The case in favor of a gambling casino in New Bedford run by the Wampanoag Indians is straightforward. This is a proposal to let adults do what they wish to do with the money they legally possess. And it is a proposal to do something in a part of the state–Southeastern Massachusetts–that has been hurt by national decisions.
Trade policies have produced significant advantages for people who work in a number of industries, but they have had a negative effect on basic manufacturing industries, particularly garment and textiles. Conservation restrictions have recently had a severe impact on the ability of people in Southeastern Massachusetts to earn a living by catching and processing seafood. As a result, unemployment is higher there than in many other parts of the state. Theoretically, since the policies that have caused some of this economic distress have been imposed for an overall national benefit, one way to deal with them is to have federal programs that would compensate those who have been damaged. We have had success in getting funds to alleviate some of the problems in the fishing industry, but because of recent federal budget trends, the likelihood of any significant increase in funding to help working people who have been thrown out of their jobs by these national policies is not a favorable one.
Thus, many of us believe that opening a casino in New Bedford, with the agreements that have been made to give preference in the hiring for the casino and related activities to residents of New Bedford, Fall River and surrounding areas, provides one essential element in a series of proposals to bring economic relief to people in serious distress.
This has particular relevance to Southeastern Massachusetts because the single most successful such establishment in the country is in Connecticut, at Foxwoods. This enterprise is enormously successful economically, in part because it draws significant patronage from Massachusetts residents who enjoy gambling. The agreement reached by Governor Weld with the Wampanoag Tribe would keep these revenues for the state of Massachusetts and for hard-pressed municipal governments in Bristol County. In addition, the proposal to establish a casino, which will provide jobs, additional economic activity, and significant tax revenue requires no public startup funds whatsoever. The Wampanoags seek only legal permission to establish the casino. They are not asking for any contribution from the public for the construction or maintenance of the facility.
I cannot think of a comparable pending proposal where there would be so much tangible public benefit with so little public cost, which is why the voters of New Bedford have overwhelmingly demonstrated their support for this proposal, and a significant majority of those who have voted on this in referenda in some of the surrounding towns have also been very supportive. In Fall River, an overwhelming referendum vote supported a gambling facility to be located within that city. Ordinarily, this combination of factors would lead to fairly quick approval by the appropriate political bodies and we would be well on the way to making some form of the proposal a reality.
Why then is there hesitation on the part of some of those whose approval is needed to make it happen? It is not because of the sort of objection that usually derails projects of this sort–that it would have a negative effect on the surrounding community. This particular situation, in fact, reverses the ordinary political debate about major job creation projects. The usual pattern is for people in the state as a whole to be supportive of the notion, while those in the affected area object that they will be forced to bear an undue share of the environmental costs. In this case, the people of Southeastern Massachusetts overwhelmingly support legalized gambling within Bristol County.
Still, opponents of the proposal frequently–and irrelevantly and illogically–talk about Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Even though the most recent reports out of Atlantic City are that the people in that area are pleased with what has finally happened, neither example is remotely comparable to what we are talking about here. It is true that organized crime was for a long time a major factor in gambling in Las Vegas. That is not surprising, considering that the first casino in Las Vegas was established by a mob representative, Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel. Even in Las Vegas the role of organized crime has substantially diminished; but we are not talking about a situation in which organized crime would be given a foothold even at the outset.
Indian gambling exists all over the country with no pattern of infiltration by organized crime. Also, contrary to some predictions, there is not a problem with street crime, violent crime or other kinds of crime linked to Indian gambling. Foxwoods here is the best example. Even many of those who were originally opposed to this institution have become supporters of it. It has been enormously profitable, beneficial to the surrounding area, and in no way the cause of any outbreak of criminal activity.
Of course it is true that when large numbers of people come to a place where there previously had not been any people, there will be some increase in crime. Pickpocketing, fistfights, and other disruptions do tend to increase when large numbers of people are present. But this is of course true for convention centers, football or baseball stadiums, or even large office complexes.
Nor is there a basis for environmentally based objections. The only conceivable environmental impact is that this will generate traffic. Once again, so would any other form of activity that draws large numbers of people. And absent from this proposal are any environmental effects that are often associated with other forms of economic development–there will be no problem with any hazardous waste, nor will anything be added to the air or water that will cause problems. As with crime, it is true that inactivity has less environmental impact than activity, but only in the sense that it will bring large numbers of people–we hope–to this part of New Bedford. And of course we are talking here about an area that is within the city limits of New Bedford.
But that is not an argument for banning the entire enterprise. Does the fact that some people will abuse an activity–especially when that is going to be a very small minority–mean that the vast majority of adults who will use the activity correctly should be denied it?
There are very few examples of America following this policy with regard to other potentially addictive activities. We tried outlawing alcohol and it was a disaster. Many people believe that we should advertise more heavily about the negative health effects of cigarettes, but not many argue that we should prohibit these addictive and damaging substances. We also have in our midst compulsive shoppers who get themselves into trouble because they are unable to control the impulse to shop with credit cards. No one has proposed banning credit cards. We have large numbers of people who spend far more time than they should in front of their computers, playing computer games, surfing the Internet, etc. In some cases such people spend more money than they should in online charges. Yet no one proposes banning computers and modems. A free society which respects the autonomy of its citizens does not prohibit an activity on the grounds that a small number of those citizens will abuse it.
There is an argument often used by liberals who are not generally prohibitionists, that gambling should be an exception to a general rule that allows people to do as they wish because it deprives poor people of money they should be spending on other things. But consider the inconsistency here. The appropriate liberal approach is to give people as much education as possible, to make sure they have access to all the institutions that will help them, but not to outlaw some of their choices because we in the more enlightened class think they are unwise. People who have little money and inadequate education spend more than I would advise them to on a number of things. Some people buy flashy cars; others have too many television sets, or buy money orders when a bank account would save them hundreds of dollars in fees. Some poorer people make unwise choices when it comes to their food budgets, although in some cases the absence of supermarkets in their neighborhoods complicates their ability to spend wisely. Some spend more money than they should on lottery tickets. Others do the same on beer or cigarettes or movies. I favor educating people to make wiser decisions, but I oppose efforts to make these choices illegal.
There is one other argument that is advanced by those who would deprive Southeastern Massachusetts of the economic benefits of a gambling casino. It is that this is a worse way to advance these economic interests than some others. I know of literally no one who is pushing for the casino who is not also strongly supportive of a number of other ways of improving the economic condition of Southeastern Massachusetts.
The cast of characters supporting the casino also helped win establishment of a National Whaling Park in New Bedford. We are also working hard to expand the New Bedford Airport, to bring commuter rail from Boston to Fall River and New Bedford, and to prevent the federal mandate for Clean Water from so burdening ratepayers in Fall River and New Bedford as to damage home owners and put businesses at a competitive disadvantage. No one that I know of thinks the casino is a substitute for any other economic benefit, but neither does anyone knowledgeable about the area think that the benefits of these other activities are so overwhelming, and so certain to be adopted, that the additional economic boost of a casino is irrelevant.
And in several cases, in fact, there is complementarity. The case for the airport and passenger service will be enhanced if the casino is in place to help draw people. And while some of my more culturally refined friends will recoil at the notion that people might want to come both to the National Whaling Park and to the casino, I think they will. The existence of both as tourist attractions will be reinforcing.The economic context is also the place to deal with one last argument–that a casino is a terrible idea because it gives young people the wrong message, namely that we all believe you can get something for nothing. But that isn’t it. People who are eager to gamble know of many places where they can gamble now. And the reason the gambling casino is so enthusiastically supported by a majority of people in the Bristol County area is that it will provide jobs, not that they expect to hit the jackpot. People want the casino established in New Bedford so they can go to work there, and so that people who come to gamble will also spend money in other places.
I believe the morally correct thing to do is to support the establishment of a casino where adults can make their own choices about spending their money in a way that will provide tangible economic benefit to a region of the state where that would be very welcome.
U.S. Rep. Barney Frank is a Democrat from the 4th Congressional district, which includes New Bedford and the northern half of Fall River.