Wednesday, April 11, 2012

On casinos in Ontario.

(Yes, yes, I realize it's been a while.)

Over the long weekend — Opening Day on Thursday in Detroit, then another Tiger game on Saturday — I spent a lot of time hanging out with my family. One of the things on their mind is how the horse track in Sarnia is going to survive after the province pulls the slot machines out, apparently in May.

Once upon a time, before slot machines were allowed at tracks, the purses won by horses were pretty paltry: a few hundred here and there, maybe a grand, maybe more if it was a stakes race. Worth coming out for, but barely. The purses essentially came from the bets that people made, and that alone.

When the province allowed slot machines at racetracks, suddenly the purses jumped up into the thousands. Money was everywhere, and horsemen all around the province rejoiced. My own family got into it: my uncle and cousin have had a few horses over the past few years, and some of them made a bit of money. Some didn't, of course, but that's the way it goes. (Fun fact: if a farmer owns a racehorse, they can still be counted, tax-wise, as "livestock." True story.) Now the province wants to take the slots out of any tracks (or establishments) which aren't provincially owned. This means the sure death of the track in Sarnia, and doubtless others all around Ontario.

There's been talk lately of opening up a casino on the waterfront in Toronto; some say the Ontario Place site would be ideal. It may be, it may not be, I'm not sure. I don't really have an opinion on where it goes; I'm more concerned with how, and why, gambling brings money in.

Let's face it: gambling, whether it be in slot machines, horse races, other sports betting, lotteries, or anything else, is run for one purpose, and that's to make money for whoever's running it. Sure, a few people Roll Up The Rim and win a car, but how many people didn't this spring? You, and me, and a hell of a lot of people. It's far easier to get a dollar from a million people than a million dollars from one person.

It's been said that gambling is a "tax on the poor," and that sentiment couldn't be more correct. Who buys lottery tickets? Not rich people, I assure you. Gambling takes money from poor people, with the promise of maybe, just maybe, this is your lucky day. (It probably isn't, though.) Studies have shown that, if you make rewards randomly-timed, you can get people to obsessively play a game in order to win a prize, even if it's a token and not really worth anything. Just imagine how people would play it if a few million buckaroos was on the line!

Modern democracies use taxation as a way of levelling-out income disparities: income taxes are high on the rich and low on the poor. Republicans call this "communist social engineering," but responsible people call it "how to make a just society." We've done it for decades, and it seems to be working fine.

Governments run things like lotteries to raise revenues. Poor people overwhelmingly buy lottery tickets, and because the deck is stacked against lottery-players — or gamblers of any stripe — by definition, this means that poor people are shovelling money into the system. Which is not what you want.

"Think of how much money a casino will bring in," advocates say. Where does this money come from? The people who need to hold onto it most.

Casino, indeed.

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