Weekly Briefing

Why North Carolina should repeal the state lottery

Hint: The answer may surprise you

Here is a typical reaction that a lot of people voice when the folks here at NC Policy Watch continue to report on and produce negative commentaries about the North Carolina “Education” Lottery: “Come on guys, give it up! That’s one genie that’s not going back in the bottle – time to move on to other battles.”

Many Democrats, in particular, who share a general philosophical connection with NC Policy Watch, find it particularly vexing that we seem to spend so much time beating up on an entity so closely associated with the last two Democratic Governors.

It’s an understandable reaction. It’s been seven years now since the lottery was passed into law. Most North Carolinians are used to it at this point. A lot of good and well-meaning people support it. Some are even employed by it. And, of course, it brings in a lot of money to public coffers to support important causes. During this time of profound budget crisis, how could anyone – especially folks who believe so strongly in public solutions to public problems – seriously suggest doing away with it?

To get a feel for the answer to this last question, readers would do well to review the video of the latest Policy Watch Crucial Conversation luncheon that took place this week in Raleigh – we will have it up on our website shortly. In it, you’ll get to watch the presentations of two very smart and thoughtful experts on the subject of the lottery and state-sponsored gambling generally: Les Bernal of the Stop Predatory Gambling Foundation and Prof. Charles Clotfelter of Duke University.

Undermining public faith in government

For those who lack the time to review the entire luncheon at this time, however, here is the thumbnail version of what the two men conveyed to an attentive and engaged audience:

There are many reasons to be gravely concerned about the lottery and state-sponsored gambling – the human carnage, the corrupting influence of giant predatory corporations, the regressive nature of the tax involved, the way in which lottery revenues have supplanted rather than supplemented other, fairer tax revenues – but ultimately, it really boils down to one critically important and overarching issue: The lottery is slowly but surely altering the relationship between government and the citizenry.

Think about this for a moment: What is the the single most visible and regular way in which North Carolina government communicates with the citizenry it exists to serve? The lottery, of course.

The commercials are literally everywhere – on TV, radio, computer screens, cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, and even live, big-time sporting events at which gambling is ordinarily avoided like The Plague. No other public institution even comes close to communicating with North Carolinians on such a frequent basis.

Now, think for a moment about the essence of that message: Is it a positive and healthy message? The kind of message that would be delivered by an institution that works for its intended recipients?

Of course not. It’s a slick, cynical, adversarial message. “Get rich quick!” “Come and spend your money on a one-in-a-million chance!” “Play today! Play every day!”

In short, it’s the kind of message that turns government’s traditional role on its head. Rather than acting as the source of democratic, intentional public solutions, government is transformed into an exploitative, PT Barnum-like huckster – selling “fun” and “entertainment” while shaking down suckers for every last dime.

“Ah,” but lottery defenders (and even some agnostics) say, “surely, that’s an exaggeration.”

Sadly, it’s not. Sure, in-the-know people who think about government regularly– Raleigh insiders – know that government is much more than sleazy TV ads. But for average North Carolinians outside the Raleigh beltline, this is frequently not the case. Especially for young people raised on the ads, the lottery IS state government.

Perhaps this is why, as Bernal noted at yesterday’s luncheon, more than one-in-five Americans view the lottery as the best available route to riches in the American economy. Educated and informed people can pooh-pooh such polling results as aberrations or flukes, but even a casual look in many of our state’s poorer communities tells us that this result is all too accurate.

As N.C. Policy Watch reporter Sarah Ovaska has reported periodically in recent months, lottery play in low-income North Carolina communities can be downright shocking. Not only do poor counties have higher rates of per capita lottery spending, many are also home to grievously addicted individuals. Especially with the growing availability of “scratch off” tickets priced as high as $20 a piece, thousands of individuals are spending thousands of dollars per year on the lottery. This helps explain another of Bernal’s remarkable statistics – namely that, as a general rule, 80% of lottery revenues come from 20% of the players.

The existence of such sobering facts and statistics can’t help but lead to and help cement the following hard fact: Popular as the lottery might be, it is slowly but surely transforming how citizens view their government. Government is no longer seen as a trusted and respected friend and watchdog for the common good; it is an adversary like any other giant corporation that must be bargained with and dealt with warily.

Implications of this change

So, assuming it’s really underway (and the evidence is pretty darned compelling) what does this gradual, lottery-abetted shift in the relationship between government and citizens portend?

In modern politics the implications are there for all to see. One need only look at both the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements. On both left and right, Americans have become disillusioned with their government. Though often doing so from widely differing perspectives, they increasingly see the government as a “them” rather than and “us” – a rigged game that favors the wealthy and the connected.

For the market fundamentalist, anti-government right, this is, of course, a welcome phenomenon. “See we told you so,” they say. “Government can never be trusted. That’s why we need to do away with public education and sell off our public institutions. Better to turn everything over to the dog-eat-dog competition of the market than pretend we can do better.”

For progressives, however, this is an especially worrisome development. As a movement based in large measure on the central idea that the combination of intentional public solutions and shared sacrifice are the best hope for the health and survival of our democracy, a poisoned relationship between government and the people is terrible news.

Put bluntly, how do you go about convincing people to support public education, health care, transit and environmental protection when the most visible arm of government we have is trying to rip them off?

So, what to do?

Turning back the tide on the lottery – or even just slowing down the state’s headlong expansion into the widespread legalization of machine and casino gambling – will not be easy. Highly sophisticated, multi-billion dollar corporations stand perched at the trough with fleets of lobbyists and barrels full of campaign cash.

But slowly and steadily, more and more people on both sides of the political spectrum are standing up and starting to push back. As the speakers at yesterday’s luncheon made clear, it will not be an easy contest and will likely take decades, but it can be won.

And, notwithstanding the lottery experiment, North Carolina has done a better job than most states of keeping the predatory gambling interests at bay. The tools and talents are there to retake the initiative in this contest.

Especially, if you believe in the critical importance of public solutions to public problems in safeguarding our democracy and middle class society, you owe it to yourself and your children to join the effort.