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Crapping Out in New York

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Recently the New York Times reported that Governor Andrew M. Cuomo suggested it was time for the state to "come to grips" with the proliferation of gambling in New York and neighboring states, that he was weighing the legalization of commercial non-Indian casinos here.

The governor went on to say,

It's really not an issue anymore of 'Well, if we don't officially sanction it as a government, it's not going to happen;' It is happening.

With several Indian-run casinos already operating in the state, a state lottery, and video lottery terminal gambling at a number of horse racing tracks, who can argue with the governor's logic? Though it's unclear where his suggestion will ultimately lead, betting it concludes with more restrictive policies on state-sanctioned gambling doesn't feel like it comes with good odds.

But if the governor is serious about having New York "come to grips" with the matter, he'll need to travel attentively down a two-way street proponents of state-sanctioned gambling have customarily feared to tread: he'll need to heed the well-established body of research that concludes proper accounting is key, and that the tangible and substantial long-term economic costs of casinos greatly exceed their benefits to host communities -- not just because of existing problem and pathological gamblers, but also because, as indicated in the National Gambling Impact Study Commission Report, their prevalence markedly increases in proximity to a gambling facility (a point avoided with irritation by former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell in his interview with Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes.

And he'll need to be honest about Albany's interests running at cross purposes with communities' interests and admit that passing more hidden (and not so hidden) casino costs onto host communities amounts to one more unfunded state mandate.

Accounting gimmicks and selective assessments have always made it easy to pitch the "casino sale"; they obscure the documented higher rates of addiction, bankruptcy, and crime that the casino economy brings to those communities.

Business law professionals like University of Illinois Professor John Warren Kindt have spent substantial portions of their careers studying and documenting these adverse effects.

And if the governor is truly serious about his own suggestion, he'll need to also decide whether any state-sponsored expansion efforts -- of an industry whose business model relies on people who are sick for a disproportionately large portion of its revenues -- will ensure the consequences are borne as broadly as possible across his state, or whether he'll concentrate them into pockets of sacrificial communities.

It's not anti-libertarian conjecture -- I've enjoyed myself many times in casinos before learning what I now know.

But people like Earl L. Grinols, professor of economics and author of Gambling in America, Costs and Benefits might just know something worth knowing. Independent research is clear, and decidedly negative -- to the net tune of many thousands of dollars of additional annual costs to host communities per each additional problem and pathological gambler when the casino comes to town, costs that can render proposed "mitigation" measures anemic at best.

And it's not about Saturday-night poker with friends, Friday-night church bingo, or anti-gambling zealotry.

It's about gambling with a "house," whose odds are stacked towards winning, so eventually others must lose.

And it's an awful lot about the speed of placing bets and monkeying with the human brain's ability to make decisions, as explained in MIT News by Natasha Scull, cultural anthropologist, MIT professor, and author of Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, and about:

how closely guarded, proprietary mathematical algorithms and immersive, interactive technology are used to keep people gambling until they -- in the industry jargon -- "play to extinction."

Sullivan County, where I live, has long been, and continues to be, Ground Zero for much of the decades-old NY casino debate. The populist chant of "jobs, jobs, jobs" began there long before the 2008 recession took hold. Yet contrary to what proponents of expanding state-sponsored gambling prefer to believe, when it came to the false allure of casinos, many locals recognized the broader hazard of blindly singing with that choir. Long-time County District Attorney Steve Lungen understood it, as did the County's own Division of Planning after conducting its scientific survey of a broad cross-section of registered county voters (the closest thing to a vote on the subject residents have, given that California-style referenda aren't permissible) -- a survey that ranked casinos dead last by a wide margin as a preferred choice for economic development. Even the regional Times Herald Record, not previously known for any bearish casino view, recently came around to acknowledging the realities of casino gambling.

Given all of this, the most important thing we can do as we take up the governor's suggestion is identify the truly central question and its basis. Evidence dictates it's not whether we should expand non-Indian casinos -- or any other kind of house gambling -- because house gambling is already here, but rather, whether our state government should double-down on its endorsement of a business model that exploits and brings harm to its people.

The challenge of putting smoke back into a bottle hardly justifies creating more fire.