Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Smart Money

The New Yorker had an interesting piece on their financial page about the regulation of gambling in the United States. American culture has a profoundly ambivalent relationship with gambling. On the one hand, it is (I think, rightly) seen as an economic scourge on the poor and source of addictive destruction to many. On the other hand, it is in some circumstances fun and engaging. I don't think anyone would watch the horse races with so much enthusiasm were there not some money riding on the outcome.

I find this topic especially interesting because I, personally, have the same schizophrenic relationship with the notion of gambling that the country has. When it comes to lotteries and Vegas-style casino gambling, I am as puritanical as they come. I think it's ugly, wasteful, stupid, deceitful, and a blight on the nation. If someone told me they enjoy playing the slots or shooting dice, I would think less of them.

When it comes to betting on sports, however, I am the mildest of moderates. When someone tells me they are filling out their bracket for the NCAA, I think better of them, because (in theory, at least) they actually understand enough of the game to have an intelligent opinion on the matter. Rather than dulling people's brains (as Vegas does) sports betting seems to heighten everyone's intellectual engagement in the whole affair. And while there are still lots of people who ruin themselves over sports betting, I just don't seem to have the same disdain for them.

Then, there are the markets. Commodities, stocks, bonds, futures, IPOs . . . people bristle if you call them "speculative," but the truth is that everyone who is investing is placing their bets. The range of risk is a lot more varied, but the nature of the game is really no different. Everyone is trying to correctly predict the future, and predict it better than everyone else. Not only do I not mind this sort of thing, I deify it -- it's the invisible hand of the marketplace, the power of collective knowledge that makes for an intelligent and responsive economy, the souce of all the wealth that holds up our political and personal freedom. People did not always see it that way . . . it was, at one time, illegal in this country to speculate on the price of wheat.

So, if I had my way, I would banish all pure-chance so-called games and completely open up all other forms of gambling. I would let the government take a healthy cut of the revenue in taxes, but I would never let the government actually run such ventures themselves (a la state lotteries). I would regulate the bookies with approximately the same level of scrutiny as the financial markets, for approximately the same reasons: to avert outright fraud and remove conflicts of interest. There would be a legal and regulated market for gambling, which wouldn't completely kill the illegal market but probably keep it out of trouble.

Who'll take the other side of that?


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