the exception of a single take-out coffee shop.

The country is paying a dear price for this failed experiment. The rush to build casinos--and the concurrent expansion of lotteries and electronic gambling--has led to an enormous growth in the number of Americans who gamble. In 1990, 46 million people visited casinos. In 1993, that figure was 92 million. The number of gambling addicts, whose enormous debts lead to crime and broken families, is exploding. The problem is bound to get worse as a generation comes of age in an era of state-sanctioned gambling.

After the introduction of casinos; Atlantic City, saw its crime rate triple in just three years, South Dakota endured a huge increase in bankruptcies and divorce claims. Between 1991 and 1994 Louisiana suffered a fivefold increase in the number of people seeking help for problem gambling.

The crazy thing about this gambling epidemic--and this is why Goodman's book should be read by anyone concerned with the crisis in public life today--is that political leaders are actively worsening the crisis. Seduced by the promises of tourist money and hundreds of new jobs, politicians cheerlead for expanded gambling and abdicate any regulatory role in the process. With lottery advertising, state money is even pitched in to make gambling seem like harmless fun.

At one point, Goodman quotes a gambling magnate talking straight about his plans: "When we put 50 slot machines in, I always consider them 50 more mousetraps. You have to do something to catch a mouse. It's our duty to extract as much money from the customers as we can and send them home with a smile on their face."

As this book demonstrates, the mice these businesses catch aren't just gamblers. They are towns, states--even the country itself--that are paying the price for a failed public policy.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Shenk, Joshua Wolf
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1995
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