Nearly every state in our great union — except for Hawaii and Utah — oversees some form of gambling, including State Lotteries, which serve as a regressive tax and return roughly 50% of every dollar wagered to the poor gamblers who buy tickets. (The average sports bet returns 94.6 %).
Poker players, despite their talent for lying, looking inscrutable, and tricking innocent victims, have become minor pop-culture celebrities, complete with endorsement deals and obedient media fawning.
The pointspread lines for the weekend’s football games are published in the Los Angeles Times, among dozens of other august news reporting institutions.
“Deal or No Deal,” which is essentially an exercise in figuring out simple gambling odds, is our nation’s most popular primetime game show.
We have racetracks, casinos, card rooms, and bingo parlors. We have office pools. We have the financial markets. We have the corner Kwickie Mart, where the state provides scratch-off gambling cards for our amusement.
We’re a nation of gamblers.
Our legislative protectors, however, are looking after us. Never mind that the states they represent sanction (and profit from) some form of gambling. Never mind that many of these same senators and representatives are gamblers themselves. (John McCain, who has ambitions to be the next President, is a dice fiend, often seen parked beside a craps table.) Never mind that no one can formulate a cogent argument that explains why all this gambling is OK and smiled upon and celebrated when doing it in a brick-and-mortar establishment but frowned upon while doing it on your computer. All we know is that they’ve made it illegal now, and logic and common sense no longer much matter.
As anyone who enjoys playing online poker, or betting on NFL games in his underwear from the comfort of his couch, or dribbling away the kid’s college fund on virtual blackjack now knows, last weekend the Republican majority leader, Bill “HCA” Frist appended to an important Ports Security bill a rider that criminalizes offshore casinos. Players, it appears from a careful reading of the legislation, are not meant to be targets; it’s the casinos and the banks that service them that are being squeezed. But the impact has been immediate and widespread. Two of the largest Internet poker rooms have already stopped taking deposits from American customers. Their stock market valuation — they’re traded on the London Stock Exchange — has dropped nearly 50%, erasing billions of dollars in value overnight.
What this is all meant to accomplish I can’t say. Perhaps it’s as simple as driving tax revenue toward casinos and other gambling dens that fall under IRS jurisdiction. People won’t stop gambling, the reasoning goes, so why not force them to play where the government can get its fair share of the booty? This has been our government’s ethos in Iraq, where no-bid contracts and cost-plus “rebuilding” grants help line the pockets of politically connected conglomerates; our ethos in the Senate, where “bringing home our fair share” is the best way for an incumbent to stay in office; and our ethos in every other federal sector except our tax code, in which the government is committed to extracting less than its fair share from wealthy people.
The message our hypocritical leaders have sent is clear. They intend on ridding the Internet of gambling, making it “safe” for what it’s really meant for: cheap books and pornography.