, Salem, MA

February 5, 2014

Watson: Casinos shape and reflect our culture

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — This is the fourth and last column in a series about casinos and gambling and their negative effects on society and the economy.

The previous columns focused mainly on why the economic benefits of casinos fade over time; how casinos hurt surrounding businesses; what consequences problem-gambling brings to individuals, families, and society; and how the modern, computer-designed slot machine can easily become addictive to the player. This column will consider the more subtle role of casinos in shaping the kind of society we have.

One of the gradual, insidious effects of the proliferation of casinos and slots parlors is the growing reinforcement of the idea that luck or fate or get-rich-quick schemes offer a legitimate alternative to work and diligence.

For 30 years or so, there has been developing a cultural change that has transformed the conception of gambling from a semi-shady, loser’s proposition to a respectable moneymaking possibility.

State lotteries, introduced decades ago, helped to begin that conceptual shift. Aided by state budgets that underwrote advertising campaigns for the growing number of lottery games, ordinary citizens — many of whom had never gambled before — were lured into buying tickets. As the game types multiplied, and the purchase denominations expanded to accommodate one’s every mood or degree of flushness, more and more people wagered. Lotteries exist in 46 states today.

Incredibly, the state continues to promote this gambling as a way to improve one’s prospects in life. Whether it’s Keno, Powerball, Mass Cash, Megabucks, Mega Millions, Lucky for Life, or any one of 92 different scratch tickets, there are instant, hourly, daily, and weekly ways to gamble. And in Massachusetts alone, there are an estimated 1.2 million reasonably regular gamblers. Many of them, and plenty of new ones, will patronize the new casinos.

Now, there are some gamblers for whom wagering is strictly entertainment. They can afford their losses, and sometimes they gamble for a lark. But many lottery players — and you can see them grimly putting their dollars on the counter at any local convenience store — have a genuine financial need to win. And for a host of reasons, including the difficulties around living wages and unemployment, many people view gambling as an actual, possible avenue to a better life.

You can’t blame them for this conception. All around us for decades have been the stories of the wealth, gambles, hustles, and big scores of Wall Street. We finally even named the financial markets a “casino.”

So, casinos — now operating in about 40 states — are both a cause and an effect of our growing, cultural comfort with gambling. They are a natural choice of a segment of society that has been taught — by advertising, government, developers, and certain politicians — that there are shortcuts and easy routes to some things. Not all of society is so conforming — plenty of people oppose the casinos — but they have been outgunned by those who profit from slot machines, and by state legislators who want that easy, up-front jackpot. After all, they are not immune to the zeitgeist either.

There will be other victims too. As adults are inexorably adopting casinos as either entertainment or ambition, we cannot expect our young people to remain uninfluenced by the blandishments of the culture around them. The gambling industry has its eyes on them, and they are so primed to fall into line.

A 21-year-old today has spent his entire life touching screens, tapping buttons, watching videos, wearing ear buds, swiping plastic cards, and “gaming” on computerized devices. All of that — precisely — is the slot machine experience. Complement that fact with the values, modeling, messages, and instant, on-line, gratifications-training of a short-view society, and young adults are quite likely to patronize casinos.

In many ways, the changes to society represented by the widening embrace of gambling have already occurred. But cultures are complex systems, and they simultaneously possess many traits. Maybe it would be accurate to categorize many of these traits as either pulling us up toward a higher level of development, or asking nothing of us in terms of personal or societal growth.

In my opinion, gambling and casino development are directly responsible for creating too high a degree of trauma and dysfunction within society and within the personal lives of too many families.

There is nothing inevitable about the complexion of our culture. It is the sum of a thousand (or a billion) choices made every day, every year, by every individual and institution in it.

There is deep disagreement over the embrace of gambling. Maybe the best that can be hoped for — especially if we build the casinos — is that we build them with our eyes wide open, so that we appreciate the damage that accompanies the choice.

Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at