Robbing Peter to pay Paul

St Paul's  from flickr 5172661797_d7003e47a8_m

St Paul’s             flickr 5172661797_d7003e47a8_m






St Peter’s ,  photo from Flickr


     Some cynic wrote “Whoever robs Peter to pay Paul can always count on Paul’s support.”  Too many people, though they might  hesitate to call gambling robbery, are comfortable with  government’s taking gambling-derived revenues from Peter (the gambler)  and converting them into what looks like a fiscal benefit  to Paul.  Paul here is the citizen whose tax rates were not perceptibly increased when government got revenue another way, from its share of Peter’s losses at legalized gambling.   Paul is expected to be grateful for government’s easing up on him thanks to  Peter’s losses.  To feel that way in good conscience,  though,  he has to think it’s really not “robbery,”  merely  “parting a fool from his money.”

     In NY we are most all Pauls, thanking government for fending off tax rate increases by reaping Lottery money.  There are two things wrong with this state of affairs that should make us change it, hard as that would be.  First, about half the revenue to government from gambling it sanctions is from the losses of addicted and problem gamblers.  To keep “playing,” these people almost always have to take money from others who trust them. Whether predatory gambling literally robs the gambler himself or herself can be disputed.  (See discussion below the “read more”  break.)  That it robs others via the gambler cannot be disputed.  It robs them not only of savings accounts, vehicles, retirement funds, lunch money,  furniture etc., but of reputation, affection and self-esteem.  These others number,  for each affected gambler, as many as 10 to 17 [Politzer et al, 1992 citing Lesieur 1977].

      Then there is robbery going on to keep Paul’s tax rate from rising. Paul can still be comfortable with that, if the identity of the victims is  abstract enough.  He ought also to realize, however, that he is not really benefiting by the apparent flatness of his tax rate.  The money Peter cozened  from his trusting family and associates (referred to as “abused dollars”) are only a piece of the hidden quantifiable socioeconomic costs of gambling.   Counting in all those hidden costs doubles what it costs society to  raise a dollar by tax-on-casino instead of by  stepping up the rate of a conventional distortionary tax like sales tax or income tax. [Earl Grinols (2004), Gambling in America  pp 180-181]

     If Paul feels no compunction about seeming to get a break on his taxes due to revenue  to government from gambling,  still insists  it’s a free lunch,  it’s not.  He gave at the office without knowing it.  Some of his tax money went to criminal justice administration or social services triggered by events in  the gambling exchange.  He is also part of an economy hurt by lost productivity and lost creativity due to gambling.  This is  a touch of rot.

     Where does robbery overlap  gambling?  Let me count the ways.

     Some say that the Peter-Paul metaphor at first referred to witholding money from  the Church of Rome (Peter)   to support instead the Church of England  (Paul).    In such a case, “robbery” is not at gunpoint or by battery,  but by stinting one party. “Robbery” is an elastic word.  It applies in our daily speech to transactions from obviously criminal (e.g. bank robbery)   to  an  umpire’s   call  prompting    “we wuz robbed”  chants.  In between these extremes, high prices may be called  “highway robbery.”   When a contract is broken and no settlement reached, someone has been “robbed.”  A low price may be a “steal” for the buyer.

    Gambling involves an agreed-on handover of money for which nothing of value is received.  To some, this imbalance makes it  robbery.  To others, the losing party has taken a risk with a probabilistic expectation of gain,  has not been robbed. A poll  might find that  a majority of American adults don’t consider the loser in a “fair” gamble to have been robbed.  Polls would, however,  find that a high  proportion of adults define the following examples of taking money for one’s own use as “robbery”  even if no criminal charges are filed:

Parent taking a child’s allowance  from child’s piggy bank after asking

Parent taking a child’s allowance  from  piggy bank without asking

Parent taking a teen-ager’s cash earnings from part-time job out of a drawer                            

Spouse withdrawing money  early  from retirement account intended to cover both members of couple

Member of engaged couple diverting  money jointly saved for honeymoon

Grandparent as trustee taking money from grandchild’s college tuition savings account established years before by that grandparent

Grandparent as trustee taking money from grandchild’s college tuition savings account established years before by someone not that grandparent

Spouse not paying  insurance premium or monthly payments on jointly-owned vehicle and diverting money to secret use.

Buying something  on credit,  then selling it for cash before it’s paid for

Taking money from employer’s business hoping that forgiving employer will eat the loss and not prosecute

Spouse not paying court-ordered child support

    Some people may  think it less reprehensible for a parent to take back allowance from an eight-year old than for a spouse to divert the mortgage payment and cause foreclosure, but not much less.  Morally everything on the above list is a kind of robbery  commonly done  by addicted and problem gamblers chasing their losses.  Even someone who  thinks  addicted gamblers have perfect judgment and insight, and thus cannot be robbed in a “fair game,”  has to acknowledge that the  gambling exchange  robs people around the gambler, “peri-gambler victims.”  Peter, then,  is not just the gambler; he is also six, eight, ten,  a dozen other people who flank the gambler. 

Post-script  The indulgences being marketed in 1517  that provoked Martin Luther to challenge their sale as  corrupt were promoted by Pope Leo X to raise money for a lofty cause — building the Basilica of St. Peter’s. Interesting parallel to  having state lottery tickets sold “to benefit education” 

reference: Politzer, Robert M et al. The Epidemiologic Model and the Risks of Legalized Gambling: Where are We Headed?  Health Values  March /April 1992 vol 16 (2) :20-27.  The authors refer in turn to a book by Henry Lesieur called The Chase: Career of the Compulsive Gambler, first edition 1977

The opinions in this piece are those of the writer, Stephen Q. Shafer MD,  and do not necessarily reflect those of all or any members of CAGNY.  Permission to reproduce in whole or part is hereby granted on condition that the permalink above is cited to credit this web site.

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