Class, Race, and Legalized Gambling: William J. BennettÕs Nasty Habit and The Limits of Acceptable Debate

The first chapter of leading right-wing moral-crusader, Republican political strategist, and educational magnate William J. Bennett’s The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Moral Stories (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1993) is titled “Self-Discipline.” “There is much unhappiness and personal distress in the world,” Bennett writes, “because of failures to control and temper appetites, passion and impulses.” As an illustration, Bennett includes a short story titled “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” Written by Leo Tolstoy, this narrative tells the cautionary tale of a greedy Russian landowner who died because he couldn’t limit his desire for more. Bennett describes it as “a marvelous metaphor for the need for us to set definite boundaries to our appetites.”

The second chapter is titled “Compassion.” Compassion, Bennett argues, “comes close to the very heart of moral awareness, to seeing in one’s neighbor another self.” “Treat no one,” Bennett instructs, “with callous disregard” (108).

Chapter four is titled “Work.” It includes the famous story of “The Little Red Hen,” the children’s tale where all the other animals in the barn wanted to eat the bread that only the hen had been willing to work to make. “From this longtime favorite,” Bennett comments, “we learn, as it says in the third chapter of Genesis, ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” (352).

The Book of Virtues is just one part of Bennett’s imposing record of speeches and publications arguing that America is the homeland of virtue and opportunity, where people who work diligently and honestly and honor God and country are rewarded with reasonable prosperity. Those who fail to exhibit Bennett’s virtues – self-discipline, capitalist work ethic, courage, responsibility, compassion, and honesty – are justly denied the riches they could attain but for weak moral character. Such is the rich moral reward structure of the United States, argues Bennett, whose recent Why We Fight (2002) claims that America’s supposed “war on terrorism” is a noble effort to defend and advance the superior values of “western civilization,” epitomized by the US. Certainly, this structure has worked out nicely for Bennett, the former Drug Czar, onetime Secretary of Education, and past Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Bennett heads a conservative agency called “Empower America” and collects $50,000 for each of his many speaking appearances.

It has been interesting, then, to watch Bennett revealed during the last week as a serious problem gambler, a casino-owners’ dream who “has lost more than $ 8 million” playing Las Vegas slot machines during the last decade alone. “In one two-month period,” The New York Times reported, “Mr. Bennett wired one casino more than $1.4 million to cover his losses.” According to Bennett, it has not been unusual for him to “cycle several hundred thousand dollars” through Las Vegas slot machines and video games in a single evening.

It has been amusing to learn that the nation’s leading preacher of “self-discipline” was incapable of reigning in his compulsion to “cycle” massive amounts of surplus wealth through the slot machinery of morally challenged Las Vegas. And since one of the virtues to receive chapter-level status in The Book of Virtues is “Honesty,” it is especially fabulous to hear Bennett claim to have “won more than he has lost” in the casinos. Everybody knows that casino managers do not calibrate their slot machines so that people can break even on millions of dollars worth of pulls.

It is less entertaining to learn that this Founding Father of “compassionate conservatism” was content to feed the Nevada Gambling-industrial complex while much of the American population slipped farther into poverty. In one indication of the spreading socioeconomic homeland insecurity that Bennett explains as God’s punishment for irresponsible behavior, the Children’s Defense Fund has recently reported (in a scandalous story that broke right before the Bennett revelations), that more than one million African-American children live in families with incomes less than half the US government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. This is up dramatically from early 2000, when “only” 686,000 black children were that poor. Quick, somebody get those kids a rush order of The Book of Virtues!

Too bad Bennett and his ilk don’t see the need to cycle a few more million (or better yet billion) dollars worth of food and other enrichment through the bodies and minds of America’s poorest children. The latter are now proclaimed even more irrelevant than usual in the face of America’s virtuous drive to “liberate” Iraq, to the great “collateral” advantage of Haliburton, Bechtel, and other needy subjects lining for their share of the general welfare. Talk about your “callous disregard

After enjoying the overdue public humiliation of a reactionary nag, however, it is darkly interesting to observe key omissions from the mainstream debate over Bennett’s nasty little habit. American commentators on both the right and the liberal “left” are stuck at the Dickens level, arguing in good bourgeois-moralist terms about the propriety of one aspect of a rich man’s behavior and the possibly negative consequences of a particular public policy. Is Bennett’s gambling ok, as Grover Norquist (a leading conservative tax “reform” advocate) argues, because “it’s his own money and his own business,” and/or because he was able to “handle” or (more to the point) afford it? Is the behavior in question ok because his family remains unharmed, and/or because his “work ethic” has apparently remained intact?. Should Bennett be condemned because “legalized gambling” is a “vice,” even a sin and/or “a cancer on the body politic,” as the Christian Coalition, the Catholic Church (Bennett’s denomination) and some liberals think? “As gambling spreads,” motes the Washington Monthly’s Joshua Green, “so do its associated problems, “ including divorce, domestic violence, child abuse, and bankruptcy.”

The chief original American “elite” concern with gambling, legal and otherwise, was recently summarized quite well by Eric Zorn, a liberal columnist at the Chicago Tribune. “The lure of gambling – the large payoff for a minimal investment – is antithetical,” Zorn preaches, in words that might have appeared in The Book of Virtues, “to the connection between effort and reward that we know to the associated not only with strong successful individuals, but also with strong societies.” What the mainstream commentators don’t have much to say about, however, is the higher immorality involved in the creation and maintenance of a social structure whereby one man can afford to entertain himself by cycling through machines a sum greater than the lifetime earnings of most of his fellow citizens. Here we must confront structural factors are of no small significance in the “winner-take-all” United States, sometimes referred to as “the casino society,” the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society by far, where a small and super-privileged slice of the American population enjoys considerably greater behavioral leeway than the rest.

Most Americans would be bankrupted or close to it by one or two of Bennett’s Nevada nights. Meanwhile, children of the American upper class are free to push the boundaries of acceptable behavior – numerous examples come to mind from the Bush clan – with minimal risk of losing lifelong access to the special privileges and pleasures of wealth. How many Americans could run for the presidency after a miserable school record, at least one conviction for drunk driving (Bush’s Texas driving record has been erased and is unavailable to the public), going AWOL from the National Guard “in a time of war”? These are the current American president’s most well known transgressions prior to entering public office.

The second thing omitted is the strong complementary relationship between this deep inequality and the explosion of legalized gambling in America. Casino gambling and state lotteries arose from the ashes and swept across the nation during the last thirty years thanks largely to the special political and policy influence exercised in America by those perched atop the nation’s unmentionable class structure. With the rollbacks of corporate and wealth taxation, welfare and job security that America’s privileged minority has imposed, casinos and lotteries became attractive both as a (supposed) solution to lost public revenues and job opportunities and as a way for Americans seeking to overcome and/or merely forget their misery. If Zorn and others concerned about the erosion of the relationship “between [workplace] effort and [labor market] reward” in the US want to get to the root of that problem, they ought to examine wage and hour patterns for unskilled American workers in recent decades. The relevant statistics certainly demonstrate a deterioration in the relationship, thanks largely to employer actions and public policy, including the export of jobs to the low-wage periphery, the roll back of unions and collective bargaining, increased reliance on immigrant labor, welfare “reform,” and much more.

At the same time, legalized gambling deepens America’s class inequalities in ways that escape mainstream attention. Generating massive revenues for corporations that manufacture lottery equipment and advertising firms that sell the “dream,” the lotteries exact their highest price on people at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy. The poor and the working classes tend to buy the lion’s share of the tickets, with less chance of hitting the “jackpot” less than of being struck by lightning. Throughout the nation, moreover, lotteries are deceptively sold as a progressive mechanism to generate funds for public education. “In reality,” notes sociologist David Nibert, lottery-generated money “constitutes a relatively small part of state educational revenues” and tends to be used to replace educational funds slashed from other sources. (David Nibert, Hitting the Lottery Jackpot: Government and the Taxing of American Dreams (New York, NY: Monthly Review, 2000, p. 61). It is part of what Nibert calls a “fiscal shell game” whereby state governments pretend to boost school spending while cutting or merely maintaining already inadequate public school funding streams, which remain overly and regressively reliant on local property taxes in the US. Lotteries are, in essence, a form of regressive taxation that shifts wealth and income further away from those who can least afford to pay.

Beyond their role in making regressive social policy, furthermore, the lotteries play a related dark pedagogical role in American life. They work, Nibert shows, to legitimate economic inequality by teaching Americans that the acquisition of a vast personal fortune is the single best thing that could ever happen to someone. They instruct us that the best thing to do about alienating and oppressive job conditions is not to struggle collectively for a better workplace but to escape those conditions in purely individualistic fashion by shooting for pie-in-the-sky. They falsely preach the existence of “equal opportunity” by advancing the false idea that everybody has an equal shot at making it big (“Anyone Can Play” and “Win”) in a rigidly hierarchical society.

The third thing omitted is the racial dimensions of all this. Beneath officially color-blind rhetoric, a very disproportionate share of the people Bennett blames as personally, morally and/or culturally responsible for their presence at the bottom of the American pyramid are black. As should occasion little surprise, the people who turn in desperation to the lotteries happen to be very disproportionately African-American. So, we might add, do the youthful captives of the nation’s scandalously under-funded, hyper-segregated, and (surprise) “under-performing” urban public school systems that are supposedly receiving wonderful shots in the arm from legalized gambling.

How appropriate, then to read the title of a recent article criticizing Bush and Bennett’s educational ideas and policies, which work to undercut the nation’s core commitment to public schooling: “Gambling With the Children.” (Dr. Jamie McCkenzie, “Gambling With the Children,” No Child Left, January 2003). How perfect, finally, to recall the comments of Lt. General T. Michael Moseley, the air-war commander of the recent attack on Iraq, a fundamentally racist action Bennett sees as a glorious expression of America’s moral virtue. Walking through the ruins of a once-proud Iraqi palace, Moseley thought that the structure had interesting potential in the age of American globalism (Michael Gordon and John Kifner, “U.S. Generals Meet in Palace, Sealing Victory,” New York Times, 17 April, 2003). “This,” he said, “could make a pretty nice casino.”

Paul Street ([email protected]) is an urban social policy researcher and political essayist in Chicago, Illinois.

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