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In the year 2000, the American people – mostly the little guys – sunk some $866 billion into “it,” most of which was lost. The dollars thrown into this rat hole in 2001 is likely to be even closer to the $1 trillion dollar mark. Maybe in 2002 we’ll break $1 trillion.

So what’s the deal? Enron? WorldCom? Global Crossing? Guess again.

It’s called gambling, and it’s an even bigger scam than cooking the corporate books. Unlike a ruined 401(k), one doesn’t have to wait until retirement to find out that the till is empty – because casinos, state lotteries, the ponies and illegal betting all take their cut in the here and now. State governments, organized crime bookies and “the gaming industry” (which is what legalized gambling prefers to call itself, much as the military refers to civilian casualties as “collateral damage”) provide millions of fools a chance to part with their money. Commercialized gambling (non-Indian) is conducted at 429 casinos in 11 states; only two states in the Union – Utah and Hawaii – actually prohibit all forms of gambling, and 38 states have lotteries. Added to this are the Indian casinos – 198 tribes are running 326 gambling holes in 28 states. And here’s a real eye opener – betting websites are thought to number some 34,000! Today on the Internet, you can lose the kids’ college funds, the grocery money or this month’s rent from the comfort of your own living room. Going to hell has never been more convenient! Needless to say, none of the foregoing stats include illegal gambling, which just adds gazillions to the overall total “wagered.”

Forget about statistics. How many of you have waited in line at the convenience store while some Joe or Josephine Six Pack orders up lottery and scratch tickets like a kid in a candy store? In fact, just outside that store, have you noticed the increasingly familiar sight of some poor shmo frantically rubbing a scratch ticket hoping for the big score? In the old days, the trash outside these places consisted of empty bottles and cigarette butts; today, it’s heaps of losing scratch tickets.

Essentially, the government is now in the same business that used to be the exclusive province of the Mafia. How did this happen?

Mostly it happened because the politicians and the “gaming industry” made a pretty sure bet – they bet that a public dumb enough to shell out cold cash for a Powerball Lottery where the odds of winning can be 100,000,000 to 1 would also buy the phony argument that the proceeds of state sponsored scams actually go to benefit “the kids” in the form of aid to schools and so forth. In fact, as every state legislator knows, lottery proceeds often wind up in a state’s general fund. In other words, it’s a just a form of taxation.

But is this fair? Most people – even my Republican friends – concede that some degree of progressivity is appropriate to raise government revenue. The more one makes, the more one pays in taxes. But how many Mercedes owners, how many guys and gals wearing Armani suits have you seen standing in line to buy a lottery ticket? The dirty secret is that state sponsored gambling in particular preys upon the working poor, the people whose circumstances lead them to hope that with a single scratch, all of their problems with inadequate health care, housing and social services will vanish.

And for those “players” who aren’t poor, gambling creates a bad ethic – the vain hope that they can get something for nothing. Gambling destroys the connection between success in life and the real means of achieving it – hard work.

Gambling’s other sick legacy is its encouragement of pathological behavior. Gambling addicts – those who need the perpetual exhilaration of a bet – constitute 2.5 percent of all gamblers, although they account for 15 percent of all bets placed. In other words, the gambling lords depend upon their addicts just like the tobacco companies and drug pushers depend on theirs.

Washington loves to talk endlessly about protecting “the little guy.” But there’s a deafening silence on the subject of gambling. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why. The “gaming industry” and local politicians make sure that Washington won’t see the problem. Many of my conservative friends, who love to talk about Democrats and moral decline, never mention anything about gambling. That’s because Republicans, like Democrats, are up to their necks in gambling money – both private, state and Native American.

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