The Morning Jolt

Economy & Business

Breaking Down the Cases For and Against Sports Gambling

Entrance to the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City in 2012. (Dreamstime photo: Sean Pavone)

Making the click-through worthwhile: With gambling on sports about to become legal in a lot of places beyond Nevada, some tough questions about whether the country has become better off as legal gambling has become more common; a long-unsolved mystery may have an answer, and it’s a deeply unnerving one; and Joe Biden is at it again.

Is America Better Off with Legal Gambling on Sports?

Just think, I could get rich betting against the Jets for the rest of my life.

The Supreme Court struck down a federal law that prohibits sports gambling Monday in a landmark decision that gives states the go-ahead to legalize betting on sports.

The court ruled 6-3 to strike down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, a 1992 law that barred state-authorized sports gambling with some exceptions. It made Nevada the only state where a person could wager on the results of a single game.

States that want to offer legal sports betting may now do so, and New Jersey plans to be first. Delaware, Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are among the states expected to quickly get into the legal bookmaking game.

A lot of people seem elated at this impending change in American life. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban gushed, “I think everyone who owns a top four professional sports team just basically saw the value of their team double.” Ah, finally, a bit of good fortune for those long-suffering billionaires.

I think we’re mistaken if we perceive legal gambling as an unalloyed good thing in American society. I’ve been to Atlantic City twice in my life, and I found the place deeply depressing both times. For a place that was supposed to be rejuvenated by the tax revenues from the casinos, the place still looked like a nightmare of urban blight, with abandoned buildings and homeless not far from the glittering casinos and boardwalk.

Perhaps the most dispiriting sight was the pawn shops just around the corner from the casinos, with large signs saying things like “We Buy Wedding Rings.” It didn’t take a detective to figure out what kept them in business. Some guy would hit the casinos convinced he was going to get lucky, lose, gamble some more, lose more, and before he knew it he had gambled away this month’s rent money, grocery money, and all of his savings. And that’s assuming no guy chewing on a toothpick named Vinny had offered him a loan at “very reasonable rates.”

I didn’t gamble in Atlantic City; at the time my friends had money to lose, and I didn’t. I’ve played poker probably twice in my life (badly), fill out a bracket pool for the NCAA tournament some years and occasionally remember to buy a lottery ticket when it reaches a headline-generating fortune. I don’t object to the existence of casinos, but I’m glad they’re not near me and would prefer that opportunities to gamble not become ubiquitous.

You’ve heard the joke that the lottery is a tax on people who are bad at math. Almost all forms of gambling play on our perception that while most people lose, there’s something special about each of us as an individual: “Unlike everyone else, I will defy the odds and win.” Many of us walk around convinced that we’re different or that “we’re due” for some sudden moment of good fortune. And of course, gambling offers us a chance at something for nothing. Working for a living is hard. Making a fortune is really hard. The successful gambler we picture in our minds sits in a comfortable, air-conditioned room, enjoying free drinks, charming members of the opposite sex, and enjoying a life of luxury through that elusive, inexplicable factor of luck. Gambling appeals to one of our strongest, least-rational, and perhaps necessarily human beliefs: that we’re destined to someday enjoy a happier, more successful life than the one we have now.

Cards, the roulette wheel, the slot machine – these are all, when run legally, operating on random chance. Because most sports are competitions between human begins of differing levels of skill, a lot of sports fans will convince themselves that this isn’t a matter of luck, that with sufficient levels of analysis, they can foresee the winner and who will cover the point spread. (They forget we live in a world with Bill Buckner, Jeffrey Maier, the Stanford band coming on the field, the Colorado Buffaloes getting five downs, and an unlucky bird getting destroyed by Randy Johnson’s pitch. Almost every team is one torn ACL away from becoming significantly less competitive.)

Politicians are always touting the tax revenues of gambling as a magic wand for every budget problem. New Jersey congressman Cornelius Gallagher wrote in 1969 that if the Garden State enacted a lottery, “we could abandon all taxation in New Jersey and increase every service in our state four times over.” New Jersey residents will assure you that things didn’t turn out that way.

With a war between my anti-nanny-state and wary-of-gambling-opportunities instincts, I wondered, “what would William F. Buckley say?” In the 1960s and 1970s, he was a consistent advocate for the legalization of gambling. But I also note that in 2003, after the revelations of William Bennett’s gambling habits — losing more than $8 million over a decade — he wrote of the “sad business”:

What he did can correctly be deemed a private act immune from retributory sanction. It was wanton behavior, indisputably, but it was his own money being dissipated. The manner in which this was done raises eyebrows. If he had spent millions in decorating costs, his story would merely have been the tale of one more spendthrift. There is something about gambling when done other than on a scale associated with gin rummy and bridge, that is inherently censorious. Sensible criticism focuses on the unbounded character of his dissipation. When connected to stories of arrivals at casinos at three o’clock in the morning, to pump the $500 slot machines until dawn, what is depicted is addiction at pathological levels. The public thinks to reproach such conduct, not to okay it under the libertarian rubric.

For what it’s worth, the gambling revelations barely dented Bennett’s career as a commentator; about a year after the news broke, Bennett began hosting his own radio show. Some would point to Bennett’s continued thriving life as evidence people can gamble a lot and still function at an extraordinary level. I wonder if the lesson is that even the author of The Book of Virtues found the rush of high stakes extraordinarily difficult to resist once he had a taste.

An Unsolved Mystery . . . Perhaps Not-So-Unsolved Anymore

So much for Don Lemon’s black-hole theory.

Face it, you thought that the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 would never be determined, and was going to be featured on some future successor to Unsolved Mysteries, with some actor stepping into the hosting duties of Robert Stack — perhaps the other Eliot Ness, Kevin Costner? — and gruffly sharing the tale of how one night, the flight just disappeared.

The case is, if not solved, now given an extremely plausible, and extremely troubling, theory:

Investigators are still searching for the aircraft, but these findings raise the possibility that one of the greatest aviation mysteries in modern history may not have been a catastrophic accident, but instead a possible mass murder-suicide.

“60 Minutes Australia” brought together an international group of aviation experts who say that the disappearance of MH370 was a criminal act by veteran pilot Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah.

“He was killing himself; unfortunately, he was killing everybody else on board, and he did it deliberately,” said Canadian Air crash investigator Larry Vance.

Boeing 777 pilot and instructor Simon Hardy reconstructed the flight plan based on military radar, and says Captain Shah flew along the border of Malaysia and Thailand, crossing in and out of each country’s airspace to avoid detection.

“It did the job,” Hardy said, “because we know, as a fact, that the military did not come and intercept the aircraft.”

Hardy also made a strange discovery: Captain Shah likely dipped the plane’s wing over Penang, his hometown.

“Somebody was looking out the window,” he suggested.

“Why did he want to look outside Penang?” asked reporter Tara Brown.

“It might be a long, emotional goodbye — or a short, emotional goodbye,” Hardy replied.

This flight disappeared in March 2014. In March 2015, GermanWings flight 9525 crashed in the French alps; investigators determined that the co-pilot had been researching how to commit suicide.

Did one suicidal pilot inspire the other?

ADDENDA: Victor Davis Hanson notices Joe Biden is using the phrase “from the hood” again, and reviews the long history of prominent Democrats using less than completely sensitive language. From a strictly cost-benefit analysis, it makes more sense to be a progressive activist; you can say or do just about anything you want and you’ll get a lot of indulgences for supporting the right causes.

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