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The Luck Business
Robert Goodman
Publisher: Free Press Paperbacks (1996)
Pages: 273
ISBN: 0-684-83182-1
Reviewed: 7/97

Robert Goodman, a professor at Hampshire College, headed up a study entitled the United States Gambling Study from 1992 to 1994. "The Luck Business," a 191 page account of his findings, is a readable book intended for the general public rather than for academicians or public policy makers.

Reading and evaluating a book like this raises some interesting issues, aside from the issues the book itself raises. I read it without any intention of finding a similar book from the opposing camp, and I suspect most readers will do the same (I doubt there even is such a book, but I'd be happy to hear otherwise). Only listening to one side of a heated debate makes it tough to evaluate the relevant issues as critically as one would like. It's also tough to review the book without getting into what I personally think about the issues. Even if you're mostly in agreement with Goodman, it's the sort of book that engages you in an active debate.

On the other hand, I personally shared some of Goodman's point of view going in. We both gamble (apparently), and we're both nonetheless critical of the way gambling issues have been handled by various levels of government.

As the book's subtitle ("The Devastating Consequences and Broken Promises of America's Gambling Explosion") makes clear, Goodman is very negative about the impact of gambling in this country, and about the potential impact of future gambling legislation. From my reading, his main objection is not to the gambling industry per se, which is probably no more slimy and money-grubbing than the next major industry (though more successfully so), but the rampant (and bizarre, in my opinion) idea that gambling legislation can solve social problems.

Here's my redux of the problem. Gambling legislation proponents try to argue that it would create jobs, bring in tons of tax revenue, and generally make the world a rosy place. Opponents point out that casinos tend to crush existing local businesses, hire non-locals, drain money out of the local economy, and create problem gamblers. The bottom line appears to be that, except in rare circumstances, the community has nothing to gain from introducing gambling, but that they're often convinced otherwise by casino representatives, via local politicians.

Another impression I took away was that gambling can be more successful social policy if the profits from the gambling are somehow channelled appropriately. Obviously this is not the case in places like Atlantic City, where corporations with legislative protection built casinos on top of an existing economy. The local residents, who are largely not employed by the casinos, receive only distant and indirect benefit from the casinos (i.e., casinos pay taxes to their government), but bear the brunt of the casinos' ill effects (i.e., their businesses go under). But in places like Las Vegas, some Indian reservations, and some locales that have charity gambling, the profits from the gambling enterprise at least potentially support the locals directly.

It doesn't take much imagination to see the gambling industry as a sleazy, money hungry leech on society, but Goodman provides some choice bits of data to help. He points out how gambling corporations have been able to provide both pro- and anti-gambling propaganda, to suit business purposes in different regions. He describes how politicians have been spoon-fed misleading statistics and arguments to parrot back to the public and to the media in support of gambling industry interests (and how they've occasionally later ended up on casinos' payrolls). He describes how casinos have been given competitive advantages through legislation, which they've used to destroy existing local businesses. Several sections details the ways in which the gambling industry, which of course has a tremendous financial interest in the expansion of gambling, has managed to insinuate itself to such an extent that politicians routinely base their arguments in favor of gambling legislation on casino-provided "research."

Oddly, while Goodman focuses on the relationship between gambling and society, he has nothing to say about charity gambling. I'll admit it's a relatively tangential issue that I might never have thought of if I didn't live in Maryland (where charity gambling was recently legislated out of existence). But since I did, it seems like it would have been a natural subject for a book on the social impact of gambling and gambling legislation.

The Luck Business is a thought-provoking book, and one which could provide fodder for some pretty violent arguments. On the other hand, it's at least conceivable to me that the only members of the opposing camp would be corrupt politicians and the casino industry itself, in which case the book will simply serve to reinforce an appropriately cynical attitude. In any case, each issue raised in the book is a potential point of contention, and although I tend to side with Goodman on many of them, I can certainly appreciate that there's room for disagreement, and that these issues at the very least deserve some very sober consideration.

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