Been to Vegas just once, still get a headache when I remember walking through the vast blinking/clinking/hyper acreage of the gaming floors at Bellagio and Caesar’s palace. I have no idea what those people were doing at the green-covered tables with a blank-faced dealer shuffling cards, but they looked profoundly unhappy. That was nothing compared to the naked desperation on the faces of the people pumping their quarters into the slot machines. My friends begged me to try it. I demurred, but later at the airport, when a long delay was announced, I gave in to the one-armed bandits. $5 worth of quarters, gone in an instant. In just a few minutes, I had a small taste of the insanity of slots.
With poker and blackjack and those other games, there’s strategy, shifty eyes, sleight of hand. With lotteries, there’s a sense of a giant community carnival, take a chance, win a prize. But with slots, you’re all alone — almost. You, your quarters, the big machines. Mostly the machines, rigged to relieve you of your small life’s savings. You may think it’s fair. It’s not. You can’t beat the machine — don’t believe those occasional stories of those who do… they’re just good advertising to make you think you can.
Why am I thinking about slots? Well, it seems that the State of Maryland is about to put the question up for the voters to decide — should we allow slots in designated locations around the state? I’ve heard this pitch for years: the revenue from slot machines can help fund the schools, otherwise, our massive state deficit will rob the students of their books and teachers and functional buildings and great universities in the future.
It’s Halloween season. Time for politicians to put on their scariest faces to make us do things we might otherwise not.
Slots for Students? I don’t think so. Somehow, I don’t picture many parents from Bethesda or Chevy Chase furtively heading over to the local casino to pour money into a slot machine in hopes of sprucing-up the computer lab at Walt Whitman or Blair. They’ll vote with their purses, literally, and send the kids to private schools if the publics don’t keep up with their very high expectations. Similarly, when in the crunch, I can’t imagine the Governor or Maryland State Legislature doing any real harm to the crown jewels at the University of Maryland at College Park, which is now heavily dependent on private funding anyway.
So, who benefits from slots for students? Probably not the students who are in those neighborhoods where the schools are most in need of the revenue. More worrisome, since gambling often appeals to those who can least afford to throw money away, the ready availability of slots is most likely to hurt working class and low income families.
Maryland is the wealthiest state in the nation with many communities of shocking need. We can recognize this same situation in the District of Columbia, where ultra-wealthy, powerful and well-educated communities to the northwest can see, on a clear day, the heights of land to the south and east where some of the grimmest poverty and illiteracy in the nation remain entrenched.
State lotteries are now a fact of life, and they were supposed to provide the income to supplement other “sin” taxes — liquor and cigarettes. Some people contend that the drive for slots in Maryland is really an effort to revive the venerable horse racing industry, but I don’t know about that. Others say that business favors slots because that move will stave-off any thought of raising taxes on corporate enterprises, or even personal income taxes. I don’t know all the details of that argument, either.
What I do know is that a good society takes care of its needs, particularly the education of its children — and their health care — without resorting to questionable tactics like slot machines, or worse, leading people to believe that if they don’t accept slots, education will suffer. We have an obligation as a civil society to get our priorities straight. Nationally, we have an almost-unimaginable situation in which the nation is spending several billion dollars a month on a war nobody wants while at home our domestic priorities like health care wither in the crossfire on Pennsylvania Avenue. Locally, we need the citizens of our states to stand up and demand that our governors and state legislators act with a clear sense of moral priorities, in favor of children and families, resisting the urge to do what is expedient to win powerful friends whose interests are different and more self-interested.