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We are only a week away from the Super Bowl, which promises to be the most gambled-on Super Bowl in American history. That’s because legal sports betting, long restricted to a few small outposts of debauchery, is now rapidly spreading across the country. Many states have recently legalized betting via app — a combination of the inherently addictive nature of gambling, the algorithmically perfected addictive abilities of technology, and a sucker’s game in which players are guaranteed to lose. This could be one of the worst public policy trends in a generation.
We are just now seeing the fruits of the 2018 Supreme Court decision opening the door for states to legalize sports betting. Already, about 30% of Americans can do so, and analysts say that could reach 83% by the end of next year. Louisiana and New York residents are currently being treated to an avalanche of advertisements for newly legal sports betting apps. New Yorkers have dropped a billion dollars on bets in less than a month. We are in the very early stages of something that has the potential to be very, very unhealthy.
This is not just a classic anti-gambling screed. Yes, the odds of sports betting, like every other type of gambling, are fixed so that the house will always win in the long run. States like to think of the tax revenue they bring in from legal gambling as free money from heaven, but it amounts to a regressive tax on citizens, aimed most intensely at those who are so desperate for financial salvation that the vanishing hope provided by the idea of hitting the lottery is worth the certainty that you will, in fact, not hit the lottery. If state governments want more money, they should tax the people who have the ability to pay: the rich. They should not gamify a tax on the poor and pretend that it is not a tax. Gambling is a tax on gamblers, and another name for gamblers is “citizens.”
The unique danger of this new sports betting fever is the fact that, for the first time ever, we are going to combine gambling’s mathematical certainty of financial loss with apps. We are going to place inside every single person’s pockets the ability to instantaneously wager on sports, in a way designed by the relentless refinements of Big Data to be pleasing and frictionless and addictive. In the same way that junk food is scientifically engineered to hypnotize our palates, so too will sports betting apps be engineered to encourage compulsive gambling. Think about what Facebook’s algorithms have done for our nation’s political discourse. That is what fully legalized app-based sports betting has the capability of doing to the personal finances of millions of citizens. And it is being ushered into existence with a grin by state governments across the nation, all eager for their rake, like every other scumbag casino investor.
It should go without saying that universal access to unlimited betting on your cell phone will be catastrophic to the estimated 6.6 million “problem gamblers” in America. But that is actually the smaller part of the problem. More economically consequential will be the tens of millions of other people who, without even noticing, are induced to bet a few more times here and there by the ease and welcoming nature of having it right in their pockets. These bets will add up to many billions of dollars lost each year — not enough to bankrupt the casual user, but a real slice of their earnings that will be funneled into the pockets of the investors in major gaming companies.
When you look honestly at what is happening here, it is just the latest little assault in the class war; one more way for mega-corporations, aided by big tech and encouraged by starving governments, to reach into the pockets of normal people and take something out. In aggregate, the effect of legalized app-based sports gambling will be that regular people will, on average, lose a certain amount of money that they were not losing before, and will receive nothing in return, and that money will enrich the investor class. States tacitly encouraging their citizens to lose this money are pursuing taxation by cowardice, funding by dysfunction. Ironically, the long quest of the right wing to push down taxes and starve governments of revenue is the very thing that creates the environment in which regulators will reach for any solution to get themselves funding, even if it is a clearly destructive and regressive one. Legal gambling, then, is the perfect right-wing grift: The rich get richer, the regular suckers get poorer, the money is funneled upwards, and public services are forced to obtain their funding by ripping off the public they are supposed to serve.
I know it is bad to throw around the word “dystopian” and risk eroding its meaning, but: The combination of gambling and big tech’s ability to manipulate the human brain is dystopian. It is just as dystopian as, say, legalizing heroin and turning the entire industry over to the world’s biggest tobacco companies with no regulation on advertising or free samples, and lending them the world’s most powerful supercomputers to design their marketing strategy. It does not take a genius to see which side of these policies serves the predators, and who is the prey. Whenever you see someone trying to sell you on the idea that any of this will be a good thing, ask yourself where their money is coming from. It is probably coming from you.
Good luck with those bets.
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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.