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Commentary: More Casinos in Michigan?

Last summer I went to Traverse City to speak to the state association of property law lawyers. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, they will probably little note nor long remember what I said there.

But I’ll never forget something I saw there. The night before my speech, they took us to the Turtle Creek Casino for dinner. The food was excellent. But we walked through the gamblers sitting at the slot machines, and that was haunting. They looked like zombies, most of them, mechanically feeding money into the one-armed bandits. Few of them looked like they could afford to gamble.

Fewer still looked like they could quit. Most were smoking, and one was wearing an oxygen tank. When we finished dinner and left, some were still sitting in the same places.

Gambling always has struck me as something that lacks any redeeming value whatsoever. Nearly all gamblers lose more than they win. Even if they do win temporarily, that merely fosters a dangerous “you can get something for nothing” mentality.

What all casinos do, with the possible exception of the native American ones, is send money from the poor people in Michigan to much richer people, some of them in places like New Jersey. This has never struck me as sensible public policy.

But there are those who not only support casinos, they want to vastly expand their number, and hence take even more cash out of Michiganders’ pockets. Yesterday, a group with the misleading name Citizens for More Michigan Jobs began a drive for a ballot proposal allowing them to open as many as eight new casinos in the state. This would be an utter disaster for Michigan.

This entire proposal is ominous. We at least know who owns the existing casinos. But we don’t know who the shadowy investors behind the misnamed “Citizens for More Michigan Jobs" are.

But they do have money. They are paying circulators to gather the approximately 400,000 signatures they would need. And they would blanket our state with casinos. They would put two new ones in Detroit, and one each in Birch Run, Clam Lake, Clinton Township, DeWitt near Lansing, Grand Rapids and Pontiac.

This, in a state that already has three casinos in Detroit and about 20 Native-American-owned casinos elsewhere.

The developers’ pitch is always the same. The casinos would mean a lot of new revenue for education, state and local governments, as much as $275 million worth. That has to be tempting, especially since governments have seen their revenues slashed and slashed again.

But it is a fool’s dream. Pressed to the limits of logical absurdity, you could argue that Michigan could solve all its economic problems by having everyone open a casino in their house.

These new casinos would do three things: Cannibalize revenue from the existing casinos, and cause even more people who can’t afford it to lose the grocery money.

And, yes, they would make some money for the casino owners, whoever they are. I have been in perhaps half a dozen Michigan casinos, and never once did I see anyone who looked like a rich high roller from LA. Just working class people, losing their money. We do need jobs badly, jobs producing real goods and services with tangible benefits. If we are to have a future, that is the only way to go.

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