Chris Christie's dubious bet on sports gambling

Posted: June 12, 2012

Gov. Christie has been playing a game of chicken with the federal government over sports gambling, and he just threw his steering wheel out the window. He said he would proceed with plans to allow sports betting at New Jersey's racetracks and Atlantic City's casinos even though the federal government restricts such gambling to four states.

Christie campaigned on promises that he would lower taxes. But now he is advocating raising the most regressive tax of all: the ease and availability of gambling.

Show me a man who claims he is good at gambling, and I'll show you a dozen casinos eager for him to prove it. In sports betting especially, nobody is a winner.

Sure, we may occasionally win an office NCAA tournament pool or a Super Bowl bet with a friend, but eventually we lose. As the character Tyler Durden says in Fight Club, "On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero"; much the same can be said of sports gambling.

This is why people take weekend instead of weeklong trips to Las Vegas: No one can be successful gambling for a full week. Fortunately, Las Vegas is hundreds of miles away from civilization, in the middle of a desert. Atlantic City, on the other hand, is right down the street.

Casinos, lotteries, and other gambling ventures use state-of-the-art marketing to help people forget that the odds are entirely stacked against them, that they are not inherently lucky, that there are a million ways to lose, and that the easiest way to win is to refrain from playing.

The federal government allows some gambling for some good reasons: It's woven into our culture, unsavory parties will fill the void where legal gambling doesn't, and we enjoy the entertainment of gambling as much as the money won.

However, government toleration of gambling is not the same as government encouragement, and that is just what Christie hopes to achieve — much as Pennsylvania officials did by allowing casinos throughout the commonwealth. The people who see scratch-off games and Mega Millions tickets as investments are those the governor sees as potential customers of casino sports books. This is government at its predatory best, looking not to protect its constituents, but to give them more ways to prop up its balance sheet.

Gambling has the additional political advantage of being a slow addiction. One does not incur debt and fall behind on bills immediately. Rather, it's a gradual downward slope whose bottom takes longer to reach than the span of one or two terms of elective office.

Granted, most people gamble at some point. Whether it's a wager at a blackjack table or a bet on the NBA finals, just about everybody I know has risked his money on an uncertain outcome. It is fun, exciting, and even profitable occasionally.

But there is a fundamental difference between a casual bet with discretionary income and a government policy of making up for budgetary shortfalls by encouraging gambling losses that hurt the lower and middle classes. Any additional tax revenue the casinos generate will come at the expense of the population that revenue is supposed to benefit.

Eric Mustin lives in New York City. He can be reached at mustin.eric@gmail.com.

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