While gaming opponents and proponents have debated the costs and benefits associated with commercial casino gaming for generations, the vigorousness of this debate reached new levels during the late 1980s and early 1990s when a number of states, particularly in the Midwest and South, turned to casino gaming as a means for promoting economic development, creating jobs and generating additional tax revenues for state and local government.
Since that time, and through the days of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, which issued its final report in 1999, a small but vocal cadre of gaming opponents, aided and abetted by an uncritical media establishment, has been “carrying the water” for what probably appears to casual observers and the general public to be a more broad-based movement. Let’s shed some light on the nature and makeup of the central figures in opposition of gaming in the U.S. today and illustrate how shaky the ground is upon which many of their intellectual arguments rest.
The Evolution of the Arguments Against Gaming
While anti-gaming groups have been around for more than a century in the United States, the nature and content of their opposition has clearly evolved over time. The frequent ties between religious institutions and anti-gaming forces, particularly in the early years, were unmistakable.
These connections remain in place today, but an important realization has occurred. While the central critique of opponents had for decades been focused on the failings, sins and moral weaknesses of those who chose to gamble (particularly those who did so to excess and who we might today characterize as disordered or problem gamblers), they came to realize more recently that if they fought the battle for Americans’ hearts and minds on this field, they would lose. Today, while still harboring, but publicly suppressing, this underlying moral hostility to gaming, opponents have chosen to no longer attack the individual gambler but rather gaming companies on two central grounds:
Gaming companies and the individuals who work for them are purveyors of a predatory product and are solely interested in profit-making. A large percentage of their customers are either addicted to their product or are unwittingly drawn to casinos by ultra-savvy marketing campaigns and promotions. Elected officials stand on the sidelines because they too are addicted-addicted to the tax revenues gaming generates.
The benefits derived from casino gaming in the form of jobs, capital expenditures, tax revenues and more are exceeded by the costs associated with it. The host of social ills directly attributable to the existence of commercial casinos in the U.S. literally runs the gamut-addiction, suicide, divorce, bankruptcy, prostitution, white-collar crime, unemployment, etc.
As various states and communities around the country debate whether or not casino gaming is the right choice for them, they have a right to know who is driving the arguments just described and on what grounds these arguments are being made.
Poor Scholarship Lives On
The media play a significant role in allowing “bad science” to take on a life of its own and to remain a part of the public discourse for far longer than it deserves. The following are just a few examples of this:
1-The American Insurance Institute estimates that gambling today is the root of at least 40 percent of all white-collar crime. First stated in a 1992 report published by Minnesota Planning, a public policy think-tank located in St. Paul, Minnesota, this erroneous information got new life after Robert Goodman passed it along as fact in a widely circulated work Legalized Gambling as a Strategy for Economic Development. The extent of Goodman’s poor scholarship is underscored by the fact that no organization by the name of the American Insurance Institute even existed at the time! Professor Joseph Kelly of the University of Buffalo actually published a Gaming Law Review article that detailed the extent to which elected officials and some of the most prominent U.S. newspapers had continued to cite this alleged AII study.
2-For every dollar in tax legalized gambling activities actually contribute in tax revenues, taxpayers are really losing $3 or more. John Warren Kindt, another anti-gaming academic in the mold of Earl Grinols (they in fact continually cite each other’s work so as to give off the impression of broader acceptance of their findings) made this assertion during testimony before the National Gambling Impact Study Commission in 1998, and yet it has no independent, peer-reviewed research to support it. Moreover, many of the calculations that went into creating this $3-to-$1 ratio, such as increased incidence of crime, have proven questionable due to a lack of rigorous scholarship.
Just last month, the New York Times quoted Earl Grinols once again. He asserted that, “pro-gambling interests lose referendum battles whenever they do not outspend their opponents by at least 75 to 1.” While hardly the kind of information on which one would think a trained economist would be focusing, one would have hoped for more discrimination from a top-tier news organization before going to print. Regrettably for the sake of a fact-based discourse on the merits of commercialized gaming, casino companies make inviting targets and sell papers. Opponents of gambling have long used this fact to their advantage; let’s hope for a future where facts trump sound bites.
The Cast of Characters
Those opposing gaming are predictable and ever-present in anti-gaming campaigns. The following “players” appear in front of many government panels examining gaming even though their arguments and methods have been discredited for the most part.
Robert Goodman-It is probably fair to characterize Robert Goodman as one of the godfathers of the modern anti-gaming movement. His book, The Luck Business, which was published in 1995, sparked interest from the press and certainly led to his later being asked to give “expert” testimony before government officials on the costs and benefits associated with legalized gambling. In the opening paragraph of the aforementioned book, Goodman also notes that in 1992, he had become the director of the United States Gambling Study, which he carefully points out, “didn’t take a moral position for or against gambling, but its conclusions turned out to be critical of gambling.”
The study should not be confused with the very official-sounding United States Gambling Research Institute, which Goodman also founded at the time with what has been reported as modest funding from the Ford Foundation and the Aspen Institute, and to which he had also appointed himself director. When not attending to his dual-directorships, Goodman was, and still is, a professor of environmental design at Hampshire College.
Unfortunately, for those who were interested at the time in reading a well-researched and dispassionate examination of the costs and benefits associated with gaming, The Luck Business let them down. Taking aside for a moment any question of biased reporting, Goodman’s work has a very fundamental problem of arriving at conclusions with little quantitative data to underpin his arguments. He admits to beginning his examination of “American’s Gambling Explosion” in early 1992, yet at the time, outside of Nevada and New Jersey, only Colorado, Illinois, Iowa and South Dakota had operating commercial casinos. In the case of the first three states, casinos had been open only a matter of months by the time Goodman began his “research.”
David Rados of Vanderbilt University reviewed The Luck Business in the Journal of Macromarketing in 1996. In it, he states, “Goodman chooses his facts, not with the aim of informing, but with the aim of drawing an emotional response. He rarely takes up opportunities to present information in a balanced way.”
Robert Detlefsen, in a contributing piece for Reason magazine, takes an even more in-depth look at Goodman’s past and his work. Detlefsen effectively argues, that when one looks at The Luck Business in the context of Goodman’s prior work, his bias is not against gambling as an activity per se (Goodman admits to being fond of poker) but rather against gambling as a profit-making industry and enterprise.
In After the Planners (1971), Goodman was less circumspect about his distaste for free markets and capitalism. For example, he writes, “Our problem is not simply to destroy capitalism, but to do this through the creation of a culture which will not tolerate the repressive and competitive values which capitalism has already induced us to accept.”
Thus, when Goodman suggests in his later work that government could “properly redirect” the gaming industry toward the “development of non-gambling ventures,” it does not take great imagination to see where a man with such strong socialist leaning might be heading.
Tom Grey and the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling-If Robert Goodman is one of the intellectual godfathers of the anti-gambling movement in America today, then Reverend Tom Grey is probably best described as their most visible foot soldier.
A former Methodist minister, he became an energized opponent of gaming shortly after riverboats began operating in his home state of Illinois. As field coordinator, national spokesman and board member for the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, he has worked, primarily through churches and religious institutions, to bring together the state and local organizations that share in his mission. Grey and the 22 other members of the NCALG’s board of directors represent 10 anti-gaming organizations and six religious organizations from 14 states and the District of Columbia.
Despite characterizing the NCALG’s mission as “a battle for the soul of America,” Grey is a keen strategist and realized early on that “if we based our opposition on personal morality, we would lose” (Time, April 1996).
His revamped strategy recently took the form of a fiery condemnation of elected officials in a speech to the National Council of Legislators from Gambling States. Grey called the legalization of gambling “a bad means to provide government’s ordinary ends,” and thus accused the legislators of “trying to bleed their neighbors” and “preying on their most vulnerable citizens.”
What his statements of course do not address are the specifics. How, for example, is the gaming industry bleeding local residents on the Mississippi Gulf Coast where they have invested hundreds of millions of dollars and provided thousands of jobs since hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit in 2005?
What basis does he have to claim that casinos take advantage of the most vulnerable when survey research has repeatedly demonstrated that casino customers on average are more affluent and more highly educated than the average American adult?
Grey’s gift for inflammatory and provocative rhetoric (he has called gambling “nothing less than a new institution of slavery”) may add fuel to the fire when he speaks to like-minded audiences, but his words hardly match the realities on the ground in gaming communities around the country nor do they add much substance to ongoing debate concerning gaming’s true costs and benefits.
Earl Grinols-Earl Grinols is probably the most frequently cited academic in the anti-gambling community, yet despite having impressive scholarly credentials (Ph.D from MIT), his body of work on the costs and benefits associated with the gaming industry can aptly be characterized as biased, methodologically unsound and littered with unsubstantiated claims.
His book Gambling in America: Costs and Benefits, published in 2004, is a prime example of this. What serious scholar or academic would, for example, state, “Examples of crime caused by gambling are not difficult to find; a search of the Internet and America’s newspapers and magazine is all that is required?”
Grinols followed up this statement by using a full 20 pages of his book to provide his readers with short quotes from newspapers in both the U.S. and Canada allegedly proving the link between casinos and increased incidence of crime. This is hardly the rigorous scholarship a subject of this magnitude deserves.
Unfortunately, but predictably, Grinols’ work errs in other significant ways. His estimates of the social costs attributable to problem and pathological gamblers rely on the average cost estimates of previously conducted studies, but a number of these earlier studies are themselves examples of questionable science.
The Politzer, Morrow and Leavey study that Grinols makes use of was conducted in 1981 using an incredibly small sample of 28 disordered gamblers. Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in a paper published in 1998 said of the research, “The fundamental limitation of Politzer et al’s work for analysis of the social costs of problem gambling is clear.”
The fact that Politzer’s study was more than two decades old, relied on a statistically unreliable sample and had received withering fire from other academicians did not deter Earl Grinols.
The degree to which Grinols might let his zeal and own personal beliefs about gambling impact his research is a matter of debate. Grinols, for example, presented a paper in 1997 entitled “Piety and Political Economy,” in which he details the important role his Christian faith plays in how he approaches his professional life as an economist.
In it, Grinols writes, “It is axiomatic that, as a group, Christian economists should be different in what they do. That is, the choice of topics and the professional endeavors to which they devote themselves should look different in some way than for non-Christians.”