Thursday, March 21, 2013

Gambling on inequality

In today's Toronto Star, Royson James offers a good analysis of the declining prospects for a casino in Toronto. Some casino promoters have tried to entice the Toronto City Council, and the electorate, to assent to a casino by offering increased hosting fees; the Ontario government has now told us Toronto will get no better deal than any other municipality.

Whatever promoters offer, we should ask ourselves what additional value casino gambling will bring to the city. Toronto already creates major entertainment value: we have several world class theatre centers in this city, we host tryouts for Broadway on a regular basis, and most pop star tours stop here. Our festivals, such as Caribana, already draw an audience from across the region, as far away as Detroit. Establishing Toronto as an alternative to Las Vegas as a venue for the kind of entertainment Vegas provides, assuming we want to, would mean overcoming stiff competition for a limited market.

Do we want to compete? A casino doesn't actually produce anything. For every person who experiences the thrill of winning, more than one other person has to experience the let-down of losing. And the more communities compete to host casinos, the more people fall into casino gambling who can't afford it. Casinos sell the image of glamorous jet-setters enjoying spectacles and gambling their excess cash. At their best, casino resorts like Las Vegas cater to solidly middle class individuals who do enjoy some spectacular shows and who generally gamble what they can afford to lose. But as casinos proliferate, they increasingly need to attract the desperate: people who hope to stretch a pay cheque or a pension, and problem gamblers looking for the rush of risking more than they can bear to lose.

A recently popular graphic illustrates the increasingly skewed distribution of wealth in the United States today. I believe that broadly speaking, it makes sense that when money moves without creating value, inequality tends to rise. That happens because the individuals able to make claims on money in motion, from lawyers to investors to executives to politicians tend to have money, and power, and to compensate themselves well. And when money in motion doesn't create value, the economic pie gets no larger, so that as money flows to the top, the resources at the bottom get smaller. Perhaps we can in some small part hold this trend back by taking a hard and skeptical look at to the promises of casino promoters.

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