While much ink has been spilled over the process by which lottery privatization has progressed in Pennsylvania, not enough attention has been paid to the most dangerous aspect of the proposal: the broad introduction of video keno.
Video keno is a personal, real-time numbers-based lottery game. But rather than waiting for a twice-daily drawing, the player has his or her own personal monitor that provides instantaneous feedback. It is a perpetual lottery. And it presents the opportunity for swift, massive losses -- the house edge is as high as 12 percent, and the game can be played a dozen times per minute.
We mustn't be timid about describing this as what it is: a tremendous and highly-regressive tax largely on the underprivileged and the elderly. It is funding government programs on the backs of precisely those whom those programs are supposed to benefit. It is an overwhelmingly cynical attempt to tap into the hope -- necessarily more common among the lower classes, the unemployed and those on fixed incomes -- that Lady Luck will deliver a payday in order to make a buck for the Harrisburg bureaucracy.
Libertarian appeals to the "freedom" of the players are equally cynical, and are rarely made by those who have experienced want. It is easy to talk about freedom when the game holds no appeal for oneself. And do we foster entrepreneurship and initiative by dangling -- at every corner bar! -- the hope of an escape from poverty by luck rather than work (or, God forbid, community solidarity)?
And what about the freedom of the addict? The instant gratification and ubiquitous availability of the proposed keno program remind one of nothing more than Internet pornography. These qualities -- in combination with the primal thrill many receive from gambling -- create a toxic and addictive cocktail. And it is the avowed purpose of video keno to entice participation, to bring the lottery to as many people as possible.
It is an unpleasant thing to say, but honesty demands it: The success of this program depends on the addictiveness of the game. Addicts equal revenue.
It is one thing to sequester such gaming to a few large casinos. Most patrons currently have to make a special trip to play, allowing development of a more detached and healthy relationship with gambling; it becomes an irregular, "special day" activity. Consider, then, the difference when instant-gratification gambling becomes an unavoidable aspect of everyday life -- when every corner bar and restaurant has a bank of screens glowing with the promise of a spontaneous payday. Consider the difference when almost every establishment that serves alcohol also provides fast-paced gambling. I shouldn't need to elaborate on the dangers of that combination.
The lottery proposal, though, is socially corrosive beyond questions of finance and even addiction. This type of gambling is alienating. It isolates the player in a tiny universe, where all that exists is the player, the machine and the fleeting-though-intoxicating thrill of the game. It takes one of the most important of social institutions -- the bar or restaurant -- where communities come together, friendships are made, plans are hatched and disputes are settled (and sometimes commenced), and imposes upon that place a terribly profitable individualistic temptation. It is a temptation -- again, like pornography -- to recede from the world to a domain of private pleasures.
One might argue that nothing is being imposed on these establishments. Though superficially true, few business owners will decline a new source of revenue, especially once competitors have installed the machines. Hopefully, wise barkeeps would recognize that the effects on the atmosphere of the establishment would outweigh the benefits both abstractly and, in the end, financially. But I'm not holding my breath.
The great political consternation over the transparency and legitimacy of the lottery privatization process has obscured substantial questions about the substance of the proposal itself. Video keno is a cynical attempt to cash in on desperation and bad judgment -- bad judgment that the state will be encouraging. It supercharges the lottery, making it into an alienating and intoxicating form of private entertainment (albeit in a public place).
The damage to the common good caused by video keno far outweighs any profits that might accrue to state coffers.
Brandon McGinley is field director of the PA Family Institute, a nonprofit research and education organization that works to strengthen families (email@example.com).