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.