Historian Jackson Lears reconciles the American work ethic with our attraction to every gambling scheme under the sun

It’s often said, better to be lucky than good, but in truth, most of us want to be both. Virtue may be its own reward, but who among the virtuous doesn’t want to hit the jackpot as well? Things start to get dicey, however, when we confuse good fortune with innate goodness. We start to mistake right-place-at-the-right-time serendipity for talent and rectitude; we make role models out of opportunists and blame the hapless for their own misfortunes. Still, even when we acknowledge that forces beyond our control multiply–or spoil–the fruits of our righteous labors, it’s hard to resist the notion that we are masters of our own fate. Sometimes we even tell ourselves we make our own luck. That can be a useful motivational tool, especially when luck seems not to be coming along of its own accord, but it’s also a form of self-flattery. Any breaks we happen to get we are entitled to because they are of our own making. And when our luck runs out, it’s hard not to feel we’ve been wronged.

The tension between chance and merit (and frequent confusion of the two) can be seen throughout human history, but nowhere more than in American society, where a culture has been built out of two very different means of achieving success: the work ethic and the big gamble. This nation was built by risk-takers: settlers who opened frontier after frontier; immigrants who left tradition-bound homes to seek their fortunes in a strange and often inhospitable new land that promised opportunity for all but guaranteed success for none; tinkerers and salesmen who started from nothing and built great empires of industry and wealth. But as a society that sees itself as rewarding hard work and responsible behavior, we are loath to exalt the gambler–the reckless adventurer who would blow it all on the slim chance of striking it rich–as a cultural icon. We make heroes out of pioneers and entrepreneurs, but those who blow their paychecks at Suffolk Downs or Foxwoods are cast in cautionary tales.

With casino gambling once again in the air–nothing like a fiscal crisis to prompt a rethinking of moral objections to indulging, if not exploiting, the weakness for wagering among our fellow citizens–I struck up a conversation about chance and its consequences with Rutgers University historian Jackson Lears, author of the new book Something for Nothing: Luck in America. I did so because it seemed to me that talk of slot machines (or payments from out-of-state operators for keeping them illegal here) is only the newest way the state–with the acquiescence of its citizens–flirts with fate and fortune, cashing in on the winnings. First, of course, there’s the Lottery, which pumps up municipal coffers and drains wallets yet never seems to inspire a taxpayer revolt. Then there is the stock market, which in the roaring ’90s filled the state treasury to overflowing, allowing the Commonwealth to invest in schools and pay off Big Dig overruns even as it rolled back taxes. But now, amidst recriminations from the right for profligate spending and from the left for corporate giveaways, no one portrays the state’s current fiscal shortfall as the margin call that it is.

Though not a big gambler himself, Lears was exposed to what he calls the “culture of chance” from an early age. “I’m probably one of the few kids of my generation or any other who grew up with slot machines in his house,” he says. “Slot machines were legal in Maryland when I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s. My father was in the furniture business–he sold to hotels, restaurants, and so on–and one of his clients was a little short of cash and decided he’d give my father a nickel machine and a dime machine in lieu of cash payment. We had these things in our house when we were kids. The babysitters pumped a lot of their earnings into them, to the point where my father had to lock them up, because the babysitters’ parents were not amused.”

But as a scholar and culture critic, the “epiphany” that Lears says put him on a gambling roll came on a subway platform in lower Manhattan in 1994. “It was the middle of the so-called Republican Revolution, the Gingrich-led revolution, the Contract with America,” Lears recalls. “The din of talk about personal moral responsibility and the corrupting effects of welfare and other forms of handout was pervasive. And yet on the subway platform I noticed a long line of people at the lottery machine. I began to think, well, these are people who, even if they might be hardworking, are nevertheless skeptical about the idea that the only way to succeed is through hard work. They seem to implicitly recognize that you don’t always get what you deserve, you get what you get. Sometimes luck has a good deal to do with that.”

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

CommonWealth: Let me tell you about the epiphany I had about the public ambivalence toward gambling. Several years ago I took my family on a vacation through the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest and we ended up at Las Vegas. We stayed for one night at the MGM Grand and, you know, you can’t turn around in one of these places without seeing a slot machine. You can’t walk anywhere without passing through the casino.

Lears: Right. They’ve arranged it very carefully.

CommonWealth: Absolutely. My wife and I are not big gamblers, but my kids, who were ages 11 and 9 at the time, all they wanted to do was watch Mom and Dad gamble. But that was the one thing the casino would not allow them to do. Anytime a kid would slow down and start to watch the action there would be some casino centurion to hustle him along. There were employees whose entire job seemed to be keeping the kids moving through the casino. So even there in the gambling capital of the United States, a place that increasingly presents itself to the world as a family resort, the main activity and the main attraction is treated as something we need to shield our children’s eyes from. What does that tell you about official attitudes toward this increasingly popular and increasingly legalized activity?

Lears: Yes, well, I think it’s very revealing. I think it suggests how deeply our ethic of self-control remains embedded in our everyday life, even in the midst of the temples of chance that we call casinos. I think there is a desire to shield children from any sort of adult behavior that is out of control, whether it’s drunkenness or sexual misbehavior or drug addiction or gambling. Gambling is traditionally linked with these vices, these sins against the ethic of self-control, ranging these days from tobacco smoking to idiosyncratic sexual tastes. The gambler has always, in what is still a deeply Protestant culture, stood with these other violators of the ethic of self-control–the drunk, the prostitute, the dope addict, the sexual pervert, all of these things. He is a risk-taker, but he’s an illicit risk-taker. So there’s a vestige of disapproval there, even –ironically, as you say–in a place that is encouraging adults, at least, to empty their pockets with abandon into the machines and the games. It’s indicative of how strong that moral censure remains.

“People were outraged by the fact that [a convcted felon] had won the lottery.”

I was in Atlanta a few years ago when the Georgia state lottery was won by a man who happened to be a convicted felon. He was out of jail and back in normal society, but he was a convicted felon. The letters page in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was full of people who were outraged by the fact that this man had won the lottery, the assumption being that even though this was entirely a product of chance, there was something immoral about an ex-convict winning it.

CommonWealth: Nobody that bad should be that lucky, I guess.

Lears: Exactly. So there’s still that sort of confusion between moral reward and mere chance.

CommonWealth: You say in your book, “the debate about gambling reveals fundamental fault lines in the American character, sharp tensions between an impulse toward risk and a zeal for control.” That is, America preaches the work ethic, but it’s also the land of opportunity, a place where anybody can strike it rich. What do you think this tension in American character means for notions of virtue and obligation? Have we Americans come to terms with the role of chance in our own society?

Lears: I don’t think so. In many ways, the last 25 years or so of our political and cultural history have seen a growing insistence on the old 19th-century bourgeois ethic of personal responsibility, disciplined
achievement, the work ethic as the only means of economic security. The welfare state, which has come under so much criticism politically from the center and right, was rooted in an awareness of accident. It was an attempt to counteract the destructive power of chance in people’s lives. It was a recognition that many people were economically destitute or at least insecure for reasons that had nothing to do with their own virtue or lack of it. It had everything to do with the vagaries of fate, beginning with who their parents happened to be and how much money they happened to have, but going on from there to the possibility of industrial accidents or illness or lost jobs and the like. I think welfare-state measures generally were efforts to acknowledge that chance and accident and bad luck were everywhere and that a humane society attempts, as best it’s able, to counteract them. Of course, no one can eliminate chance altogether, but a humane society, it seems to me, does its best to counteract it.

CommonWealth: We tend not to talk, as a society, very much about what happens when your luck turns bad. But risk- taking has always been admired and rewarded throughout American history, from the settlement of the frontier to the building of industry by our mythologized self-made man. At the same time, games of chance have traditionally been frowned upon, if not outlawed. That official attitude has been breaking down gradually, to the point today that most state governments have gotten into the gaming business themselves. Here in Massachusetts, the Lottery is regularly touted as one of the most successful in the nation; that is, it manages to get more people to spend more of their money playing these games–and losing it–than other states do. At the same time, it’s hard to deny that buying a Mass Millions ticket with the hope, however slim it may be, of a personal payoff is more fun and less painful than having taxes withheld from your paycheck. And nobody makes you do it. What does it mean when government accommodates, and cashes in on, people’s preference for trying their luck over paying their taxes?

Lears: Well, you can certainly understand how government officials, faced with the catastrophic consequences of raising taxes–politically, that is, the near certainty they’ll be voted out of office at the next election, as our Gov. Jim Florio was here in New Jersey in the early ’90s–are looking for alternatives that are more politically palatable and that will allow them to stay in office. And there are good reasons that these are more politically palatable alternatives, as you say. Nevertheless, the consequences, I think, are undesirable in many ways. It reinforces a regressive revenue system, a regressive means of raising public monies. It is not a means of funding necessary public services that takes the actual needs of the public into account. It’s really very much a stopgap measure, and it involves a kind of refusal to carefully manage money for public purposes.

In that way, it’s roughly analogous to the larger problem that we have in the society. At the highest federal levels and state levels as well, there’s a pervasive fear of planning. And for good reason. We have examples where planners have made a muddle of economies, and, of course, we always have the starkest examples of the Soviet Union and other overtly managed economies. But in the last 25 years or so we have swung to the opposite extreme. Free-market fundamentalism has returned to the center of debate in a way it has not been since the 1920s. As John Maynard Keynes said some 65 years or so ago, when the capital development of a country is left to the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill done. I think the willingness to leave revenue raising in the states up to the lottery system and the vagaries of chance, in that respect–who’s going to buy a lottery ticket and who isn’t–ensures that the people who are least able to support public-sector expenditures are the ones who pay for a disproportionate amount of them.

CommonWealth: Nonetheless, as the fiscal pressures have mounted, more and more states seem to be getting interested in expanded gambling as a way to avoid or at least limit spending cuts and tax hikes, two options that are politically unpalatable for different reasons. In Massachusetts, there’s been some flirtation with casino gambling. Ironically, one of the strongest arguments against it is the damage it would do to our existing form of gambling, which is the Lottery. Still, is it only a matter of time before our puritanical streak, not only in Massachusetts but elsewhere across the country, gives out, and there are gambling parlors from sea to shining sea?

Lears: I think that in the last 25 years government has been so delegitimized, public spending has been so thoroughly called into question, and taxes have been in such bad odor among the public and among the electorate–or at least that part of it that votes regularly, which tends to be the most affluent part and the one that has the most to lose in terms of taxation–that it’s quite likely that casinos will continue to spread, as the only available alternative for revenue enhancement.

I don’t think it’s just puritanism that holds us back when it comes to legalizing casinos. I think there are other legitimate arguments. I don’t think casinos, for example, are the best way to rebuild economically depressed areas. I don’t think these are the kinds of jobs that are in the long run likely to contribute that much to the well-being of a community. I don’t think it’s just concern about the individual gambler’s soul that gives us pause when it comes to legalizing gambling. I think it’s the whole package that comes with
gambling. On the other hand, I put myself among those who say that it’s really impossible to prohibit gambling as we attempted to do in the middle part of this century with more success than we’ve had before or since–though never complete success even then–from about the 1910s to the 1960s. That always leads to police corruption and flouting the law and more and more pervasive under-the-table sorts of gambling. I’m not opposed to making gambling available and regulating it because I think it’s going to happen one way or another.

CommonWealth: For a while, Gov. Romney toyed with a novel idea in this regard, which is the notion of demanding millions of dollars in “blocking” payments from casinos in Connecticut and racetracks in Rhode Island that have slot machines, in exchange for not allowing legalized gaming in Massachusetts which was to expand. This would have kept us out of the gambling business, but still put us in the rackets.

Lears: Yes, it sounds a lot like protection money, doesn’t it?

CommonWealth: It does, it does. You have to give them credit for inventiveness, I think.

Lears: Audacity, too. Points for audacity on that.

CommonWealth: Absolutely. But gambling is not the only way the tension between luck and deserts, risk and persistence, plays out in American society and in our politics. Ever since I saw that your book was coming out, I’ve found myself coming back to the title, Something for Nothing, as a way of thinking about the situation our state, like many others, finds itself in. For much of the 1990s, the revenue was flowing into the state’s coffers faster than it could be spent. This allowed for an enormous investment in our schools and prescription drug coverage for senior citizens, just to cite a couple of initiatives. All this could be done without raising taxes. Indeed, more than 40 tax cuts were signed by three successive governors in our state. If that’s not getting something for nothing, I don’t know what is. But that notion doesn’t seem to be informing the way we talk about our current budget crisis. Might it be easier to face up to the tough choices we now have before us if we recognized how much of a free ride we’ve been on up to now?

“There were a lot of dot-com millionaires getting something for nothing, too.”

Lears: That’s probably true. But it is important to remember that the reason the state was getting something for nothing is that there were a lot of dot-com millionaires getting something for nothing, too. Where that money was coming from was the ridiculously inflated stock prices of the ’90s. Of course, we’ve seen a lot of air escape from that balloon in just the last two or three years. But at least when the going was good, the Massachusetts lawmakers tried to spread some of the money around for the public good. And I would applaud them for that. I wish New Jersey had done that, frankly. But I agree. The free riders, on whom the state was in turn riding, were the guys who were issuing IPOs on companies that had never made a profit and yet were vastly inflating their value in the stock market and paying huge sums to investors. The big flaw in the picture was that so many economists and soothsayers predicted that things were just going to go up and up, that we had somehow escaped the business cycle. As J.P. Morgan once famously and laconically put it, when asked to predict the market: The market will fluctuate.

CommonWealth: A safe bet, if there ever was one.

Lears: Yes, that was a safe prediction. But we actually had economists, as I’m sure you remember, predicting the Dow Jones Industrial Average was going to hit 36,000, that there was no reason that we couldn’t just keep going up and up and up. A lot of investors became convinced of that, too. Now we’re realizing that there isn’t the proverbial free lunch after all.

CommonWealth: So now today, in all the states, people are asking, are there ways to restrain spending without cutting into what government is rightly obligated to do for its citizens, or does living up to our obligations mean digging deeper into our pockets, in the form of tax increases? It seems to me, one of the things that’s missing in that conversation is an honest debate about what it takes to carry out, in the long run, those initiatives that, in the ’90s, we began on the grounds they were affordable within a level of revenue nobody had to make any sacrifice to produce.

Lears: Exactly, yes.

CommonWealth: We never really had the discussion about whether these commitments were sustainable, or if we’d be willing to sustain them when the going got tougher.

Lears: Yes, that’s exactly right. It’s because of the delusion of the New Economy ideology that we had somehow escaped the fluctuations of the past and we were going to move forward into this endlessly expansive future. There were a lot of people making those claims and a lot of them are still around; they haven’t been put in jail like Enron executives. I’m not saying they should be, but they do have some explaining to do, as far as I’m concerned. This fellow James Glassman, the coauthor of Dow 36,000, is a perfect example. Now he’s working for the Heritage Foundation and he’s appearing regularly on television applauding President Bush’s tax cut program, and we’re supposed to accept this as disinterested expertise. I find it very strange.

CommonWealth: And what about those attitudes about risk and reward throughout society and particularly the economy, not just government? In the 1990s, risk-taking was elevated like never before. Entrepreneurship was the new business virtue. Public capital markets became sources of funding for start-ups, whether they were making profits or not. And stock options became part of the paycheck, not only for top executives but for many employees all the way down the line. For a while, I think we were all guilty of a bit of irrational exuberance. But wasn’t there something good about all that enthusiasm for innovation and change? Now that our luck has run out, in a sense, do you see the pendulum, the public sentiment, swinging back to what you called the zeal for control? Have we fallen out of love with fate and fortune? And have we lost something as a result?

Lears: Well, the metaphor about waking up from a drunken binge with a horrific hangover certainly comes to mind. And there’s a certain element of clarity that comes with sobriety, a certain capacity to see things more clearly the next morning than one was seeing them the night before. To a certain extent, it’s salutary that we don’t have quite the same rhetoric of risk floating around at the highest levels. One thing that was happening in the ’90s, it seems to me, is that the people who were celebrating risk the most loudly were those who were the most insulated from it. Two-thirds of the population, at least for much of the decade, experienced income stagnation, not rising incomes. It was only toward the very end of the decade that we saw any sort of general increase in incomes outside of a narrow slice of the population, the top quarter or third of the population. Most of the people, most workers in America, were experiencing job insecurity and risk all along. But there’s no doubt that the stock market collapse has reminded us of the dark side of chance and reasserted the desire for control. The problem is how to respond to this with appropriately balanced and measured public policies that don’t extinguish risk-taking. We’re talking, for example, about Securities and Exchange Commission regulations. I think most Americans, even those who were beneficiaries of the ’90s boom, would agree that it is appropriate to track down those people who are essentially the three-card monte men of the ’90s. They were basically playing with marked cards; they were playing rigged games. The Enron and WorldCom and Adelphia and other executives who have been exposed–and doubtless many others as well–they’ve been exposed for doing what 19th-century professional sharpers did on riverboats, which was to rig the game. They weren’t really gambling at all, but they were forcing other people to gamble in ways that the ordinary investor wasn’t even aware of.

CommonWealth: We all at least deserve to know the odds.

Lears: Precisely. We always hear about a level playing field, but we also need an unrigged casino. I mean, if we’re going to play in the casino, we need to be sure it’s not rigged in favor of the house. So this is a salutary return to some sobriety. But I don’t think the American public is ever going to fall out of love with fate and fortune because I think our everyday lives are always going to be chance-ridden. I don’t think there’s any way of avoiding that. I also think we have this powerful and in many ways benign entrepreneurial mythology in this country that does encourage people to start over and take chances. I applaud that. What I don’t like is to see it being manipulated for cynical purposes by people who claim to be entrepreneurs but who are really stacking the deck and are not taking chances, but are instead forcing other people to take chances that they’re not even fully cognizant of.

CommonWealth: I want to ask you about one other area of increasing uncertainty in American life. We’re sitting here in February in a state of “orange alert” for terrorist attack. President Bush is pressing the case for war against Iraq, and tensions with North Korea are mounting. So I have to ask you about how America is dealing with this new state of insecurity we seem to be in. Toward the end of your book, you quote the legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen, who says, “Contemporary Americans, in particular, are not well equipped to deal with arbitrary threats because, in so many realms of life, we refuse to accept the role of chance.” With the White House telling us to pack survival kits of bottled water and duct tape and plastic sheeting to seal up our windows, how are we Americans coping with the current uncertainty?

Meet the Author

Lears: Well, speaking for my household, we’re pretty depressed. Generally speaking, not to belabor the obvious, it’s not only the collapse of the bull market but the terrorist attacks of September 11th that have reminded us of the dark side of chance as well–the cruelties of fate and how completely arbitrary they can be and how they can erupt unpredictably, literally out of a clear blue sky. So that catastrophe naturally has reasserted all of our desires for control and predictability in life. Once again, the problem is how to respond intelligently at the level of public policy, as well as our everyday life, to acknowledge the inevitability of chance and unpredictability and not to fall victim to the delusion that we can control all outcomes, whether it’s through duct tape or more sophisticated forms of technology. For a long time in this country, long before September 11th, there has been a kind of ironic consequence of growing medical and other forms of technological control over our lives. As we are doing better statistically, as we are safer from crime and living longer lives, we’re doing better but we’re feeling worse. People are more anxious, even though they’re more protected. Well, of course, since September 11th, the question of how protected we all are has once again been thrown into doubt, and we have once again turned to technological solutions to try to protect ourselves.

We need to be able to evaluate, critically and thoughtfully, what the government is proposing to us. That’s hard to do, because I think it’s in the interest of the Bush policy agenda that Americans stay in a state of more or less permanent terror, as a permanent war psychology descends across the land. That’s the Orwellian side of things. If we’re constantly anxious, constantly fearful about threats and unsure about where to even look for them, then we are naturally going to be more willing to surrender some of our civil liberties, maybe all of them, in exchange for homeland security. We may be willing to undertake or support foreign wars that are at best dubious solutions to the problem of protecting us from terrorist attacks and that may in fact generate higher possibility of terrorist attacks, as I think everyone, even the advocates of this war, admit. The idea of a quick and an easy war with Iraq is problematic enough, but even if the war itself were quick and easy, then we would face the long peace, the long occupation, the attempt to maintain order and try somehow to remake that part of the world in our image. That seems to me a very dangerous and delusional goal. Once again, I think it’s a question of trying to balance chance and control, to acknowledge the need for control but the impossibility of ever imposing it completely–the danger, in fact, of trying to do so.