Charles Murray – A Tip of the Hat

Since the publication of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 in 2012, even his most vociferous critics are taking Charles Murray seriously. It is no secret that people have strong feelings about his work, one way or another, though one suspects his oeuvre is not always read widely or deeply as a whole.

And though delightful, Murray’s recent foray into dispensing grandfatherly wisdom, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life, will hardly convince those who are not already willing to listen to its unfashionable point of view.

Coming Apart, on the other hand, helped to crystalize a full-throated national debate about inequality, beyond mere hand wringing, daring to suggest that there are profound non-economic as well as economic forces at play. In the last chapters, Murray reviews three decades of research and writing. His previous projects, though focused and self-contained, look more and more prescient and evocative. They build a solid case for a data rich approach of asking and answering classical questions of social analysis and policymaking.

For those who do appreciate this achievement, as well as for those who have a different take, I invite you to listen to David’s conversation with Charles about marriage, “Can Marriage Be Saved?” David begins with a deft review of the broad impact of Charles’ writings, and ends by pressing for real answers and for his own candid evaluation of what it all means.

There are some pretty interesting insights here about intellectual indebtedness, following arguments where they lead, true “liberal” principles, the need for solutions, the role of faith in human accomplishment, and the future of social science – not to mention a whole lot on the topic of the day, marriage and marriage equality.

Most of all, though I admit it is a mighty cliché, you will encounter a couple of guys who really care.  For those who think Charles Murray is about a narrow sociological reductionism, think again. To those who think David Blankenhorn has tossed overboard essential social – even theological – capital, think again.

It is often hard to see where the clash of conflicted self-interested argument finally gets us. Do we want to win debates or change minds? Does all this talk strengthen the ties that bind?

In this conversation there is – to salute the Stephen Colbert shtick that one can only hope will be reappear on “Late Night” –  a “tip of the hat” to the “majesty of social science” and a “wag of the finger” to “what we have always known.”

Can marriage be saved? If, as Charles Murray eloquently says right here, marriage is central to human happiness, we will find a way. Here are two guys who are trying to get to work on that, starting today. I hope you will take a listen, and join them.

The World According to Larry Mead

Just over a year ago, to compliment the publication of “A Call for a New Conversation on Marriage,” we began producing a live video and audio conversation series that quickly became simply “Conversations with David Blankenhorn.” While focusing on the struggle to make marriage “achievable for all who desire it, especially the forgotten 60 percent” – which above all bringing new light to the twin issues of marriage equality and increasing inequality in America – we put together a series I think notable for its breadth of view, engagement of the contested points, and generous spirit for what remains to be resolved in our hearts and minds as a nation on these subjects

David’s rich connections and many years of labor in the area were evident. Religious thinkers, policy wonks, public intellectuals, and friends met along the way living the issues before debating them, all became essential to the conversation. You simply won’t find in one place such a fair presentation and penetrating analysis of the interlocking issues that define the place of marriage in civil society today.

If I had to choose one of these conversations to focus on – to pick as my absolute favorite and recommend to others if they could listen to just one – it would be David’s engagement with NYU’s Larry Mead. You just have to listen to it; it’s that good. It is not that you haven’t heard these talking points before. It is they way they are taken up and reflected in the light by two expert and compassionate minds. Here is an example of why, as Aristotle famously claimed, friendship is grounded in respect for shared goals and values. These two colleagues take on the most difficult tangle of problems – poverty, welfare to work, single motherhood, race, effective social incentives, the role of stigma, policy that reinstates the real costs of divorce, the role marriage equality can play in strengthening marriage, determined to go wherever data and practical concern might lead.

I love this conversation because it is a brilliant and entertaining example of why arguments need to be sustained over time and why experts in different fields need to speak question and challenge each other.

I love this conversation because it shows the creative importance of changing one’s mind, especially in our poll driven public square.

I love this conversation because, as a pastor in active ministry for over thirty years who thought he had heard every argument about marriage and marriage equality ever made, I learned a great deal. I took notes. I felt called, not just to a new perspective, but to a new responsibility, over and above those detailed by my tribe and constituency. I felt invited into a constructive conversation among citizens.

Like I said. You owe it to yourself to set aside an hour right now and have a listen. The question of the hour is in the title: Is The Marriage Gap Driving Inequality? Enjoy!

“Can One Parent Bring Up a Child as Well as Two Together?”

According to a new story and poll in the Wall Street Journal,  about 41 percent of Americans living in rural areas, and 58 percent in urban areas (and about 80 percent of Americans are urban), believe that “one parent can bring up a child as well as two together.”

Good grief.  Do most Americans also believe that a person with one hand can type just as well as a person with two?

I’m tempted to quibble with the question’s wording.  The problem is that word  “can.”  Can a one-handed person become a great baseball player?   The answer is yes.  (Look up Jim Abbott, the great pro pitcher.)  Can a basketball team with two players beat a team with five?   Yes.  One year I saw a middle school team with two players who were so amazing that I think they could’ve won nearly every game that season all by themselves, just the two of them playing against the other team’s five.

But of course the question isn’t simply can something happen.  What we also want to know is how likely it is that one parent will do just as well as two.  What are the probabilities?

I’m also tempted to give credit to Americans who don’t want to give offense when speaking about such matters.  Most Americans (and count me among them) have no interest in pointing an accusing finger at single parents, as if  they are being singled out for blame.  So let’s give these parents the benefit of the doubt and tell whoever’s asking that, sure, one parent can be just as effective as two.

But although I’d like for these considerations to explain away my concerns, I don’t think they do.  Americans were asked a reasonably clear question about family structure, and they gave their answer.

The answer depresses me.  Because if there is anything we know from the weight of social science evidence, anything we know from cross-cultural investigations of human family functioning, anything we know from nearly every field about what helps the child to thrive, it is this:  The unit of one parent and a child is sociologically incomplete.  All kinds of things can happen, and do happen, but the empirically valid generalization is that the human child does best with a mother and a father who love her and the human parent does best with a caring mate.

My Visit to the Golden Moon Casino

My colleague Amy Ziettlow’s new report, Seniors in Casino Land: Tough Luck for Older Americans, reminds me of meeting Callie Adamson. She’s in her 70s.  She lives in Macon, Mississippi, about 60 miles away from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where my mother and I met her at the casino not long ago.  We were all three sitting in front of a row slot machines, and I was watching her watch me, as my mother and I were playing, or at least trying to, and she was sitting quietly in front of a nearby machine, not playing, waiting for her daughter, it turns out, who also lives in Macon, and who had come with her that morning to the casino.  She told us that she and one or both of her two daughters come to casino about twice a month.

It was about 2 p.m. on a Monday afternoon, and the huge, dark-with-flashing-lights casino was busy – lots of people, lots of noises.  Mrs. Adamson is African American. She is overweight and has a bad knee that makes walking a bit difficult.  She has thin gray hair and a kind, smooth, discerning face.

I ask her, with the usual southern deference and indirection, does she know how to play this machine I’m sitting in front of?  She says she does, and moves over to sit by me. She shows me how to play.  To get started, the machine will take either your card or cash. (“Oh yes, they all take cash!” she says with a laugh.)  I put in a ten dollar bill and sure enough the machine gobbles it up.

She says, how much do you want to bet?  I say, let’s bet the most we can with each spin.  She shows me the buttons I need to press.  I make a mistake or two at first, but after several spins, I’ve got it, and in about 90 seconds the ten dollars is gone.  I put in another ten dollars and keep going, as she watches with interest, making sure I don’t mess up. On one spin, the lights start going crazy, the machine goes ping ping ping, I have won what seem to be a lot of credits, amounting, the machine finally says, to about $32.00.

“Quit now!” my mother says.  I decide to keep playing.  I’m suddenly feeling lucky, like things are going my way for the moment.  About three minutes later, all the money is gone and I have nothing. I put in another ten dollars. This time my mother presses the buttons.  The money is gone in about two minutes. We look a bit dejected.  Our new acquaintance is friendly but dispassionate, watching us and watching her words.

After some casual conversation, with none of us playing the machines, she says to me, well, if I’m being honest, when I was first watching you, I thought you were a preacher.  I knew you were with your mother (she smiles at my mother) and I thought, this man is a preacher. You can just tell, if someone is preacher, and it just seemed like you were.  I knew you didn’t know what you were doing with that machine, she says with a laugh.

Are you having some luck today, I ask?  No.  She’s lost $100 today at the slots, and that is it for her today.  (She says she never plays the table games and doesn’t even know how to play them.)  That’s why she’s been sitting, not playing any more, waiting for her daughter to come find her.  (Her bad knee makes walking hard.)

I ask her, why do you like going to the casino?  She says, well, sometimes you get lucky.  She says one time she won a thousand dollars on one spin.

She then says going to the casino is something to do.  About all she does in Macon is go to church, and maybe visit friends every so often. But that’s about it.  There isn’t much to do in Macon, and so she and her daughters enjoy making the trip to the casino.  They go about twice a month.

She tells us with a smile that people go to casino to “pay the light bill.”  I wanted to ask what she meant by that, but I didn’t. I thought about it afterwards, and still do.  Did she mean that she goes to the casino hoping to win enough money to pay her light bill?  Or was she speaking more poetically?  Like going to the casino, for her, was paying for something unstated and bright that she wanted, or needed?  I never figured it out to my satisfaction. Maybe she was just saying that she puts money into the slot machines, hoping for them to light up.

She is certainly aware that “paying the light bill” in this way is costly.  Sometimes you get lucky, but most times you don’t. Almost everyone ends up losing more than they win.  She knows this.

She also believes that all the machines are basically the same in terms of how they work and your chances of winning – although she knows people who strongly believe otherwise.  But she does point out that the different machines have different names, which interest her, as well as their own specific sounds and patterns of play. Double Diamond, Lobster Mania, Indian Princess, African Diamond, Kingpin Bowling, and Texas Tea are some of the names of slot machines we saw that day.

By the time we parted company we were friends and all felt good about having had the chance to meet one another.

The casino is the hub of a giant gleaming modernist high-rise complex.  In that part of very poor, spare, run-down Mississippi, this monstrous white creation looks a space ship from a 1950s sci-fi movie that has landed in the middle of nowhere.  It’s called the Golden Moon Casino and Resort. It’s owed by the Choctaw Indians and is officially located in Choctaw, Mississippi – Choctaw being, essentially, that part of Philadelphia, Mississippi, in Neshoba County, that is owned by the tribe.

The casino is open 24/7. It has several restaurants (buffet style seems to be the most popular) and some shops.  It has lots of ATM machines, in case the players need money.  Ashtrays are everywhere (even in toilet stalls) and a great many of the players are smoking.  The soft drinks and iced tea in small cups are self-serve and free.  The casino’s ads describe the casino as “Vegas with Sweet Tea!”

There a few table games, but the vast majority of the casino’s floor space is devoted to its 3,100 slot machines.  The clientele is racially mixed, largely female, and largely older.  The first person I saw, when I walked onto the floor and was letting my eyes adjust to the semi-darkness, was an older white woman in a wheel chair.

“Pushing Luck”

In the late 1970s, Atlantic City tied its future to the casino industry and Florida did not.  Which place made the smarter choice?

That theme is explored in “Pushing Luck,” a new, 30-minute documentary released this month by No Casinos, the umbrella group in Florida (its members include Disney and the Chamber of Commerce) opposing casino expansion.  You can watch the video here.

I’m biased, partly because I’ve gotten to know the No Casino people in recent weeks; partly because my IAV colleagues Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and Paul Davies appear in the film as expert talking heads; and mainly, I suppose, because I agree with the filmmakers that casinos are rip-off institutions which retard economic growth, contribute to the rise of inequality, and in general degrade the quality of life.   But even if — and perhaps especially if — you are undecided on these questions,  I think you’ll find the film intellectually serious and worth watching.


Religious Liberty is Too Important to be a Pawn in the Culture War

Recently the state legislatures of Arizona and Kansas, seeking largely to protect the rights of religious objectors to gay marriage, have considered expansions of their states’ definitions of religious liberty. Both bills failed. The Kansas bill passed the House but not the Senate, and the Arizona bill was vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer. But as other states – reportedly including Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee – now consider similar legislation, it’s important to examine the core principles at stake.

In recent years something interesting has been happening in the U.S.: As gay unions have been recognized, so have the rights of religious objectors.

For example, when New York’s legislature recognized gay marriage in 2011, the law also insulated religious organizations that object to gay marriage (or any marriage) from both private lawsuits and government penalties. In Maine, a successful ballot initiative in 2012 permits gay marriage, but also permits organizations to refuse to host weddings to which they object on religious grounds, without facing a threat to their tax-exempt status. Similar protections for religious and religiously-affiliated organizations have accompanied legislative victories for gay marriage in other states.

Were any of these results perfect, from the perspective of either marriage equality advocates or advocates for religious freedom? Of course not. Did they achieve real gains for both sides? Yes.

This recent American dynamic of expanded gay rights in tandem with stronger guarantees of religious liberty offers important lessons. First, it reminds us that no right is absolute. Even a fundamental right exists only in relation to, and often in tension with, other important rights.

Second, it shows us that in politics, as in much of life, the best outcomes tend to be the results of negotiated compromise, in which each sides gives as well as gets. Declarations can be a good starting point, but ultimately there must be a conversation.

Third, it shows us that, even in this hyper-partisan era, very diverse groups of Americans can actually find creative ways to live together.

The bills recently debated in Kansas and Arizona and being considered in other states represent a sharp departure from this path.

For example, in 25 states, Kansas and Arizona among them, there is both a constitutional ban on gay marriage and no underlying state law protecting citizens from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in areas such as housing and employment. Neither Kansas nor Arizona permits same-sex civil unions or domestic partnerships.

So what, exactly, in the area of gay rights and gay unions, were religiously motivated Kansans and Arizonans being protected from? When there’s only one legally recognized set of rights, there’s little to negotiate and almost nothing of substance with which to compromise. It’s difficult to engage the “other” when, in effect, you are talking only to yourself and only about your needs.

The Kansas bill was quite extreme. Its terms would protect all religious objections not only to gay marriage, but also to gay civil unions, gay domestic partnerships, and “similar” arrangements. And for good measure, it specifies that religious objections to gay unions always win, regardless of the cost to same-sex couples.

Arizona’s bill was different. It was an expansion (some proponents would say clarification) of the state’s existing law protecting religious freedom. In Arizona, as in 17 other states, that protection is based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which provides important protections for religious believers in cases of state over-reach – for example, when a city seeks to require the removal of crosses and statues of saints from cemeteries.

At the same time, the Arizona bill was often described by friend and foe alike as a way to counteract the same-sex marriage movement – in a state that, like Kansas, already denies any legal recognition of gay unions. More importantly, like the Kansas bill, the Arizona bill would seemingly have expanded the scope of protection from religious organizations to every individual and private business in the state – a shift so broad and open-ended that it clearly raises troubling questions regarding basic fair treatment. Would the new law increase protection for a restaurant owner with a religious objection to serving gay couples?

It didn’t have to be this way, and it need not be this way in the future. The important American value of religious freedom doesn’t have to become just another pawn in a no-compromise, winner-take-all culture war.

Legislators in Kansas, Arizona and 23 other states who are properly determined to protect religious freedom can begin by asking themselves: Does any religious conviction justify denying lesbians and gays a basic legal promise of non-discrimination in hiring, public accommodations, and housing? Surely the answer to this question is no. Correcting that inequity would begin the process of recognizing that both sides – gay couples and religious objectors – have rights and that reasonable accommodation is possible only when both sides have something to gain.

This article by Leah Ward Sears and David Blankenhorn was first published in

You may also be interested in this video of a 2012 conversation between David Blankenhorn and Princeton professor Robert George on “Religious Liberty and the Human Good.”

Thank You, William Schambra

OK, I admit that the subject is a bit esoteric, unless you give money to, or work for, a non-profit.  But a recent essay by my friend Bill Shambra at the Hudson Institute is a must-read set of reflections on the influential idea that, when it comes to evaluating the work of non-profits, metrics is king. The piece is called “The Tyranny of Success: Nonprofits and Metrics,” and it’s important.

And while we’re at it, I also recommend Bill’s wise take (“Why Can’t We Get Overhead?”) on the equally venerable issue of “overhead,” which large and probably growing numbers of donors tend to see as a necessary evil at best, versus “program,” which tends to lift their hearts and inspire greater generosity.  No one should want or tolerate waste.  But if only this imagined split between “overhead” and “program” worked in real life!

The Harmful – Even Deadly – Effects of Casino Gambling

[From the Editor: This essay which was first published in yesterday’s Tampa Tribune is drawn from the new IAV report, Seniors in Casino Land: Tough Luck for Older Americans.]

The headline was stark: “Gambler jumps to his death at the Resorts World Casino at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, N.Y.” A few spare details followed: A man, name not released, leapt from the second-floor balcony of the gambling hall on Feb. 7, at 5:50 p.m. He died at Jamaica Hospital three hours later.

Just a few months ago, I stood in that very spot in the sprawling Queens slots parlor run by Genting, the Malaysian-based gambling giant that is pitching a similar mega-slot facility in Miami. I hadn’t come to the casino to get lucky, let alone think about suicide. I had come to Queens to see for myself what was going on in one of America’s fast-proliferating regional casinos and to talk to people who were spending a bright summer day inside a dark slots barn.

What I discovered gave me insight into the deadly effects – including the ultimate act of human despair – that are linked to modern casino gambling.

Florida lawmakers need to think about these effects as they weigh whether to expand gambling in the Sunshine State.

Casino gambling is not new, but two features are. One is the growth of gambling participation among older adults. In the 23 states with commercial casinos, roughly half of the patrons are age 50 and over. In Florida, with nearly 37 percent of the population 50 and over, gambling represents a huge potential market.

The second new feature is the 21st-century slot machine. Gone are the traditional one-armed bandits. They have been replaced by sophisticated, highly technical computerized devices that have simultaneously democratized gambling and intensified gambling problems.

Simply put, the new slot machine is engineered to addict people. It produces a mesmerizing experience of sound, lights, and repetitive motion that makes both time and money vanish. Players talk of “disappearing” into the machine and getting into a zone.

Seniors, who may suffer from physical, mental and emotional health problems, are especially at risk of succumbing to computerized slots. Medication, cognitive impairment, depression, and just plain sadness can interfere with judgment and decision-making. And the casino itself – dark, smoky, and filled with incessant noise, pulsating light and dizzying carpet patterns and layout – can contribute to mental confusion and disorientation. It is not uncommon for older people to suffer sudden heart attacks while playing the slots. Most casinos now have cardiac defibrillators on site.

Casinos cater to seniors in order to reel them in. They provide wheel-chairs, scooters, and Depends for their older patrons. They offer come-ons like free transportation, cheap breakfast and lunch deals, free play rewards, and medication discounts. One casino even introduced an in-house pharmacy where 8,000 slot club points, awarded for frequent play, cover the $25 co-pay.

In my tour through Resorts World, I witnessed what happens when slots and seniors come together. Slots stretch for miles across the casino floor. A silver-haired person with a cane, walker or wheelchair filled every seat in the rows of slots. Each person sat silent and solitary, frozen in the ergonomically designed chairs, eyes locked onto the electronic screen, moving just one finger to hit “repeat bet” again and again. I had imagined people pulling levers on the one-armed bandits, but with the new computerized devices it now takes just a quiver of a muscle and a fraction of a second to make multiple bets.

At the Prince of Lightening slot machine, I met Judy, who wore a retractable cord connecting a player’s card on her belt to the machine.

Casinos use the cards to track when gamblers come and go and how much they spend.

In return, gamblers get rewards points to keep coming back.

I had to speak loudly over the constant din of machine sound and repeat myself several times to catch her attention.

I asked her how to play.

“You want four of the ladies in a row, and the lightening guy is always good,” she answered, without taking her gaze from her screen.

I asked if she came to the casino often, and Judy replied, still staring at her machine, “Uh, two or three times a week.”

“Do you like coming?”

“Oh, I guess . . .  it’s something to do,” she shrugged, still fixated on the screen.

According to researchers, older women like Judy are the new face of gambling.

Unlike men, who generally are “action” gamblers, women tend to be “escape” gamblers. They turn to slots for the morphine-like dulling of emotional pain from stress, loneliness, depression and the burdens of caregiving.

Women tell researchers that they want to “zone out,” to feel numb, to forget their troubles for a while. Slots, some say, are their therapy.

Older women, who report high levels of frequent emotional distress, are susceptible to escape gambling and to faster onset of full-blown addiction.

All the seniors I spoke to echoed Judy’s apathetic reply for why she comes, and thus casinos should change their ads to:

“Come Kill Time at the Casino. You Have Nothing Better to Do.”

I left the casinos feeling depressed myself and was not surprised to learn that Las Vegas displays the highest level of suicides both for residents and visitors.

After casinos opened in Atlantic City and other towns, the number of suicides there increased.

My thoughts return again and again to the gambler in Queens who ended his life at the Resorts World casino. I cannot forget the image of his leap or ignore the dark irony of his suicide at an “entertainment” licensed by the state and marketed as wholesome fun.

Nor can I dismiss this singular act as something done by a disturbed person and “not my problem.”

If casinos were private businesses, I could stop patronizing them. But casinos are licensed and regulated by state governments. Non-gamblers like me may benefit from the tax revenue states collect from casinos, but we also share in the social and economic costs.

So when a man jumps from a casino balcony at 5:50 p.m. on a Friday in February, his death is our problem, too.

Casinos Fail To Live Up To The Hype

New Hampshire has wisely resisted past pressure to legalize casinos because it understands the economic and social costs outweigh the benefits.

While that equation has not changed, lawmakers are once again considering a plan to allow one casino. History shows once states get hooked on casinos, other forms of gambling follow. Eventually the casino tax revenues drop, forcing states to push more and more gambling and give special breaks to casinos.

New Hampshire’s timing could not be worse. Casino tax revenues are falling in many states thanks to oversaturation.

In the Northeast, especially, casinos in Connecticut, Maine and Rhode Island are battling for market share. The addition of casinos in Massachusetts and New York will add to the glut. The crowded market leaves little room for New Hampshire to cash in. A Granite State casino will depend mainly to local repeat and problem gamblers.

Pennsylvania’s casino evolution shows how quick states get hooked on the revenue. Pennsylvania legalized slot machines in 2004. Table games were added in 2010. Last year, as casino revenues dropped for the first time, lawmakers approved a variety of gambling games in bars, restaurants and taverns.

Regulators expect to allow the state’s 13th casino in Philadelphia, where gamblers at an existing casino visit an average of three to five times a week.

Lawmakers are also considering online gambling and more lottery games. Despite raking in billions of dollars in casino revenues, many residents await then-Gov. Ed Rendell’s 2004 promise that casinos would reduce property taxes by 23 percent.

Ohio has had even less success than Pennsylvania, thanks to increased competition from surrounding states. Casino revenues have been less than half the initial projection. After two years of operation, Ohio’s casino tax revenues are already dropping.

Indeed, casino revenues are down in a number of states, including Colorado, Louisiana, Missouri and Wisconsin. In Indiana, casino revenues hit an eight-year low. In Mississippi, revenues are down 27 percent from the 2007 peak and the casinos have slashed 8,500 jobs.

The falling revenues prompted Governing Magazine last year to ask: “Are Casinos Still a Safe Bet?” Similarly, a report last year in USA Today asked: “Does The Country Have Too Many Casinos?”

Some see Delaware as the model for New Hampshire. Be careful what you wish for: Delaware was early to the game, legalizing slots at three racetracks starting in 1995. With little competition, tax revenues soared and eventually accounted for 8 percent of the state’s budget.

But once larger neighboring states legalized casinos Delaware’s gambling tax revenues plummeted. To offset losses, Delaware legalized table games and sports betting in 2010. Online gambling was added in 2012.

The added gambling has not stopped the losses. The problem is Delaware no longer attracts out-of-state gamblers because the surrounding states all have casinos. With a population of less than 1 million, Delaware does not have enough gamblers to support its casinos.

Last year, the casinos threatened layoffs unless Delaware lowered their tax rate. Instead, Gov. Jack Markell gave the casinos $8 million in subsidies.

So, the Delaware casinos have gone from generating tax revenues to receiving a government bailout. The state is now scrambling to prop up an industry that produces nothing and entices residents to lose money.

Delaware formed a commission to develop ways to combat the casino competition. Some options under consideration include lowering the tax rate for casinos, reducing annual fees or building more casinos. But lower taxes for casinos means less revenue for the state. And more casinos mean more competition.

The News Journal, Delaware’s main newspaper, offered a better solution: “Delaware should start getting out of the gambling business,” the paper wrote in an editorial last year. “It is too dependent on what was once the easy money of a state-controlled monopoly.”

Here’s the good news for New Hampshire: It can avoid getting the government and residents hooked on unsustainable and regressive casino revenues. Instead, lawmakers would be wise to focus on helping businesses that grow the economic pie rather than fight for the shrinking casino crumbs.

A version of this article first appeared in New Hampshire’s Manchester Union Leader.

States Can’t Gamble Their Way To Prosperity

In 1994, Florida voters rejected a ballot proposal legalizing casinos and accompanying slot machines. The Florida gambling proposal was largely modeled on the Illinois Legislature’s 1990 legalization of casinos.

One of the nation’s first casino jurisdictions, Illinois gambling was imposed top-down on the public despite polls reporting 67 percent of the public opposed to casinos/slots.

Today Florida has its budgetary challenges, but Illinois has the nation’s worst state budget and credit rating — due in large part to $35 billion-$56 billion given away to gambling owners. For two years Illinois did not even fund the pension systems for public employees and has over $105 billion in unfunded liabilities. Illinois also misreported bond offerings from 2005-2009, resulting in the state being cited with pension fraud in 2013 by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

While it took Illinois two decades to arrive at budgetary insolvency, other states that legalize casinos/slots will eventually emulate Illinois. Once states embrace casinos/slots, gambling owners’ agendas and legalized political contributions dominate statewide economic policies, resulting in continued gambling expansions.

In 1994 both Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles and future Gov. Jeb Bush opposed legalizing Florida casinos/slots. Virtually the entire law enforcement community also opposed casinos/slots, as exemplified by a Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) report that emphasized in italics that “it has been clearly demonstrated in other jurisdictions that a significant increase in crime and its consequences accompanies casino gambling.”

This FDLE report concluded in bold print: “FDLE joins a large number of other criminal justice entities in opposition to any form of legalized casino gambling.” In 2006, the substantial crime increases that accompany new gambling facilities was confirmed in a definitive, nationwide 10-year study published by Harvard and MIT.

Also in 1994, Florida Secretary of Commerce Charles Dusseau reported that the casinos/slots ballot proposal was “an attempt at a hostile takeover of Florida’s $32 billion tourism industry by outside gambling interests.” He emphasized that “a consistent result of the introduction of casino gambling has been the cannibalization of pre-existing tourism industry.”

After 1994, the Florida and Illinois congressional delegations were largely responsible for enacting the 1995-1999 U.S. National Gambling Impact Study Commission, which substantiated these concerns. Annually since 2008, the multivolume 2008-2013 United States International Gaming Report, produced in concert with academics nationwide, has confirmed that Florida’s 1994 leaders were correct to reject casinos/slots.

During this same 1990s timeframe, Warren Buffett coordinated an effort in Omaha, Neb., to defeat a proposed “salvation casino” designed to transform the failing Aksarben racetrack into a casino/slots facility — despite two casinos being located nearby in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Instead, Omaha business and government leaders bulldozed the racetrack and transformed the land into a high-tech office park and an extension of the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO). During the last 20 years this development has attracted $1 billion in stores, restaurants, townhouses and the new 2012 UNO College of Business — ironically, built on the old racetrack grounds.

As re-confirmed in the last few years by definitive academic publications, the socio-economic costs of gambling are well over $3 for every $1 in benefits. These costs were predicted in 1994 by Gov. Chiles’ team of economic experts, as well as in several 1994-1995 academic articles — including the University of Miami Business Law Journal.

To illustrate how gambling philosophies catalyzed the 2008 economic recession, the website for 60 Minutes has an investigative 12-minute report that can be viewed, titled Financial WMDs.

Floridians should revisit the crime statistics disseminated by Florida’s 1994 bipartisan leadership and then emulate South Carolina and other jurisdictions that have re-criminalized slot machines and/or other gambling facilities.

Governments cannot gamble their way to prosperity.

Illinois casinos/slots have resulted in $35 billion-$56 billion in “giveaways to gambling owners by takeaways from teachers’ pensions.” Florida and other states that embrace gambling owners will eventually gamble away not only their state budgets, but also the public’s health, safety, and welfare.

John Kindt is a University of Illinois professor emeritus. He has testified before Congress and legislatures on business and legal policy issues, particularly gambling.

Florida Shouldn’t Make a Second Bad Bet on Slot Machines


Dramatically expanding the number of slot machines in Florida is a current idea, but it’s not a new idea. In 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, Florida became only the second U.S. state (Nevada in 1931 was the first) to legalize slot machines in order to raise public revenue. It turned out to be a terrible experience for the state.

Almost overnight, as one Miami writer put it, slot machines were “in drug stores, hardware stores, ladies ready-to-wear and filling stations; in hotels, lunch wagons, and hay and grain stores. In fact, everywhere.” He adds: “And Southern hospitality and courtesy were never more clearly shown than in the willingness of the slot machine operators to give a stranger change. They’d sit there and give you nickels and dimes until your last dollar was gone, without a murmur of complaint.”

A lot of tourists lost a lot of money, but so did a lot of Floridians. The slot machine owners called them “amusements,” but what happened across the state was not very amusing. Delinquency increased. Petty crime increased. Public morale declined. Daily life became a bit more tawdry. Angry citizens soon formed a statewide Anti-Slot Machine Organization to lobby for the law’s repeal.

The promise that legalized slot machines would help Florida’s economy turned out to be a bad joke. A St. Petersburg newspaper editorial said: “Circulating money through slot machines has precisely the same effect on business as throwing coins into the air so that people may scramble for them. There is no purchase of goods involved; it is simply and purely redistribution of money.” State Representative LeRoy Collins, who opposed the law and who later become Governor, concluded that gambling in Florida, whether legal or illegal, “kills more business than it generates.”

The president of the Anti-Slot Machine Organization also stressed the issue of unfairness: “Slot machines are not a gambling device, they are a stealing device. There is no chance of the public winning or the slot machine losing.”

It didn’t take people long to figure out that this was a bad idea. In the 1936 elections, 50 of Florida’s 67 counties banned the slot machines by local option. In 1937, the state legislature voted overwhelmingly to repeal the slot machine law.

Does this sound like ancient history? Think again. The heart and soul of casino gambling today is the slot machine. Once derided by the mobsters who invented the American casino as “babe sitters” – something for wives and girlfriends to do while the men played at the tables – slot machines now account for more than 70 percent of all gambling revenue from casinos. In Mississippi, the figure is 85 percent. In Iowa, it’s 89 percent. Casino promoters still like to produce ads showing happy upscale people playing blackjack or roulette, but the fundamental question facing Florida, as you consider the question of casino expansion, is whether you want thousands of new slot machines in your state.

Casino owners love slot machines. Since they require no skill, anyone can play. Slot machines are cheap to maintain and operate, since there are no dealers or pit bosses to train and pay, just you putting your money into a machine that has been programmed to cause you to lose. Also, slot machines are designed to encourage the very kind of addictive behavior – press the button, get a jolt, press the button again – that will cause a significant minority of players to “play to extinction,” which is what the casinos owners call playing until all your money is gone. What more could a casino ask for?

As Floridians learned the hard way during the Great Depression, there are many reasons to say “no” to more and more slot machines. They don’t help the economy and probably harm it. They don’t produce anything – they are a classic example of what the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Samuelson, speaking of gambling, called a “sterile” economic activity.

Finally, slot machines are rip-offs. No steady player has ever, or will ever, beat a slot machine – all they do is take your money. In most of America, for most of our history, slot machines have not only been wrong because they’re illegal, they’ve also been illegal because they’re wrong.

A version of this article was published in the Tallahassee Democrat on February 3, 2014.

Florida Beware: Casino Benefits Do Not Outweigh the Costs

The rosy projections that gambling concerns are offering up in Florida in exchange for more gaming have been heard elsewhere. But Floridians would be smart to examine the impact that expansion has had elsewhere before embracing casinos’ overhyped and unsustainable claims.

To be sure, casinos generate jobs and tax revenue. But Floridians should consider:

In Illinois, the state’s 10 casinos employ 7,828. But the state Gaming Board said 9,957 problem gamblers placed their name on a list that prohibits them from entering a casino. In other words, the casinos have helped to create more gambling addicts than jobs.

The tax benefits rarely come as advertised. Before Ohio voters went to the polls in 2009 to decide whether to allow casinos, the state Department of Taxation said the annual tax revenue from gambling would be $1.9 billion. This fiscal year casinos are expected to generate $868 million in tax revenue – 54 percent less than projected.

In Pennsylvania, then-Gov. Ed Rendell said slot machine revenue would one day reduce school property taxes by an average of 23 percent. The average reduction has been $198. The conservative Commonwealth Foundation said homeowners now pay an average of $800 more in school property taxes than before slots were legalized.

Even more misleading, the claims that casinos will be tourist destinations or spark other economic development rarely materialize.

When Detroit legalized casinos in the 1990s, then-Mayor Dennis Archer promised to use gambling revenues to hire more police officers and fund public works projects. A riverfront casino district was going to attract other development.

In 2012, Detroit Free Press Editorial Page Editor Stephen Henderson examined the promises and wrote the following: “As the casino plans unfolded, almost none of those benefits materialized.” Last year, Detroit declared bankruptcy.

In New York, an Indian casino was supposed to boost tourism and economic development in Niagara Falls. But 10 years after that casino opened, “not many of the hopes have turned into reality,” the Buffalo News reported last year.

“Unemployment rates in Niagara Falls are among the highest in the state, and only one major development project – the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute – has occurred in the last 10 years,” the paper said. “Much of the area around the casino remains empty and blighted. In addition, law enforcement officials have pointed to some high-profile embezzlement cases that anti-gambling voices blame on casinos.”

The newspaper touched on perhaps the most troubling aspect when it comes to selling the public on casinos. Supporters either ignore or downplay the social and economic costs that come with casinos.

Studies show that anywhere from 30 percent to 60 percent of the people who frequent a casino are repeat or problem gamblers. Several casino operators in the Philadelphia area said their customers visit an average of three to five times a week.

Casinos don’t generate new spending but instead divert it from other businesses. Even worse, Earl Grinols, an economics professor at Baylor University, found that every $1 in revenue a casino generates creates $3 in costs.

Indeed studies show crime often increases where casinos locate. So does the rate of bankruptcies, suicides and divorces.

In Connecticut, the number of arrests for embezzlement increased 400 percent since two large Indian casinos opened, according to 2009 study by Spectrum Gaming. Meanwhile, the number of drunk driving arrests doubled in Norwich, a large municipality near the two casinos, the study found.

Perhaps the best case study of the impact of casinos is Atlantic City. Casinos were legalized more than 30 years ago in an effort to revitalize the struggling resort. Yet, the town remains largely a dump. The percentage of residents living below the poverty line has increased to 29.3 percent from 22.5 percent. The unemployment rate remains around 18 percent, and the crime rate is almost three times that of the surrounding county.

Competition from other states has cut gambling revenue in Atlantic City by 45 percent. A number of casinos have filed for bankruptcy over the years and one recently closed. A recent report from the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, called Atlantic City “a city in crisis.”

Is this really the economic model that Florida wants to emulate?

Florida can rest assured that casinos will likely deliver on one promise: A study released last year by two economists found the states that legalized casinos had an increase in public corruption conviction rates.

A version of this article first appeared in The Tampa Bay Times.

This is Thrift Week

In the summer after my first year of teaching, I received an unusual offer. IAV, a New York City think tank whose mission is to strengthen civil society, asked me to become their thrift education coordinator.


Thrift? My first thought was of my grandparents—Iowa farmers who started out with debt and a rocky parcel of land. (“You bought the worst piece of land in the whole county!” a neighbor would later tell them.) But by dint of their thrift, they paid their loan back faster than the bank thought possible, and now write generous checks to their children and grandchildren each Christmas.

Their legacy was enough to make me interested in the idea of thrift education. And since I first accepted that position in 2011, I’ve learned a lot more about thrift.

Thrift is a big idea, valued in many different ages and civilizations, and with a unique history as a robust social movement in America. Most simply put, thrift is the ethic of wise use. It comes from the root word “to thrive.”

Three Pillars narrow

The research shows that when we are thrifty not only do we thrive as individuals, but our families, neighborhoods, economy, and planet thriveTraditionally thrift has been defined by its three pillars: industry, frugality, and generosity.

One of my favorite things about thrift is how multi-faceted it is. That’s why this year’s National Thrift Week celebrations from January 17-23 included a diverse array of programs and events. There was the Goodwill Thrift Crawl in South Jersey, hosted by blogger and thrift evangelist Sammy Davis and attended by fashionistas enjoying camaraderie and the search for sustainable fashion.

thrift-crawl-1 thrift-crawl-2

Blogger Megan Steigerwalt shared some photos of her and Sammy as well as her Grandmother celebrating Thrift Week!steigerwalt

There was the film screening and luncheon in honor of Rita Haynes, a pioneer in the credit union movement, who was inspired be her faith and involvement in the civil rights movement to empower her low-income neighbors to save.

Rita Haynes and David Blankenhorn discuss “Faith and Credit”
Rita Haynes and David Blankenhorn discuss “Faith and Credit”
The Way To Wealth for today
The Way To Wealth for today

There were Way to Wealth workshops for students at the YMCA, and for clients at People for People, Inc., including those striving to move from welfare to work, and ex-offenders looking to re-enter society.

 The Rules for article 2

The legacy of Thrift on display
The legacy of Thrift on display

There was an exhibit at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, “To Save in Little Things: An American History of Thrift,” free and open to the public; and teachers  gathered there  for a workshop on teaching thrift. As teacher Bernadette McHenry notes, the public schools make “thrifters” out of any teacher which is a life skill they pass on to their students.

Real life curriculum
Real life curriculum

In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter issued a Thrift Week Proclamation, and Pennsylvania State Treasurer and 2014 gubernatorial candidate Rob McCord told of how he was raised by a single mom who taught him the value of hard work and thrift, which eventually helped him get into Harvard and succeed at business.

Pennsylvania state Treasurer shares his personal journey from material insecurity to financial and personal success
State Treasurer Rob McCord shares his thrift inspired  journey to opportunity and service

In Florida, Governor Rick Scott and CFO Jeff Atwater presented a Thrift Week Proclamation and a Ben Franklin impersonator visited Tallahassee thrift stores. The James Madison Institute distributed its economics publication, “All About the Benjamins” to thousands of students across the state, released a series of Thrift Week infographics, and hosted an event for students about Ben Franklin’s “The Way to Wealth.”

Governor Rick Scott and Jeff Atwater proclaiming Thrift Week
Governor Rick Scott and Jeff Atwater proclaim Thrift Week

As varied as these celebrations are, each is united by a common vision of thrift as a means to thriving. Thrift is not a value relegated to the generation of those who, like my Iowa grandparents, lived through the Great Depression. It is an ethic, a way of life, more universal and more relevant than that. It is in this spirit that we can all join in together to celebrate Thrift Week. 

Amber Thrift Button Final

Learn more about Thrift!

Check out our Thrift Week Photo Album on Facebook

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Support our Thrift work with a generous donation!

Talkin’ Marriage with Linda McClain

As legalization of same-sex marriage spreads to one-third of states including the recent vote in New Mexico and ruling in Utah, our understanding of marriage in general expands and thus our understanding of parenthood and family potentially expand as well.

As part of the IAV’s “Call for a New Conversation on Marriage,” both David Blankenhorn and I interviewed Linda McClain, Boston University law professor, known for her work in family law and feminist legal theory. In these conversations, we explore how the place of marriage, class, and parenthood are intricately intertwined in society. While the collective conversation in recent years has been dominated by the marriage equality debate (and rightly so), the time to consider the nuances of how marriage rights and responsibilities relate to a growing class divide and the journey to and in parenthood is now.

LISTEN to “The Conversation” Podcast

In this 50-minute podcast, we hear Professor McClain, a supporter of same-sex marriage, discuss her perceptions of the changing marital norm and its impact on the societal and legal understanding of what it means to be a parent. She brings helpful insight into the on-going debates on family formation, paying close attention to the growing economic divide between those who marry and those who do not. As marriage continues to fracture along economic lines, she stresses the ways that society should support vocational and educational opportunities as a pathway to forming stable families.

In this edited conversation, we hear the best of Professor McClain – first as a public intellectual engaged in civil discourse with David Blankenhorn and then as a teacher helping me better understand the chorus of voices and viewpoints in the contemporary discussions about parenthood, all ably presented in her recently released book What is Parenthood? (co-edited with Daniel Cere).

McClain offers an in-depth, solid perspective on how we might legally and socially support all families as they create new legacies, tell their story, and access public and private resources to support everyday life. A great message for a New Year.

Watch the entire interview of Linda McClain with David Blankenhorn on YouTube.
Listen to more interviews on iTunes and subscribe to the conversation series!
You can follow IAV and David Blankenhorn Twitter.
This piece was first published at the Huffington Post.

Remembering Jean Bethke Elshtain, 1941-2013

jean-elshtainWhen I first met Jean Bethke Elshtain, in the late 1980s, her most intensive and creative work on feminism and families was largely behind her. I do not mean that she stopped thinking and writing about these topics. (Jean never stopped thinking and writing about things that interested her.) But I do mean that, at certain point, one essentially has said what one has to say about a subject, and after that, the main intellectual tasks are public repetition, elaboration, and the occasional revision in light of new evidence. And for Jean, regarding those once nearly all-consuming topics of feminism, women, and families, that turning point seems to have occurred around 1990.

There were exceptions, of course. Her wonderful book on Jane Addams, for example, came out in 2002. But in the main, after having stirred the pot quite dramatically throughout the 1970s and 1980s on the subject of women, Jean largely moved on, somewhat in succession, to those three other large topics – war, democracy, and God. Yes, women remained a key part of the increasingly famed Elshtain portfolio, but as that portfolio expanded rapidly after the late 1980s, most of the growth was in new directions.

At the same time, beginning in the late 1980s, Jean gave deeply and selflessly of herself in helping me and a few others (including William Galston, Mary Ann Glendon, Norval Glenn, David Popenoe, Barbara Whitehead, and Judith Wallerstein) to start a new project of collaborative research and interdisciplinary deliberation – what we called a Council on Families, charged with the goal of thinking freshly and with new urgency about families, marriage, and children in the United States. And to house and administer this Council on Families, Jean and I and the others organized a new think tank, the Institute for American Values.

Jean chaired every single meeting of our Council on Families, and labored carefully over every one of its reports. For many years, and until about a year prior to her death, she also served as the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Institute for American Values.

One way, then, for me personally to think about Jean is that, at the very moment more than twenty years ago that I was rapidly getting into the family issue, Jean was slowly getting out.

Yet, to work with her during the years that followed, one would never really have known that fact. On this cluster of issues, Jean stayed the course. She kept working.

She wrote articles for both the scholarly and popular press. She talked to journalists. She pulled academic consultations together. She mentored younger scholars and writers. She traveled endlessly, giving speech after speech on this topic to scholarly, civic, political, and religious audiences across the country, and even the world. I’ve heard her give them. They were brilliant and brash and funny. It was like she was saying it all for the first time.

She never complained; she was cheerful in all weathers. One morning some years ago, she phoned me from some airport somewhere, having just boarded a plane for New York, where she was scheduled to give a keynote address later in the day to a gathering of scholarly and journalistic big-shots that our Council on Families had pulled together. But, while trying to hoist her bag into the plane’s overhead compartment, she had twisted her knee – the knee of the “good” leg, the one that had not been weakened by childhood polio. I could tell that she was in severe pain. Could I call a doctor, she asked, and have the doctor meet her at the airport? She explained that there was no time to go to a hospital, fill out forms, or get x-rays. All that she needed was a quick shot of cortisone in the twisted knee, and she would be good to go for her keynote address. She could fill out forms and get examined later.

All of which, amazingly enough, is exactly what happened. That’s what I mean when I resort to possibly thin-sounding phrases such as hard work, dedication, high spirits and standards, and no complaining to describe who Jean was. I find myself missing her nearly every day.

This article is adapted from David Blankenhorn’s 2010 essay Young Jean.

In this 2011 video podcast, David talks with Jean about “Our Call to Civil Society”.

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