It is time for ever-increasing scrutiny of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to expand casino gambling in upstate New York. The legislature has approved the plan for four new non-Indian casinos. State voters must approve the plan in a referendum in November.
All the insiders and opportunistic politicians now lined up around the public trough in Albany seem to agree on one thing — that new casinos are just the dandy thing to create a surge in the upstate economy.
It doesn’t take a cynic, though, to imagine 10 or 12 hands under the table clutching at the collection plate. Here is the publicist’s angle from the insiders: Anyone against our casino gambling plan must be in favor of letting neighboring states take money from New York that should go to New York state public education.
Public education and casino gambling go hand in hand? Now there is a public relations posture that should make the finals for any award for public chicanery. (Even so, my own vote would go to the ongoing slogan, “Love — it’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.”)
Anyway — what a wonderful civic idea publicly sponsored gambling is. Why, it is practically virtue itself. Tax revenues, investment money, and, by golly, all those great patronage jobs at casinos for cronies and girlfriends. Saratoga could even become the new Reno or Atlantic City. We know how those two cities raised their social, cultural and intellectual standards riding piggy-back on casino owners.
But skepticism aside for now: The strongest argument for an expansion of gambling is tax revenue. Otherwise, there is no public sense in the idea whatsoever. But tax revenue and economic opportunism are not really the measure of all value, even if the Cuomo casino plan were really going to produce as much of both as he and the plan’s publicists would like us to believe.
Unless New York state is going to train hundreds of thousands of new casino gamblers, there are already not enough gamblers to go around. Problems with the plan abound, and forgive me for bothering to mention it — there is the thing called the ETHICAL problem.
Question of ethics
Gambling is a predatory activity that preys on individuals who ignore the fact that its games are fixed in such a way so that a very small number of insiders always will win.
The real cynics think ethical problems can be finessed by public relations tricks. But what about this baseline principle: that the goal of political advocacy is to maximize individual self-realization and social cooperation? This is the foundation of responsible governance.
Neo-conservatives tend to stress facilitating “self-realization” as the goal of political action; neo-liberals tend to stress “social cooperation”; centrists sensibly stress the importance of blending both goals into rational and realistic public policies.
Let’s not deceive ourselves: A publicly financed casino plan has nothing to do with individual freedom and “self-realization,” nor does it have anything do with facilitating justice and “social cooperation.” The Cuomo plan for casino gambling, New York state style, is off the political grid. It is politics of insider opportunism at its most brazen.
So then, how does publicly financed gambling in New York state contribute to the social and cultural and intellectual welfare of New Yorkers?
It doesn’t. Or maybe the Cuomo administration really believes in the very bad argument that the smart and strong have the right to exploit the gullible and weak?
The governor’s plan is dependent on “clustering,” which assumes that adjacent gambling establishments will create a magic synergy to expand a market for their “business.” The announced goal of the plan is for casinos to create resorts that will transform struggling areas into tourist hotspots.
My bet is that the insiders behind the plan are counting on dipping into the investment money. By the time the casinos fail in year five, six or seven, the game will be over. By then the investment money and construction money will have been banked. By then it is someone else’s job to deal with the residual problems. Economic development, short-term real jobs, the possibility of only $1 billion in added tax revenues — these are just the present public relations pretenses.
Who says such a cynical vision of the Cuomo plan isn’t the hidden reality? The governor says the Moreland Commission will follow the money. Follow it right into the $2.4 million given by gambling interests to the Cuomo PAC Committee to Save New York? Don’t count on the Moreland Commission getting there.
Rejecting the Cuomo casino initiative would be a vote for a more ethical conception of state government — against the opportunistic conception based on the self-interest of insider cliques.
Cases in point
The failure of campaign finance reform, the bogus ethics reform, the large development grant awards and special tax breaks to private companies, the corruption in the economic development corporations and now the governor’s casino plan — each offers a different glimpse of the same problem with the political culture in New York state — the insider game against the public interest.
As far as the Cuomo casino gambling plan goes, count me as a big doubter.
L.D. Davidson lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.