In the last 30 years, legal gambling has become a staple of American society. Desperate for new revenue, states have embraced casinos as panaceas that can balance their budgets and boost their economies. Inevitably, that has now led to a campaign to allow legalized gambling on the Internet. Last month, New Jersey became the third state after Nevada and Delaware to allow online gambling. Not content with that, the American Gaming Association (AGA) has formed a group called the Coalition for Consumer and Online Protection that is buying ads in the Washington D.C. and Nevada markets to try and stop efforts to pass a federal online gambling ban. The deceptively named group will be fronted by a pair of former members of Congress (Republican Mary Bono and Democrat Mike Oxley) and will be advised by top Obama campaign operative Jim Messina. Its purpose is to blunt the efforts of Sheldon Adelson, the casino guru whose crusade against Internet gambling is rattling the industry in which he made his considerable fortune.
The AGA is rightly worried about Adelson’s pledge to spend whatever it takes to stop what he describes as a scourge that will victimize the poor in a way that brick-and-mortar destination casinos can’t. With an estimated $37 billion net worth, Adelson obviously has the wherewithal to help promote the effort to stop online gaming. As I first wrote last November, Adelson has formed his own non-profit group, also fronted by a bipartisan trio of retired politicians. But his opponents have an edge that could more than make up for any potential shortfalls in money: the implacable hostility of the mainstream press to Adelson. The casino owner became famous not so much because of his money but due to his willingness to use it to back Republicans as well as Israeli and Jewish causes. That has made him a perpetual target for the liberal media and the feature published today in Politico Magazine entitled “Sheldon Adelson’s Internet Jihad: The world’s orneriest casino mogul is trying to stop online gaming. Why?” is an example of what he can expect to face as the issue heats up. Though his interest in the subject appears to be both sincere and principled, it won’t be surprising if Messina and his friends in the Obama-friendly media try to make the discussion about the issue more about Adelson than the merits of legalizing online gambling.
The Politico piece by veteran Nevada journalist Jon Ralston isn’t as bad as the skewed headline. In it, we learn more about Adelson’s strong feelings about the issue and the way the rivalry between him and his competitors in the gaming industry have spilled over into this effort. But the piece is driven in large measure by the desire of the AGA to label any efforts to stop their drive to make Internet gambling legal in all 50 states as more a matter of pique on the part of a public figure who has already been roundly bashed in public forums for years because of his support for the GOP and Israel.
But as juicy as all the backbiting about Adelson and his foes may be, the outcome of this debate should not be driven by opinions about the 80-year-old billionaire’s personality or his politics. The problems with Internet gaming are every bit as ominous as Adelson describes.
Personally, I’m no fan of the gaming industry or of casinos. But he is right to draw a broad distinction between resorts, such as those owned by the mogul in Las Vegas, Macao, China, and elsewhere and a scheme that would legalize gambling operations that would be accessible by computer, tablets, and phones in virtually every home in the nation. Going to a casino involves some degree of planning and is usually done as part of a vacation where it is assumed the individual will spend money on entertainment. Though legalized gambling in resorts, Indian reservations, and the casinos that have sprouted in cities and towns throughout the country have increased the incidence of gambling addiction as well as other social pathologies that usually accompany such business, that toll will pale in comparison to what will happen once every American with a smart phone is only a click away from online games that will empty their bank accounts and ruin their families.
Even more worrisome is the obvious danger that children who now routinely have access to phones and other devices that can access the legalized state ventures will be drawn into the world of gambling. There is a broad consensus in favor of restricting access to dangerous products such as alcohol and tobacco. A nation that banned “Joe Camel” must also understand that there will be no way to stop children from being hooked on gambling at increasingly early ages if online gaming is legalized everywhere.
To such arguments, industry proponents have no good answers. They tell us that stopping online gaming is futile and that the genie can’t be put back in the bottle and that we’ll all be better off if the federal government gets involved and lets the states take their cut from the business just as they do from casinos. Allowing this measure to go forward is good for those who have invested in such ventures as well as helpful to state governments, such as Chris Christie’s New Jersey, which hopes to eventually rake in as much money from Internet gamblers as its does from those who make the trek to Atlantic City. But anyone who has listened to the radio ads for New Jersey’s new Internet gambling business understands that what is going on is the worst kind of exploitation.
As Politico notes, the lure of gambling for both potential addicts and the entrepreneurs and governments that stand to profit from online games may be too great for Adelson’s effort to prevail. A 2011 decision of the Justice Department to overturn a previous ban has opened the floodgates that may never be closed. But he deserves credit for drawing attention to this scourge and for using his considerable political influence to try and halt the drive to make this addiction more accessible. This issue cuts across the usual partisan lines since liberals who are concerned about the way gambling singles out the poor and conservatives who claim to care about communal values should join Adelson’s effort. Though his critics continually seek to portray Adelson as self-interested, the casino mogul has been consistent about putting his money where his mouth is even if it does nothing to advance his businesses. Even those who don’t like his politics should be joining him to halt a movement that will do tremendous damage if Congress does not stop it.