Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Casinos: Happy Hour for Hypocrites

In my periodic screeds opposing the (probably inevitable) legalization of casino gaming in Massachusetts I try insofar as possible to stay away from the purely moralistic/nanny state argument.  Yes, I think casinos prey on human weakness, depend for profitability on the assumption that individuals (and by extension, families) will be destroyed financially on a regular basis, and are a losing proposition for the vast majority of the people who walk through their doors.  But whatever.  People make their own decisions, and sometimes society doesn't even have to absorb a share of the consequences.

I just don't think the state should be putting its eggs in that basket and calling it "economic development."  I am absolutely convinced that the predictions and promises being tossed around by supporters - both as to jobs and revenues - are complete nonsense.  Utterly bogus, and very obviously so. Oh, and I don't want one anywhere near my house.

But it is hard to evaluate the latest bit of casino non-debate news without getting into the moral angle at least a little bit.  In case you missed it, here's the Globe article today discussing an amendment passed yesterday by the Senate to allow casinos to give out free alcoholic beverages to patrons.  An additional amendment was tacked on - a bone to the restaurant and bar lobby - that will resurrect "Happy Hour" in Massachusetts for the first time since 1984, allowing those establishments to offer free and discounted drinks as well. It's only fair.

Now don't get me wrong here.  I'm not going to lie: I expect I will enjoy a Happy Hour from time to time.  But do you see how quickly the race to the bottom has started here, before so much as a single spade hits the dirt on a casino site?

And look at the paired acknowledgements implied in the Happy Hour move:

(1) Casinos are going to suck the life out of existing bars, restaurants and other entertainment venues in their respective geographic areas.  Some of these will undoubtedly close, cutting further into the casino initiative's already inflated net jobs numbers.  And

(2) The ability to offer "Happy Hour" incentives is a boon to restaurants and bars, a way to help them grow (or, as to the ones unlucky enough to find a Flamingo Northeast going up down the block, a flimsy lifeline offering at least the fragile hope of survival).  If this is true, then presumably it was equally true in 1984, when that ability was stripped from our hospitality industry; and equally true in each of the years between then and now.  But until now state government didn't care.  Only when it can be used to smooth over one of the few significant speed bumps on the road to casinoville does the legislature suddenly take note of the economic upside to Happy Hour.

And what about the rationale for the Happy Hour ban in the first place?  A quarter century after the Massachusetts Legislature decreed in its infinite wisdom that Happy Hours kill, the successors to that august group of Puritans decide abruptly that... what?  Whoopsie! they were wrong?

Or that a few more roadway deaths are a reasonable trade for a less-than-one-percent uptick in jobs?

Of course none of this is actually part of the law yet.  The House will have to agree.  But it will.  To have any chance of succeeding commercially, Massachusetts casinos - if we are to have them - must be able to give away free drinks.  Free drinks - alternately watered down and/or caustic with rot-gut rail booze - are part of the casino experience, commonly understood.  If we don't have them a significant percentage of 'our' target customer base will continue to do their gaming in Rhode Island.  And if casinos can pour freely, then of course it makes sense to extend the same courtesy to restaurant and bar owners.  So it's a fair bet (heh) that the final bill that hits Governor Patrick's desk later this month will feature the free liquor provisions.

And let's not forget why it is that casinos give out those free drinks.  They aren't tokens of appreciation to their loyal customers.  Nor liquid recognition of the fact that the folks eying the cards, rolling the dice, and pulling the levers of those one-armed bandits already spending a bunch of money to be there; else why not also afford the same inebriating courtesy to the over-charged patrons of Fenway? Or Gillette?  Or the Garden?  No, the casinos give out free drinks precisely because free drinks reduce inhibitions.  Free drinks allow those patrons to rationalize behavior - gambling, specifically - more reckless than they would otherwise engage in.  And if at the end of the night (or the day) that recklessness extends to an ill-advised decision to get behind the wheel?

Well, the jobs.

Maybe Not a Parody
Addendum: Speaking of those one-armed bandits, the Senate also approved an amendment requiring warning labels to be prominently displayed on slot machines in our future casinos.  Providing the minuscule odds of winning.  Including a warning about gambling addiction, and the phone number of an addiction hotline.  Each time I think our legislators have gone beyond parody, they up the ante.

I wonder how long before someone comes up with the bright idea to include graphic photos, like the ones that now adorn cigarette cartons?

1 comment:

  1. Great Article, very serious take on the issue. Bravo!


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