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Jewish World Review Jan. 10, 2003 / 7 Shevat 5763

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Consumer Reports

Gambling infects with false hope | When much of the nation went gaga recently over a $315 million Powerball jackpot, I remembered some wise words of George Washington.

He called gambling "the child of avarice, the brother of iniquity and the father of mischief." Had he lived long enough, he might have added "the seducer of government."

Gambling doesn't create character. Rather, it reveals it. And one of the sad truths about humanity is that if you dig deeply enough, all of us are greedy. We all want something for nothing. The human heart contains a scurrilous darkness that wants what it wants.

This yearning twists our souls. Our esurient hearts are willing to risk more than we can afford in pursuit of that which may do us no good at all but, rather, may ruin us in waves of savage excess.

Except for the truly addicted, gambling is a voluntary vice, though for most of our nation's history, government has kept it illegal, recognizing its pernicious, anti-social nature.

In recent years, however, the public, not surfeited with other circuses our culture offers, has demanded legally sanctioned ways to throw money away on false hopes. Eager to please and get re-elected - and eager to find painless ways of fattening the public purse - elected officials have created all kinds of gambling opportunities. It has been public service at its worst.

For instance, the Multi-State Lottery Association, which operates Powerball, now consists of 23 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It's a sad dishonor roll.

Eventually, as this kind of reckless imbecility spreads, gambling becomes a significant portion of certain local economies. Voices opposed to it are accused of trying to throw people out of work and shred the economic fabric of the community. In the long term, that's a silly argument, however much shutting down a casino here and there may jeopardize good-paying jobs for people who need them.

The point is that a job based on a fool's dream contributes to fools dreaming, and that's socially, culturally and morally destructive. The fact that it's legal - as is selling tobacco and alcohol - doesn't mean it's a good thing to do.

What's even more disappointing to me as a journalist is that the purveyors of news in this country get caught up in this nonsense and become promoters. I can't tell you how many local TV news stories I've watched in which the end wasn't so much to report on the phenomenon as it was to encourage it. Reporters and anchors regularly discuss what they themselves would do with the money if they won.

If, if, if. That's the point. Buying a lottery ticket is the triumph of hope over good sense. The imagination takes flight, egged on by governments without the courage to raise this needed money in more legitimate ways. That would require a frank assessment of how the public's demands for services are overwhelming the capacity to respond as well as an accounting of how tax money is misspent now.

In short, it would require government to operate openly, honestly and without gimmicks.

When I was in grade school, we used to bring marbles to the playground in milk cartons that had a small opening on the top. We played a game in which someone would stand above the carton and try to drop a marble through the opening. If it went in, the good-aimer got not only his own marble back but also one from the kid who owned the carton. If it fell awry, the box owner got to keep it.

The game required a gamble - but it was one based on an assessment of one's own skill at dropping a marble straight. Still, even that led to hard feelings and charges of cheating. To maintain peace, school authorities eventually forbid it.

Unlike the marble-dropping game of my youth, most state-approved games of chance, including the Powerball lottery, require no skill at all. It's all randomness. The gamble is pure in that the player cannot affect the outcome through the use of any skill.

Such state-approved gambling is a cancer on society. We need to excise it and with it the avarice, iniquity and mischief Washington saw so clearly.

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JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved