Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Casinos or No Casinos? The Phony Debate in Massachusetts

For the last year or so Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has been telling the people that the state is running out of revenue to maintain public services and infrastructure, and that we face disaster unless we make a deal with the "gaming" industry to invite them to open up three "destination" casinos in the state. The casino owners, promised Patrick, would pay big money to the state and create a lot of new jobs. Anybody who opposes this plan, he said, has to come up with some other plan to bring in a lot of revenue and create new jobs.

The House Speaker, Salvatore DiMasi, opposed the casinos and nixed the plan, at least for the time being. But DiMasi never proposed a better plan to get the needed revenue and jobs. He just talked about what was wrong with casinos.

These two gentlemen orchestrated a big debate that managed to split the state's population, according to some polls, right down the middle. About half of the people in the state were willing to accept the three "destination" casinos, presumably because of their quite understandable concern for jobs and revenue which are indeed sorely needed. The other half were not willing to invite the "gaming" industry into the state, presumably because of their equally understandable concerns about the well-known dark side of this industry and its impact on people's lives.

A Phony Debate

The entire debate, however, was phony because neither Governor Patrick nor Speaker DiMasi talked about the reason why we are so desperate for revenue and jobs in the first place, and they never talked about the better options that exist for solving the problem.

The biggest reason there's no money for the state to spend on infrastructure and public services is that virtually all of our money has already been spent on the Iraq war. (The U.S. government is in debt up to its eyeballs from having borrowed trillions from foreign governments to pay for the war while giving tax breaks to the rich, and now those chickens are coming home to roost.) Nobel prize-winning economist and former Chief Economist and Senior Vice-President of the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, writes that he and his co-author of The Three Trillion Dollar War, "conservatively estimate the economic cost of the war to the US to be $3 trillion, and the costs to the rest of the world to be another $3 trillion."

What does this mean for Massachusetts? It means bad news on two counts. First, the huge war debt sooner or later (it looks like sooner) leads to recession, which leads to reduced tax revenue. Don Rose writes in the Chicago Tribune March 24, 2008:
Most economic forecasters believe we're at the brink of a recession—if not already in its first quarter.

Any link to the war?

Yes, says Stiglitz, as does Gen. William E. Odom, former director of the
National Security Agency and a Yale professor.

Again, it was predicted.

Months before we invaded Iraq, William D. Nordhaus, a Yale economics professor and former member of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, wrote that a protracted war would certainly result in a recession, just as we suffered a recession following the relatively brief first Gulf war.

War is simply bad for the economy.
Second, federal money, taken from us as taxes and returned to us (in theory, anyway) in a myriad of ways, defrays costs that would otherwise have to come from state or local taxes. A part of the $3 trillion spent on the war would otherwise have been available as federal aid of one sort or another to our state. Some examples of what this aid looks like are the federal Pell grants to help students pay for college, federal aid to schools (like a grant of $1.8 million to aid autism instruction and awareness), federal disaster aid on occasion, federal aid to businesses and communities (like the $13.4 million in emergency federal aid to the Massachusetts groundfish fishing fleet and coastal communities dependent on the industry) and so on.

How much federal aid did Massachusetts lose? The National Priorities Project, based on an estimate of the cost of the Iraq war that is only one sixth of the $3 trillion that Stiglitz says is a conservative estimate, says that the Iraq war has cost Massachusetts $14 billion dollars. Based on the Stiglitz estimate, it has cost our state six times that, or $84 billion. Compare this to the relatively paltry $40 billion TOTAL that the Massachusetts state government spent last year. But our politicians would rather divert our attention to a phony debate about casinos.

If the Iraq war were a war to defend our lives and freedom, or even to defend other innocent people's lives and freedom, then I wouldn't complain. But it's an unjust war that benefits nobody except wealthy people, while killing and maiming innocent people. So complain we must!

But politicians like Patrick and DiMasi don't even identify what the problem is, never mind take steps to solve it. If they were sincerely trying to solve the problem the very least they would do is mobilize public outrage at our national leaders who rob our public purse to wage unjust wars. Instead they act as if the hijacking of those three trillion dollars never even happened. They never mention it. They want us to be clueless about why we're faced with a "damned if we do and damned if we don't" choice between sleeping with the "gaming" industry to get revenue and jobs or letting our bridges go unrepaired and our schools underfunded in a state without casinos.

Why Do We Need the "Gaming" Industry to Have Jobs?

And what about jobs? Why do we need to rely on the "gaming" industry for jobs? To think clearly about this question we need to remember that the only thing about a job that is important (to ordinary people, anyway) is that it is a way for a person to enter into a relationship with society whereby he or she does socially useful work and receives in return the things that are required to raise a family and live a decent life. If people can do this some other way, then they don't need a job.

Presently, many people are unable to enter into this kind of relationship with society because our laws arrange it so that the only way to do so is by getting a job with Big Business, and Big Business often finds it more profitable to let people remain unemployed. The problem, in other words, is our laws. To see this, consider the following.

There is nothing materially lacking in Massachusetts that prevents our presently unemployed people from performing, or learning skills that would enable them to perform, socially useful labor, and from receiving, in return, the things they need for them and their dependents to live a good life. As much as anywhere else in the world, we have the material resources, like land on which to grow things and buildings in which to make things. We have university faculties and experienced workers to teach people all sorts of skills to make all sorts of useful things and to perform all sorts of useful services.

There is no reason every unemployed person in Massachusetts couldn't be involved in helping to create wealth for all of us to enjoy (or to trade with people elsewhere when mutually agreeable.) It is not as if a natural disaster has destroyed our state and our unemployed people have no material resources with which to create useful products or perform useful services. Not at all.

We're often told that the problem is a lack of money, but this obscures what the real problem is. Money itself is just numbers in a bank ledger or pieces of paper. People don't need these things to do useful work. When a bunch of friends go camping they don't need money to do things that need to be done, like setting up the tent and building a fire and cooking and cleaning; they just do it. Some people set up tents, some chop wood, some cook and so on, and they share among themselves the benefit of all this useful work. If they sat around doing nothing until somebody paid them to do it as a "job" we would think they were crazy.

What makes money important is the fact that we have laws that grant power and authority to people in proportion to the amount of money they have. It is as if a bunch of friends went on a camping trip together but one of them was rich and owned everything--the tents and the campground and the firewood and the food and the ax to chop wood--and the others were poor and owned nothing and were not allowed to touch anything unless the rich person "gave them a job" and paid them to set up the tent or chop firewood or cook a meal. But why would the poor campers agree to a law that said the rich camper "owned" everything? Good question!

And it is an equally good question why we agree to the laws that say Big Business "owns" everything and has the power to decide if and when and how we are allowed to enter into a relationship with our society whereby we do useful work in exchange for the things we need to live a decent life. If ordinary people instead of politicians beholden to Big Business were making the laws, as Question X* proposes, then we would not have an unemployment problem, and we would not be essentially slaves of the people who have hijacked three trillion dollars from the public purse.

* Question X, which some people are working to place on the ballot in Massachusetts this Fall, says: "Shall the state representative from this district be instructed to vote in favor of a proposal to amend the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to replace the General Court of Massachusetts (i.e. the state Legislature) with 100 randomly selected adult residents of the Commonwealth each serving just a one year term, designated the Commonwealth Jury, that will have all the legislative and other powers of the current General Court?" [The Attorney General's office has given informal approval of this wording to appear on the ballot.]

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