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Posts Tagged ‘Gambling’

Like any sensible person, I want victimless crimes to be legalized. In part because I believe in freedom, but also for utilitarian reasons.

  • I don’t approve of drugs and I’ve never used drugs, but I think the social harm of prohibition is greater than the social harm of legalization.
  • I don’t particularly like alcohol and I am almost a teetotaler, but I’m glad there’s now a consensus that the social harm of prohibition was greater than the social harm of legalization.
  • I don’t approve of prostitution and I’ve never consorted with a prostitute (other than the political ones in DC), but I think the social harm of prohibition is greater than the social harm of legalization.

So it won’t surprise you to learn that I want gambling to be legal because the social harm of prohibition is greater than the social harm of legalization.

But that definitely doesn’t mean I want government to be in charge, which is why I’m not a fan of state-sponsored lotteries.

Joe Setyon, in a column for Reason, points out that politicians are the only group that actually benefits from these schemes.

At some point in the near future, the record-high Mega Millions jackpot is going to make someone very, very rich. But as is usually the case when it comes to the lottery, the biggest winner will be the government. …there are a few things us suckers need to keep in mind about the lotto. First, the majority of lottery revenue goes back to the government. In 2015, The Atlantic estimated that 40 percent of all lottery ticket sales are allocated to state governments. …Meanwhile, some states that allow lotteries crush their competition with strict gambling regulations. In Texas, for instance, most forms of gambling are illegal. This means the government has a near-monopoly. The double standard for public and private gambling operations is obvious. Ultimately, the lottery system is a kind of regressive tax on low-income earners. “If the promised return is by far illusory—and it is—it would be hard to argue that those purchases do not constitute a tax on those who believe the state’s hype,” Fiscal Policy Institute research associate Brent Kramer wrote in 2010.

And here’s an article from CNBC that reveals the unpalatable tax consequences for the “lucky” people who happen to win a big prize.

…there’s at least one guaranteed recipient of a chunk of the loot — the IRS. …If you happen to beat the astronomical odds and hit all winning numbers in either game, be aware that the taxation of your prize starts before even reaching you. Whether you take your haul as a lump sum or as an annuity spread out over three decades, your win is reduced by a 24 percent federal tax withholding… The immediate cash option for Mega Millions is $904 million. The federal withholding would reduce that by $217 million. For the $354.3 million Powerball lump sum, it would mean $85 million getting shaved off the top. …However, that’s just the start of what you’d owe. The top income tax rate for individuals is 37 percent… That rate applies to adjusted gross income of $500,000 or more. In other words, hitting either jackpot would mean facing that top rate. …On top of the federal withholding, you’ll owe state taxes on the money unless you live where lottery wins are untaxed. …Translation: You might pay north of 45 percent altogether in taxes, depending on where you purchased the ticket and where you live.

In other words, the government pillages people when they buy tickets.

And then the government pillages the tiny fraction of people who actually win something.

As I wrote above, the only real winners are politicians.

The biggest losers, by the way, are poor people.

Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute summed up this sad state of affairs in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

Powerball—the lottery shared by 44 states, the District of Columbia and two territories—is just one of the sweepstakes run by 47 jurisdictions in the U.S. These games produce nearly $70 billion a year in government revenue and enjoy profits of about 33%—much higher than margins in the private gambling industry. Who are these lotteries’ most loyal customers? Poor people. …the poorest third of Americans buy more than half of all lotto tickets… Scholars have dug up evidence that states intentionally direct such ads at vulnerable citizens. A marketing plan for Ohio’s lottery some years back recommended scheduling campaigns to coincide with the distribution of “government benefits, payroll and Social Security payments.” …the average return from $1 spent on lottery tickets is 52 cents… After a state introduces the lotto, the bottom third of households shift about 3% of their food expenditures and 7% of their mortgage payments, rent and other bills. Effectively, the lottery works like a regressive tax. …Is there any set of policies more contradictory than pushing lotto tickets on poor people, and then signing them up for welfare programs that make them financially dependent on the government?

Here’s some additional analysis from the Wall Street Journal, this time from Holman Jenkins.

Gambling is what economists call an “inferior good”—demand is higher among those at the lower end of the income scale. As economist Sam Papenfuss argued in a 1998 paper, state-sponsored gambling became popular as a way for high-income taxpayers to recoup some of the money spent on programs for the poor. State-sponsored gambling in the form of lotteries (now in 44 states) arrived on the same antitax wave that gave us property-tax caps and other antitax measures in the 1970s and ’80s. It should not surprise anyone that Democrats, as big supporters of the welfare state, have been the biggest supporters (though by no means exclusively so) of gambling as a way to finance it.

Last but not least, here are excerpts from a column I wrote for the Washington Times more than 20 years ago.

…government-run lotteries represent bad public policy. The No. 1 objection is that they lead to more government spending. …Perhaps even more disturbing, government lotteries victimize the poor. More than any other group, lower-income residents are the ones who play the lottery, often shelling out hundreds of dollars each year in the hope of striking it rich. Yet these are precisely the people who should avoid lotteries. As an investment, lotteries are lousy, paying out only about half of what they take in. …why should state governments be running lotteries? If nothing else, lotteries show how much better consumers are treated by the free market system. Private gambling operations pay out about 90 cents for every dollar wagered (even higher for games such as blackjack), a far better deal than the miserly return provided by government-run lotteries. …This analysis applies to illegal gambling as well. Bookies traditionally allow customers to bet against the point spread for sporting events, and they make their money by applying a 10 percent charge on the money wagered by those who make losing bets.

Two decades later and I wouldn’t change a single thing I wrote.

I don’t like when politicians mistreat rich people, but I get far more upset when they do things that impose disproportionate costs on poor people. This is one of the reasons I don’t like government flood insurance, Social Security, the Export-Import Bank, the mortgage interest deduction, or the National Endowment for the Arts.

And lotteries definitely belong on that list as well.

I’m not a paternalist. I support legal gambling and I don’t want to prohibit poor people from making (what I think) are misguided decisions.

But at least leave the gambling to the private sector so poor people will get back, on average, 90 cents of every dollar they bet.

P.S. I just had a horrifying thought. What if politicians decided to legalize prostitution because they wanted more revenue. But instead of legalizing and taxing (like they do – often to excess – with marijuana), what if they followed the lottery approach and we wound up with government-run brothels?!?

P.P.S. To be fair, the government will continue to give you food stamps if you become a lottery millionaire.

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I have a very consistent view of victimless crimes.

  • I don’t approve of drugs and I’ve never used drugs, but I think the social harm of prohibition is greater than the social harm of legalization.
  • I don’t particularly like alcohol and I am almost a teetotaler, but I’m glad there’s now a consensus that the social harm of prohibition was greater than the social harm of legalization.
  • I don’t approve of prostitution and I’ve never consorted with a prostitute (other than the political ones in DC), but I think the social harm of prohibition is greater than the social harm of legalization.

Given these views, you won’t be surprised to also learn that I don’t care for gambling, but I think the social harm of prohibition is greater than the social harm of legalization.

The good news is that the nation is slowly but surely moving in the direction of legalization.

The bad news is that politicians doing the right thing in the worst possible way. Let’s look at three examples.

Our first wretched example is government-run lotteries, which are rip-off operations. In a genuine market, competition forces casinos to have reasonably decent odds. Yes, it’s set up so “the house” wins more often than it loses, but a casino probably pays out $90 for every $100 of bets. With lotteries, by contrast, governments rig the rules so that they pay out closer to $50 for every $100 of bets. Mafioso loansharks must be envious.

A second example is that politicians seem to view legalization merely as an opportunity for taxes, graft, featherbedding, and cronyism. Consider the case of Atlantic City, as explained by the Wall Street Journal.

In 1976 New Jersey voters approved a referendum that legalized gambling in Atlantic City. The constitutional amendment required casino revenues to fund programs for senior citizens and disabled residents, but politicians have instead funneled the cash to favored projects and businesses under the guise of promoting development. Guess how that’s turned out? A 1984 law required casinos to pay 2.5% of gaming revenues to the state or “reinvest” 1.25% in tax-exempt bonds issued by the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority for state and community “projects that would not attract capital in normal market conditions.” Investment recipients have included Best of Bass Pro shop, Margaritaville and Healthplex. A decade later, state lawmakers imposed a $1.50 fee (which has since doubled) on casino parking spots to fund Atlantic City transportation, casino construction and a convention center. In 2004 lawmakers added a $3 surcharge for casino hotel stays to finance new hotel rooms and retail establishments, which had the effect of promoting unsustainable commercial and casino development. …Employment in Atlantic City has declined by about 10% over the last decade. Since 2010 the city’s property tax base has shrunk by two thirds. Local politicians raised property taxes by 50% between 2013 and 2014 to compensate for the dwindling tax base, but this has merely deterred new business investment and propelled flight. Meantime, local politicians have continued to spend… Between 2010 and 2014, expenditures increased by 10% while government debt doubled. The city government spends about $6,600 a year per resident—more than any other city in the state including Newark ($2,344). …Labor costs constitute about 70% of the budget. Earlier this year, the city emergency manager projected a $393 million cumulative deficit over the next five years absent reforms. …Democratic legislators and Governor Chris Christie passed a bailout that allows the city to squeeze an additional $120 million out of casinos in revenues annually to compensate for lower property-tax revenue. To sum up: New Jersey…plundered Atlantic City casinos, redistributed the spoils and loaded up the city with unaffordable levels of debt. The gambling mecca is a five-star example of failed liberal policies.

In other words, gambling did lead to addiction. Politicians got hooked on wasteful spending and haven’t been able to kick the habit.

Our final example is how politicians and established casinos are getting in bed together to prohibit competition from online gaming.

Andy Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity is not impressed by this bit of cronyism.

Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson has long sought federal legislation that would override the ability of state governments to set their own online gambling rules. Given his business activities, Adelson clearly has no moral objections to gambling itself. His goal is simply to undermine market competition and put alternatives to his Vegas casinos out of business, and he has spent millions on lobbyists to help make that happen. Adelson’s allies in Congress have tried repeatedly to pass the Restoration of America’s Wire Act (RAWA), which would prevent states from authorizing online gambling within their own borders… Outside groups strongly warned against the consequences of undermining the 10th Amendment in the pursuit of crony capitalism. RAWA represents both a direct attack on personal liberty and a potential slippery slope in its erosion of federalist principles.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center also is disappointed with this odious bit of special-interest favoritism.

Adelson hates online gambling, as it competes with his bricks-and-mortar Las Vegas casinos for customers. More than five years ago, on what has become known to the poker world as Black Friday, the federal government unleashed a legal jihad against online poker companies and their top executives. Online poker is not itself illegal—a fact clarified by the DOJ’s reinterpretation of the Wire Act—but the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act made it illegal for payment processors to transfer funds to and from gambling sites. The problem for Adelson and his allies is that the UIGEA and other federal statutes apply only when state borders are crossed. The 10th Amendment and the principles of federalism mean that federal lawmakers should have no say regarding activities that take place entirely within one state’s borders. So if state governments wish to authorize online gambling for their citizens, they are and should remain free to do so.

Time for my two cents on the issue. Ideally, no government should have the power to tell gamblers whether they can engage in consensual transactions across state lines or even national borders.

But not only has that already happened, but we now have politicians and a cronyist conspiring to have the federal government interfere with states that want to allow online gambling inside state borders.

It will be interesting to see whether Republicans, now that they’re about to control Washington, will choose cronyism or competition, centralization or federalism (the Export-Import Bank is another test of GOP principles…or lack thereof).

Let’s put all this in context. Today’s topic is gambling and the cancerous effect of government intervention and favoritism in that sector. But the lesson we should learn is that cronyism is a bad idea, period. Cronyism is also bad in agriculture. It’s bad in finance. It’s bad in the tax code. It’s bad in energy. It’s bad everywhere.

To conclude, here’s an excellent video from Lean Liberty about the dangers of letting big business and big government rig the rules for the benefit of powerful insiders.

The moral of the story is that consumers should be in charge of which companies succeed and which ones fail.

The free enterprise system – when it’s allowed to operate – produces great wealth and prosperity. Cronyism, by contrast, undermines growth by politicizing the allocation of resources. Even worse, it reduces public support for limited government since many people mistakenly assume that big business and capitalism are synonymous.

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The Washington Post has an interesting report about the huge amount of money that Fairfax County spends to go after gambling. The story cites critics who ask “why law enforcement spends valuable time and money on combating sports gambling. The answer is obvious – and explicit in the story: “…police in Virginia are allowed to keep 100 percent of the assets they seize in state gambling cases.” In other words, harassing the gambling business is a profit-making endeavor for police. And it also can be deadly since cops killed an optometrist during a SWAT arrest. The Institute for Justice has a powerful video on the dangers of “policing for profit,” and Fairfax County is just one bad example of how this lures cops into misallocating resources to fight behaviors that shouldn’t even be illegal.
It’s football season, and for millions of Americans that means betting season. …It’s a crime that Fairfax County police take seriously. So seriously that in one recent gambling investigation, they spent — and lost — more than $300,000 in cash to take down a Las Vegas-based online bookie and his group of Fairfax-based associates. …Police critics have long wondered why law enforcement spends valuable time and money on combating sports gambling. In Fairfax, the police rarely publicize their arrests, and the details of their investigations are little known outside the small corps of detectives in the money laundering unit. Unlike drug cases, police in Virginia are allowed to keep 100 percent of the assets they seize in state gambling cases, so other agencies or divisions receive no benefit. And the vast majority of those arrested are placed on probation. “What a waste,” said Nicholas Beltrante, founder of the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability, a group formed earlier this year in part to combat unnecessary police spending. “The police should be utilizing their resources for more serious crimes.” Fairfax’s most notorious gambling investigation ended in disaster. In 2006, an undercover detective lost more than $5,000 while betting on NFL games with optometrist Salvatore J. Culosi — and when the detective called in a SWAT team to make the arrest, an officer shot Culosi once in the heart and killed him. …Since 2004, the squad has seized about $1 million in cash and assets annually, but some of those cases landed in federal court, where money is divided among various agencies, Schaible said. …One case from 2006, that of admitted bookmaker Kyle Peters, resulted in police seizing and keeping $566,940 from his bank accounts. Schaible said such funds are recycled “back into investigating cases. It’s helping us resolve these and fight further crime.”

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Since Barney Frank is one of the most collectivist and statist members of Congress, it is very unusual for me to write the words “I agree with Barney Frank.” But on the issue of Internet gambling, the Massachusetts Congressman actually has the right position. Steve Chapman elaborates on this topic in his column, concluding with wise words about getting out of way when someone like Barney Frank actually wants more freedom and less government.

Four years ago, Congress tried to stamp out online betting by forbidding banks from transferring funds to Internet gambling sites. But it was spitting into a gale. “Gamblers have used online payment processors, phone-based deposits and prepaid credit cards to circumvent the ban,” reports The New York Times. It’s an old problem: When lots of people are eager to enter transactions with other people that do no direct harm to anyone else, the government can’t realistically hope to prevent them. All the ban accomplishes is to push the industry offshore, leaving U.S. customers more vulnerable to fraud. Well, that’s not all it accomplishes. It also encourages Americans to do their gambling elsewhere: going to casinos (now found in 33 states), wagering at off-track parlors or buying lottery tickets peddled by state monopolies. The lotteries are a motive for governments to oppose legalization of online gambling, since it might take away customers looking for better odds. …there is no good reason for the federal government to prohibit citizens from engaging in a peaceful, popular and enjoyable activity that almost all of them can handle responsibly. Nor is there any point, since those citizens are going to do it anyway. Congress would be wise to accept that age-old reality and settle for harvesting the tax revenues Internet betting can generate. Maybe it would be the start of something even bigger. After all, it’s not every day you hear congressional Democrats making the case for more freedom and less government. When Barney Frank acts on the view that “most actions the government should stay out of,” it would be a shame to stand in his way.

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