|BETTING ON SCHOOLS|
October 11 ,1999
PAUL SOLMAN: John Banks is a recovering compulsive gambler.
JOHN BANKS: Even as bad as gambling was to me-- and I tried to commit suicide a number of times-- I still get the urge to go back to want to gamble, and the biggest pull right now for me is Lotto.
PAUL SOLMAN: Banks and his wife have come to the office of James Hall, his psychiatrist, to talk about the consequences of a proposed state-run Lottery in Alabama.
JOHN BANKS: On every street corner in the state of Alabama, I could go in and purchase a ticket for $1 that may make me a millionaire. The Lottery is the essence of the dream world of the gambler. It's where you can get a lot of money for a little investment, and you just dream about it all the time.
PAUL SOLMAN: Alabamians will vote the so-called "Education Lottery" up or down October 12. We came to Alabama because it's the latest battlefield in an escalating war of world views, of those who think it's morally wrong to sacrifice people like John Banks pitted against those who believe state lotteries are the key to Alabama's economic well-being. And that's what this piece is about: Traditional morality, which condemns gambling period, versus economic reality, which relies on numbers, the greatest good for the greatest number of people. To Democratic Governor Don Siegelman, champion of the Alabama Education Lottery, the greatest good is clear.
GOV. DON SIEGELMAN: To give every child in this state, regardless of where they're born, whether they're rich or poor, the same hope and expectation that they can go to college, get a good job, and provide for their family's future.
PAUL SOLMAN: Throughout much of the 80's and 90's, the forces behind education lotteries have been marching from victory to victory; 38 states now have them. Last year, U.S. lotteries raised $12 billion for government programs, most prominently education. Meanwhile, Alabama's economy, 49th in the nation, is in dire need, and economist George Ignatin thinks education is the key.
GEORGE IGNATIN: We have an undereducated work force, we have an undereducated population, we have under-funded educational systems, and so we really do need the money. And all the studies indicate that the people are much more in favor of raising money through a lottery than by raising income taxes, raising sales taxes, or raising property taxes.
PAUL SOLMAN: The need for education money in Alabama is clear. At Lanier High, blocks from the state capitol in Montgomery, even honor students struggle to keep up.
STUDENT: Like, right now we've don't have enough Alabama history books, no U.S. History books to pass out to the rest of the juniors. I don't have a book.
STUDENT: I have a cousin that stays in Georgia, and he's in seventh grade, and he's learning things that I just learned coming into high school. And he's learned those already.
PAUL SOLMAN: Alabama is copying the widely hailed plan of its neighbor, Georgia, which so far has pumped $3 billion into a trio of educational programs. Here's the pro-lottery ad that's running on Alabama TV.
AD: Will a Georgia-style education Lottery work for Alabama? Yes, it will. Just look at what the lottery has done in Georgia: Voluntary pre-kindergarten, new computers in every school, and more than 380,000 high school students have gone to college tuition- free. And Alabama's Education Lottery is going to be just like Georgia's.
PAUL SOLMAN: Georgia lavished more than half a billion dollars on education last year alone, because 32 cents of every lottery dollar goes to the education fund. And people are betting their dollars like mad. And it's not just Georgians. At the top lottery retailer in Columbus, Georgia, right across the border from Alabama, the parking lot was packed with out- of-state cars.
SPOKESMAN: Alabamians have been buying lottery tickets from nearly a decade from Florida and Georgia and other states. Hundreds of millions of dollars are leaving the state. What we want to do is keep that money here.
PAUL SOLMAN: So that's a loser?
PLAYER: That's a loser.
PAUL SOLMAN: Now, in general, the Lottery's a terrible bet. But to economist George Ignatin, that's beside the point.
GEORGE IGNATIN: Almost everybody who plays the Lottery knows that it's a bad bet, in the sense that if you bet $1 a day for your whole life, you're going to come out a loser. They play it for fun. They're not really looking to get it back, although they are getting something for the money. They're getting a dream, they're getting a fantasy perhaps, they're getting some excitement, they're getting some enjoyment.
PLAYER: I love it. I love it.
PAUL SOLMAN: And so, in sum, the economic argument for the Lottery is pretty simple: It raises money for a crucial cause from people who are happy to pay without raising taxes. The benefits far outweigh the costs, and thus, say its supporters, it's a moral act producing the greatest good for the greatest number.
PEOPLE SINGING: I sing praises to your name oh, lord...
PAUL SOLMAN: To some Alabamians, however, weighing costs and benefits is too narrow a way of looking at the issue. This Baptist prayer breakfast has been called to mobilize against the Lottery, because the people here take it as an article of faith that gambling is wrong. Reverend Lawrence Phipps:
REV. LAWRENCE PHIPPS: Wrong is wrong if everybody is doing it. Right is right if nobody is doing it. This is wrong. That decision has already been made. It's already in the Bible. The truth is, when those polling places open up, if Jesus were here in the flesh walking in, would he vote for it, or would he vote against it? Thelma, tell me.
THELMA: He'd vote no, and I would, too.
LENORA PATE: We've heard in our state about Ten Commandments.
PAUL SOLMAN: In contrast to Reverend Phipps, a conservative Republican, lawyer Lenora Pate was Governor Siegelman's opponent in the last Democratic primary, and is a lifelong Democrat. But at her Baptist church, she, too, denounced the Lottery in terms of moral absolutes.
LENORA PATE: Thou shalt not lie. Thou shalt not covet. You shouldn't really want something that somebody else has and covet. Or how about the big one? Thou shalt have no other God before me.
PAUL SOLMAN: Pate opposes the Lottery out of a moral conviction that to her goes beyond cost-benefit analysis. But she can argue with the economists on their own terms, and uses one of their own dismal insights, the so-called law of unintended consequences.
LENORA PATE: You know, the ends that we're talking about here, education, are great ends. But the unintended consequences here are devastating impacts on the economy of this state, the families of this state, the children of this state, the poor of this state, and the morality of this state.
PAUL SOLMAN: Critics like Pate say the state will bear hidden costs, as increased problem gambling leads to more crime, divorce and broken homes. And revenues will be less than expected, since people will play the Lottery instead of buying consumer goods, on which there's a sales tax in Alabama, which currently funds education. Perhaps most important, say critics, the Lottery is an unfair hidden tax, since the poor play more than the rich do. But to each of these economic arguments, the pro-Lottery forces have at least a plausible response: Hidden costs like more crime? No, say Lottery supporters. There will actually be less crime because there will be less illegal gambling. Less sales tax revenue? Maybe, say Lottery proponents, but there will still be more money in total for education. The poor play much more than the rich do? Well, there are studies to support that, but the counterargument, says economist George Ignatin, is that winners, presumably a random sample of everybody playing, come from all walks of life.
GEORGE IGNATIN: Very few homeless people ever win the Lottery. And Bill Gates never won one. Almost all the winners are middle-income people.
PAUL SOLMAN: In short, the economic data are debatable. But at bottom, it's not so much economics driving the foes of the Lottery as a moral intuition about what's right and wrong.
LENORA PATE: The issue here is whether the government should be in the role of deceiving its people, becoming, if you will, a state bookie and turning gambling into a civic duty, and using deceptive advertising to do it.
SPOKESMAN ONE: I would much rather be fishing than working.
SPOKESMAN: You've got plenty of money now.
SPOKESMAN ONE: I can just fish whenever I want.
ANOTHER SPOKESMAN: I don't know why nobody believes me. Leslie won $17 million.
LOTTERY WINNER: What I would say to doubters is, I won it once, watch me win it again.
PAUL SOLMAN: With so much gambling these days, states use TV to compete for the gambling dollar.
SPOKESMAN: They're going to advertise, stimulate, seduce, and draw as many people in as they can, and that is a situation where the government itself is playing on the weaknesses of people, and some people who are so weak who are going to be destroyed by it.
PAUL SOLMAN: Is there any data to suggest that suicides really do increase when there's more gambling in a community?
SPOKESMAN: Yes. In Biloxi, Mississippi, casinos opened in 1992, and the suicide rate there went up 1,000 percent a year after they had opened.
JOHN BANKS: I tried four times when I lived in Georgia. And I'd lost all but I guess about $3. And I just said why, you know? I don't want to be here anymore, and I just aimed the car at the pylon and I ran into it.
PAUL SOLMAN: Now, we don't mean to unsettle you with the grim details here, but to John Banks' psychiatrist, the devil is in the details. Dr. Hall, you see, is also a devout Christian who thinks that an economic accounting ignores a fundamental wrongness; that even one John Banks would be sacrificed for the greater good.
DR. HALL: Why not put cigarette vending machines in the rest rooms of high schools and let the kids buy cigarettes and help pay for their education? Why not have brothels in every city? We enjoy sex, too.
SPOKESMAN: For those people who believe that the Lottery is wrong, first of all, I tell them and I tell you that I have respect for their deeply held beliefs, and I wouldn't try to change or sway their convictions. But what's right about penalizing good kids? What's right about a mother of a single family...of a family that works her heart out every day that has two and three jobs that can never save up enough to send her son or daughter to college? What's right about that?
PAUL SOLMAN: What's right? That is the question surrounding the Alabama Education Lottery. And even among high school educators, the tension between the moral dictates of economics and those of faith is very much alive.
SPOKESPERSON: I don't know yet. I don't know how I'm going to vote, because, morally, maybe we should not have it, but I know that there is a need for the economics of it. And we have pushed a tax referendum, and it has not passed. And we have got to get funds for the schools and education some kind of way.
SPOKESMAN: I'm kind of torn between two arguments. First, personally, I'm against state-sanctioned gambling. I think it's morally incorrect or improper. But then, on the other hand, I think the state and the people or the citizens have a moral obligation to nurturing the children to the best of the state's ability, which this Lottery would help create the funding for that. So I'm going to make up my mind the day I walk in to vote.
PAUL SOLMAN: In the end, then, this battle of belief systems will be resolved the American way, by putting it to a vote. Bill Hartin is an elder at his Adventist Church.
BILL HARTIN: Personally, I do not believe in gambling, and this makes it difficult. But I also believe very strongly in something we call a democracy. And the people of Alabama spoke, I think, very clearly in the last election that they would like to have a choice on deciding about a Lottery. And that's what we're about to do now, is give them that choice.
PAUL SOLMAN: It's a choice Alabamians will be making October 12.