Socially unacceptable addictions, government encouraged addictions.
January 15, 2008 2:51 AM   Subscribe

When the working poor turn to addictive drugs to manage pain so they can keep working, that's "moral weakness, not a public health problem.":
Every morning before sunup, Trapp drives 120 miles.... "This methadone makes you feel like a human being again," Trapp says. With disability rates as high as 37 percent in coal-mining areas such as Buchanan County, the region has many people with long-term pain management needs. As is the case with lots of aging miners, Trapp's addiction to pills began in a doctor's office, not a back-alley drug deal.... The clinic's counseling staff members say that many patients need to be on some sort of drug to cope with severe, long-term pain and that methadone has made them functional. And for those who lack insurance or access to more personalized care, it is often the only affordable option.

But using an addictive high to take money from the working poor is good government and great business:
Laura Estrada, 33,... earns just more than $22,000 a year [~ $423/wk] as a customer sales representative... but spends anywhere between $100 and $200 a week on scratch-off tickets, including the $50 [single lottery tickets]. She loves the rush. "Losing $50 makes you perspire; it makes you nervous. 'Gosh, I shouldn't have bought that.' But then you win and it makes you feel great," she said. Her reason for continuing to play? "I have to try to get my money back."... The state spends $33 million a year promoting the games that inspire dreams of instant riches, but several years ago eliminated funding for programs to help problem gamblers.
posted by orthogonality (44 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Smoking in bars is bad. Gambling in bars is good:
The last charity gaming report available shows that from July 2005 through June 2006 charitable groups brought in about $8.8 million statewide from pull tabs. About $8.1 million went to expenses with $735,000 in profit. Of that, about $72,000 was given to charity.

Now bar owners believe they deserve some of the action, especially with the state cracking down on illegal Cherry Master machines and businesses hurting in some areas of the state because of smoking bans.

posted by orthogonality at 2:59 AM on January 15, 2008

I'm a drug legalizer but.. these snap comparisons obscure that formation of public policy is organic & heterogeneous. You can't reformulate all laws as theorems borne of some simple consistent axioms.
posted by daksya at 3:19 AM on January 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

The Lottery Industry’s Own Powerball

“Anytime you buy gas, I want you to spend the change on a lottery ticket,” says Ms. Hargrove, the president and chief executive of the Tennessee Education Lottery Corporation. “That’s what I do. I raise the money, and the state spends it.”

Cantankerous, kinetic and shrewd, Ms. Hargrove, 58, embodies what many consider to be the virtues and vices of the lottery industry, from the rise in prize payouts to the proliferation of games and escalating executive compensation. Over the last two decades, she has built three of the nation’s largest state lotteries from scratch — Florida, Georgia and Tennessee — turning them into multibillion-dollar enterprises that have helped fuel the industry’s explosive growth. At each turn, she has used her perch to reshape state-sponsored gambling into a highly sophisticated commercial enterprises peddling products that are as ubiquitous as Cokes or Snickers...

“Rebecca has pretty much written the big book on lottery start-ups,” says Charles Strutt, executive director of the Multi-State Lottery Association, a nonprofit industry group. “Anyone starting a lottery today, if it’s not Rebecca, will certainly be making a trip to talk to Rebecca.”

Politicians covet the billions that new-style lotteries generate for their states — $56 billion last year. But there are financial and social costs. Ever-increasing prize payouts and marketing costs take a big bite out of money that could be going into education or other government programs. And the proliferation of faster, more addictive games can entice some people into spending huge proportions of their incomes on lottery tickets.

“The problem with lotteries is that they take money away from low-income people, or those most would agree should not be used as a tax base,” says Earl L. Grinols, author of “Gambling in America: Costs and Benefits” and an economics professor at Baylor University. “While the argument is that playing the lottery is voluntary, I suspect that those players spending a disproportionate amount of their income on lottery don’t completely understand the probabilities of winning and losing that go with the lottery.”

Tom Grey, spokesman for the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, a nonprofit advocacy group, is also a critic of lotteries and Ms. Hargrove’s involvement with them. “This is not a benign product,” he says. “This is an addictive product, and she has made it as American as apple pie.”

posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:20 AM on January 15, 2008 [4 favorites]

Correction: You can't shouldn't expect to reformulate all current laws as theorems borne of some simple consistent axioms.
posted by daksya at 3:22 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I always thought that state lotteries were just a hidden tax on the poor. Oddly enough, I only buy scratch tickets when I'm hammered. They've got me coming and going.
posted by jsavimbi at 3:34 AM on January 15, 2008

You can't reformulate all laws as theorems borne of some simple consistent axioms.
You mean like "A rising tide lifts all ships"?
posted by Thorzdad at 3:59 AM on January 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

Wow, look at those assholes. "Charitable gambling" is a pretty good scam.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:26 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

With regard to the first link, which I read a few days ago on the WaPo, it is a pretty bleak situation in that part of Virginia. My parents grew up in both the referenced counties back in the 50's and 60's, and that was pretty much the peak of economic success for the communities. A lot of the graduates from my parents high school in Grundy, Va, (including my parents), pretty much ended up leaving the town to go to college and never return. One interesting example is the present lieutenant governor of North Carolina, who'll probably be running for governor soon.

The town has routinely over the last century been hit by floods, so this lead to a recently enacted plan to bulldoze the entire main street area, and with the help of the Corps of Engineers, move it to a point on the other side of the river. Part of the theory behind this move was simply in hopes that the move would rehabilitate the (new) main street. There was a big ruckus last year that Wal-Mart had made a deal to bring a store the town and due to the lack of flat land (its in the mountains), they were going to build a unique two story Wal-Mart. As of now, still no sign of construction. Here's a WaPo story covering much of the above (may need membership to read).

Basically, ever since the coal economy fell out, the town and the region has been reduced to pleasant memories and shattered realities.
posted by Atreides at 4:57 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I always thought that state lotteries were just a hidden tax on the poor hopelessness. When a billion to one odds start looking like the best chance millions of people have at achieving success, something is seriously wrong with how we are defining success as a society and the myth that everyone can succeed if they just work hard and play by the rules.
posted by ND¢ at 5:22 AM on January 15, 2008 [19 favorites]

Gambling in America would be impossible to outlaw on a state-by-state basis-- even if your state outlaws it, neighboring states aren't. So while it appalls the sensitive leftist in me that Massachusetts has a lottery, I know there are two realities to face here:
  1. If Massachusetts abandoned its lottery tomorrow, lots of the desperate people who play it would be wasting further money for gas to drive to New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Conecticut and New York to buy tickets. And some other state would be getting the revenue
  2. There is a strong desire to gamble in many people-- so strong that if there were no legal outlets to gamble for hundreds of miles, organized crime would move in to take up the slack. They already run many sports book operations.
What the state needs to stop doing though is running ads suggesting that you'll likely win, and saying how the money funds specific services (like education) that the state would have to fund anyway. That part is pure victimization.
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:23 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

What the state needs to stop doing though is running ads suggesting that you'll likely win, and saying how the money funds specific services (like education)...

I agree. However, I doubt you're ever going to find a legislature that is going to go on record defining how those funds are supposedly used. Gambling proceeds are seen as an enormous slush fund...huge piles of money that are far too easily diverted into pet projects, or to shore-up other under-funded services. It's all a giant shell game, necessitated by a culture that demands high-quality services yet is unwilling to pay for them.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:34 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

You are much better off going to an actual casino than buying lottery tickets. Casinos generally aren't even allowed to offer games with a 50% vig.
posted by localroger at 5:43 AM on January 15, 2008

What the state needs to stop doing though is running ads suggesting that you'll likely win, and saying how the money funds specific services (like education) that the state would have to fund anyway

What the state needs to do is give up its monopoly on gambling, allow private companies to set whatever odds they wish with supervision and taxes that way 1) you treat people like grown-ups, if they want to gamble, let them but 2) the gamblers will get a better deal.
posted by shothotbot at 6:22 AM on January 15, 2008

Your own blog. Let me show you it.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 6:27 AM on January 15, 2008

I think this is just fine here. These are interesting stories in their own right, despite the editorializing (which could have been compressed a little).

I used to live in Texas and spent a lot of time in the poorer small towns of the south/central and hill country regions. On fridays you'd go to a Circle K for beer and chips or whatever, and you'd literally fucking walk through a three inch carpet of discarded scratch-off tickets in the parking lot.

I also used to sell lottery tickets at a liquor store in Massachusetts. Our best customers were the illegal immigrant busboys and dishwashers from the Chinese restaurant across the street, none of whom could have been making more than 4 bucks an hour (this is 20 years back or so). I was once fired for refusing to work the lottery machine on payday at the restaurant because I couldn't bear to be complicit in the crime.

The use of lotteries to fund public education in the US is one of the great moral scandals.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:37 AM on January 15, 2008 [4 favorites]

I'm fairly young -- why exactly is Appalachia so economically depressed? Has most of the coal already been mined? Are foreign competitors producing cheaper coal? General trends away from messy energy sources, such as coal?
posted by decoherence at 6:41 AM on January 15, 2008

Wow, look at those assholes.

That pretty much sums up coal mining companies.

On second thought, maybe it doesn't convey enough of the PURE EVIL attribute.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:43 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

why exactly is Appalachia so economically depressed?

See: those assholes.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:44 AM on January 15, 2008

Fascinating stuff. My husband always says that the lotto is a tax on the poor, but damn, it's weird and sad to read it being stated as fact. I mean, it IS a fact, but still. Damn.
posted by agregoli at 6:59 AM on January 15, 2008

There's still coal there, but coal is cheaper to mine in other parts of the world. Coal mining is also a dangerous, unhealthy occupation (though much less so than it used to be), so I don't think the way to restore the health of the region is to return to coal mining.

The last thing people need to do is to spend their change from buying gas on a lottery ticket. The problem is that people aren't fully aware of how the State is aligned with corporate interests and against them. The purpose of a lottery is to generate profit for the state.

What makes lotteries a particularly egregious moral crime is that not only are they a tax on the poor, they are a tax on ignorance, the elimination of which is supposed to be a priority for the very states running the lotteries.

The problem I have always had with drug legalization is the same thing. If it gets legalized, it will be because the states and corporation can make money from it. Not because of some argument over personal liberty won the day. And the money they will be making will come from the people who can afford it the least.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:02 AM on January 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

I know this isn't going to be a popular stance around here, but I think there's another side to the lottery issue: it's all the people who play it occasionally and don't get addicted.

I've never seen much fun in playing numbers, personally, but I enjoy going to the horse races once in a while. Heck, it's cheaper than a baseball game and generally more interesting to watch. I bet $1 a race, just for the sake of having a horse to watch, and generally end up out about $7-8 at the end of 10 races. Not bad for a day's entertainment. I've never walked out of there feeling like I got anything less than my money's worth.

At the same time, I'm aware that there are people who go to Saratoga (or wherever) who aren't in it for a cheap afternoon; they're dropping their entire paycheck and then some.

This is unfortunate, but I'm not really sure that it justifies eliminating gambling. What's a safety net for some people can easily be a restrive snare on others. The arguments against gambling seem exactly like the Prohibitionist arguments against demon alcohol, and my philosophical problem with them is the same. In fact, I'm not really sure how you can justify restricting gambling, but still having alcohol on the market, when it's clearly quite addictive and destructive to some people. And don't get me started on nicotine.

If we want to live in an even nominally free society, we have to understand that to some people, freedom is the rope that they're going hang themselves with. That's not to say it's necessarily their fault, or that it's any sort of "moral weakness," it's just a tradeoff. The cost of personal freedom -- really any freedom -- is that some people are either not going to be able to handle it, just inherently, and are going to crash and burn horribly, or they're going to misuse it and hurt themselves or others. I'm not trying to minimize that cost, but I think given the other sacrifices that have been made in the name of various personal freedoms, that it's an acceptable one given the unpleasantness of the alternative.

The problem that I see with gambling and the lottery in particular is the obvious conflict of interest: by having the lotteries operated by state governments, you put the entity that ought to be responsible for encouraging responsible behavior profiting from irresponsible behavior. I'd rather have the whole business farmed out to private industry and taxed than run directly by the state; at least that way, States could try to educate citizens without being so blatantly hypocritical.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:16 AM on January 15, 2008 [13 favorites]

I like this analogy for the chances of winning a state lottery: think of someone you remember from, say, first grade. Pick up the phone, dial a number at random. If that person answers the phone, you've won the lottery!
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:42 AM on January 15, 2008 [7 favorites]

There's still coal there, but coal is cheaper to mine in other parts of the world.

Almost entirely irrelevant. The US shows flattish (but increasing) production and is a net exporter of coal (pdf), a commodity whose price has risen over the past few years. On the list of reasons for poverty in Appalachia, the supply/demand/price fundamentals of coal production are really far down the list.

Anyway, orthogonality, you should come join us small-l libertarians. We've been grinding these particular axes forever-- even when your kin were pounding the "do it for the children" drum so loudly in the '80s.
posted by Kwantsar at 7:54 AM on January 15, 2008

Coal mining is enjoying a boom in Appalachia, but it doesn't necessarily translate to more jobs and a better economy for the coal belt. One reason is that due to technological advances, the numbers of men needed to mine coal has dropped. This is a process that has been occurring for the last one hundred years. A comparison of the number of miners in 1900 to 2000 would show a very significant drop. A second reason is the switch in mining techniques. For example, back in the time when my parents' home town was growing successfully, most of the mining involved digging shafts into the sides of mountains and extracting the coal in that manner. That appears to be the same method going on right now in Buchanan County, at least for the men featured in the article. However, the top three (if I recall correctly), mining operations (at least in West Virginia, which has more coal than SW Virginia), get most of their mine by literally mountain top removal mining.

This essentially involves leveling a mountain to reach its coal veins, a lot like strip mining. This presents several issues. One, it takes a lot less men to run this system than the traditional burrowing into the side of a mountain. Two, there's a whole lot of dirt/rock produced by this method which is often simply dumped into an adjoining valley. This also leads to the burying of creaks, streams, and rivers, destroying those ecosystems. But in the end, its a lot cheaper to process coal this way. The profit and the wealth from the coal mining is generally funneled out of the region to out of state investors, and do not benefit the local communities. It also doesn't help that a lot of judges in the districts with coal mining often have ties to the companies, sometimes in simply owning stocks, and sometimes more suspicious ties (NY Times article from yesterday). In turn, as the judges excuse themselves from lawsuits against the companies by folks from Appalachians, you get stuck with a small number of judges who are often still pro business.

So to sum it up, coal is booming in Appalachia. However, most Appalachians are not benefiting from this boom. The wealth leaves the region. Often, over the history of Appalachia, the region has been considered a virtual colony of big business to take the wealth out and return nothing to the communities.
posted by Atreides at 7:57 AM on January 15, 2008 [4 favorites]

Just another side note to the ups and downs of the coal economy, my mother's father got rather prosperous back in the 50's by owning/managing just a few mines. He owned an airplane and my mom's family was one of the first in the community to buy a color tv. A few years later, the same family was reduced to living in a trailer with both parents working. The history of coal economics is a series of ups and downs.
posted by Atreides at 8:04 AM on January 15, 2008

I play the lottery. Not every day, not even every week, but I do it whenever I have a few bucks burning a hole in my pocket.

I'm not going to win. I know that I'm not going to win, and just about everyone else who plays the lottery knows the same thing. Winning isn't why most people play. I play because I can hold that ticket and dream about what I'm going to do with my millions of dollars. Even knowing that I'll never have them, I can retreat into my head and plan out my vacation, pick out my new house and test drive my new car.

Yeah, it's an unrealistic fantasy, but it's hours of entertainment, and it's significantly cheaper and higher quality than most of the movie-going experiences that I've had of late.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 8:07 AM on January 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

Here's a Washington Post article on mountain top removal coal mining with pictures (may require log in). Currently booming after the Bush Administration lighten and changed the enforcement of environmental laws.
posted by Atreides at 8:08 AM on January 15, 2008

I don't think we need to outlaw gambling. As others have said we just need to break the state's monopoly on gambling. If people are going to gamble you can't stop them. But there is no reason the state should be promoting and enabling them.
posted by MrBobaFett at 8:10 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah, it's an unrealistic fantasy, but it's hours of entertainment, and it's significantly cheaper and higher quality than most of the movie-going experiences that I've had of late.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 11:07 AM on January 15

Thats OK with me Parasite Unseen, but I think its at best unseemly for the state by statute to be the ones profiting on this particular hobby.
posted by shothotbot at 8:24 AM on January 15, 2008

Parasite Unseen: You can do the same thing for free. It's called "daydreaming." If a prop is necessary, try writing "lottery ticket $$$$one million dollarz$$$!" on an index card. Or change it up -- write "Last Will and Testament of Long Lost Uncle Scrooge Unseen to Favorite Nephew Parasite." Or what about when you discovered that the velvet Elvis you found at the flea-market kitsch-o-rama was actually glued to the back of an original Renoir?

Alternatively, read a book about fabulous rich people. From the library.

I don't mean to snark at you personally -- I'm sure you know what you're doing. But that unfortunately almost ubiquitous mindset irks the hell out of me in so many ways. You don't have to pay anyone anything to exercise your imagination!
posted by rusty at 8:38 AM on January 15, 2008 [6 favorites]

I wonder how a tendency to gamble money correlates with playing computer games. Personally I find computer games satisfy my "need" for random payoffs quite well, and always have. As a kid I dropped a bunch of money (compared to my income) into arcade machines, as an adult I've always had my own computer. To me, poker machines are just an extremely dumb computer game, with no real choices to make whatsoever.

If computer game players don't gamble much, I wonder if that implies that giving chronic gamblers pocket Tetris or something similar, with instructions to play it instead whenever they felt like gambling, would help. I suppose it comes down to how emotionally important it is that the "points scored" represent the same sort of thing that one buys bread and milk and beer and pays rent with.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 8:41 AM on January 15, 2008

I wonder how a tendency to gamble money correlates with playing computer games. Personally I find computer games satisfy my "need" for random payoffs quite well, and always have.

A few months ago. I tried the World of Warcraft free trial to see what the years of fuss was all about. Whole thing's designed like a slot machine. A repetitive, simple, and importantly skill-free action, whether it's pulling the arm on a slot machine or clicking to attack/fish/mine/whatever, causes pleasing visual and audio effects. A reward is given just often enough to keep the player playing.

Interestingly, that's the only "real" game that's given me that sense, though it's also the only MMORPG I've ever tried.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:06 AM on January 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

The only qualm I have with the lottery is when some dickbeard is in line ahead of me 3:30am buying a few hundred tickets and all I wanted was a pack of cigarettes.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 9:28 AM on January 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

Everyone bemoaning the unseemliness of the state running lotteries, please remember that the whole reason states run lotteries is so they can avoid raising taxes. That doesn't excuse it, of course, but it is what it is.
We can get the states to drop support for lotteries as soon as everyone else drops their taxes=evil mindset. You have to pay for those services. Choose your poison.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:55 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Maybe anti-gambling advocates should produce spoof lottery ads featuring the very real story of the Lavigueur family in order to raise awareness that the whole "one dollar, one dream" pitch has a seriously dark side.
posted by clevershark at 10:04 AM on January 15, 2008

I am ashamed and embarrassed that my state (Texas) is responsible for this $50 lottery ticket.
posted by fiercecupcake at 10:48 AM on January 15, 2008

I think given the other sacrifices that have been made in the name of various personal freedoms, that it's an acceptable one given the unpleasantness of the alternative.

The alternative is not having lotteries. I can't imagine that being more unpleasant than having lotteries.

You can't make this into an all freedom vs. no freedom issue. The state can be perfectly justified in outlawing lotteries with the simple argument, "This is a social problem that accomplishes little and harms many". Similar arguments can be made for many things, though they may be more or less convincing. Deciding whether or not the costs of a social practice are worth the benefits is one of the primary goals of a democracy. We had prohibition, but then decided that the benefits (or costs of prohibition) were worth the costs of having alcohol. This is just how democracies work. You're free to assess the costs/benefits differently, but don't accuse others of being inconsistent when they come to different conclusions about alcohol, gambling, and smoking.

If we want to live in an even nominally free society

"Free" is not an absolute.
posted by kiltedtaco at 11:06 AM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't mean to snark at you personally -- I'm sure you know what you're doing. But that unfortunately almost ubiquitous mindset irks the hell out of me in so many ways. You don't have to pay anyone anything to exercise your imagination!

While I recognize that it is true that I don't need to pay anyone in order to exercise my imagination, I also feel that a certain purchased props really help the experience. Thinking back to my childhood, I remember my father saying much the same thing when I wanted a Lego set, and I think now what I thought then: What a friggin' cheapskate.

Yes, you don't need to pay anyone in order to be entertained. I could imagine being an instant millionaire without shelling out $25 a year or so. I could also save the money that I've spent on books, movies, or (let's be honest) porn by simply closing my eyes and thinking about it REALLY HARD. In the end, though, I think that I'm more inclined to occasionally pay for these things because I have the resources to do so and paying for them doesn't detract significantly from my enjoyment.

It takes me an hour's worth of work to earn what I spend annually on lotto tickets. Each of those tickets is worth several hours of entertainment for me. Outside of Metafilter, that's the best cash to entertainment conversion ratio that I can think of a business offering me in a long time.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 12:22 PM on January 15, 2008

However, a Lego set is actually, errrr...constructive? You can build something, learn spatial skills, AND imagine another world. A lotto ticket is a piece of paper.
posted by agregoli at 12:32 PM on January 15, 2008

I always thought that state lotteries were just a hidden tax on the poor.

I've heard it referred to as "the stupid tax".
posted by Devils Slide at 1:25 PM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

So rusty, I guess that means you never look at pronography when you masturbate, right?
posted by saladin at 1:31 PM on January 15, 2008

I would far prefer a less regressive tax structure, even though I earn enough money that people like me would have to take up the slack if the lottery (in NY) were gone tomorrow.

It sickens me to see the crazed addicted hope in the eyes of the very obviously too-poor to be wasting money people who buy lottery tickets. It's sickened me since I sold them in my early 20s. And since I became a social scientist working in poor communities, it sickens me even more.

It would be one thing if it was truly a free will decision, as it obviously is for many people. But if you haven't seen straight-out gambling addiction at work on the lottery ticket line, you haven't been looking. Next time you see some poor single mother or barely-above-homeless guy buying 10 or 20 bucks worth of *INSTANTWINZU2CANBEAZILLIONAIRE* scratch off tickets with that glassy-eyed look of need (soon to be followed by the downcast look of failure), remember that there are probably little children at home going to bed with nothing but macaroni and cheese in their bellies and no protein. Because that's the reality of this shit. '

The state is a pusher with respect to gambling. It is moral hypocrisy on the highest level even for the state to sell lottery tickets, and doubly so to justify it by pissing a few bucks in the direction of "education" from the profits.

The motto for every state lottery ought to be "Fuck the Poor."
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:38 AM on January 17, 2008

saladin: I'll tell you this much: I certainly don't pay for it. :-)
posted by rusty at 8:29 AM on January 17, 2008

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