Politics & Policy

A Sucker Bet

If New York State needs an economic boost, it could, if it were so inclined, join in the natural-gas renaissance that is buoying the economies of states such as Texas and Pennsylvania — creating high-paying jobs across the skills spectrum and producing real wealth that benefits the gas-producing regions and the nation as a whole. But Governor Andrew Cuomo, skittish about fracking, will have none of that. Instead, he is pinning the state’s hopes of economic development on what may very well be the least productive form of economic activity known to modern man: casino gambling.

In November, Empire State voters will be asked to consider a ballot proposal with ridiculously tendentious wording — “authorize up to seven casinos in New York State for the legislated purposes of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools, and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated.” In a rare moment of agreement with the New York Times editorial board, we believe the measure should be rejected.

The proposal as worded is in effect an argument against itself. New York, especially the economically bleak upstate region, could indeed use something that would promote job growth, a more sensible revenue regime, and lower property taxes. But casino gambling is unlikely to provide any of those benefits. Ask New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie, who oversaw an embarrassing bailout of an Atlantic City casino that went bust before it even opened. Or consult the beleaguered taxpayers of Delaware, who were forced to finance a multimillion-dollar bailout of the state’s casinos.

As a tool of economic development, casinos have always been a questionable proposition. That was certainly true in 1976, when New Jersey voters legalized casino gambling in the hopes of reviving Atlantic City, which at the time was a depressing, crime-ridden slum and today is a depressing, crime-ridden slum with casinos. In 1976, Atlantic City had an unemployment rate of 13 percent. Today, it is 15.3 percent. In 1976, Atlantic City was so poorly off that one in five of its residents lived in poverty. Today, one in four of its residents live in poverty.

Moreover, New Jersey’s gambling revenues have been falling for years, as nearby states allow gambling establishments of their own. On the issue of gambling revenue, New York is expecting a receding tide to lift all boats.

The question before New York voters is not one of libertarian principle. The state does not propose simply to legalize casino gambling (which already exists in New York in limited form at Indian establishments and some racetracks), but to create a politically managed gambling cartel with Albany as the dominant partner. Not every vice requires state prohibition, of course, but it is another thing for the state to be a partner in vice — particularly a vice that immiserates millions, attracts crime, and acts as a tax on those least able to afford gambling losses. And in exchange for what? A handful of service jobs? Surely the construction firms that win contracts will be grateful for the work, but they probably would be just as grateful for work on something that does not represent a blight on the communities that host it.

New York used to be a state with some self-respect, one whose principal city was for generations practically synonymous with great ambition. Today, Governor Cuomo’s fondest hope is to wring a little tax revenue out of creating seven second-rate miniature Mohegan Suns in the Catskills. Those who want to spend a few hours pressing buttons on a video-slots console already have a number of nearby options to choose from, to say nothing of a $300 flight to Las Vegas or a horrifying Greyhound to Atlantic City.

If Governor Cuomo is serious about new and better jobs, revenue, and tax relief, he should get out of the way and let New York develop its resources, including its energy resources. New York needs an economy built on real investment, not a house of cards. So does the rest of the country, and while Texas Hold ’Em may be a lot of fun to play, it isn’t a long-term economic program.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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