Maine Cashes in on a Zero Sum
I had been hoping that the Cup of the Maine casino referendum would pass me by, but... no, something really ought to be said. The referendum is coming up next month, and so we've been treated to a run of astoundingly unenlightening TV ads. The pro-casino spots feature regular folks saying, "Gol-dang it, not a penny of our money's being spent on it, and it's gonna bring in ALL this revenue for property tax relief, the saps who throw away their money in it won't BE from Maine, but from away, God-forsaken places like Massachusetts and New Hampshire -- why wouldn't we want it?"
The anti-casino ads are much less accessible: they complain about lack of transparency, lack of jurisdiction, that the state'll get revenue only from slots and not from all those other games, that "The Tribes" will be running the show (which insinuates... what? Code for "Indians can't be trusted?") Undeniably, the pro-casino crowd has the much slicker (and better funded) campaign, and by far the more persuasive populist argument. No, this thing's going to pass. Maine was one of four states whose median income dropped by over 2% in 2002. As they say in New York: Fuggedaboudit.
At the risk of tactlessness, I feel compelled to point out that most folks in Maine don't know what this question is about, have no idea what they are voting on. Even though Barry Dana, the articulate, turquoise-sporting Chief of the Penobscot Nation, is on TV pitching the casino, that doesn't begin to clue people in. People just think that (American) Indians tend to do casinos, the way that (Asian) Indians do restaurants, Pakistanis do newsstands and Koreans do greengroceries (oops, I'm slipping back into NYC mode again... sorry).
I find, alas, that I lack the tenacity required to meaningfully explain the real issue to my neighbors. It's not about having a casino. If we wanted casinos, we could simply make casinos legal, as they are in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. And it's not about not having a casino. If we really wanted to, we could, under Federal law, simply outlaw public betting on things like slot machines, routlette and other "casino" games. Indian Tribes are not allowed to open gaming operations in states that entirely forbid such games. But, since we in Maine are not willing to do either of those things, then what it's really about is folks in an economically depressed state wanting some kind of a cake that they could actually eat -- and, it is about our Nation's tortuous, shameful history of relations with the continent's native inhabitants.
It's also about gambling, of course -- the seemingly insatiable demand for opportunities to throw away one's hard-earned money. If the State Lottery is all we can get, well, OK, but it's kind of methadone-ish compared to the good stuff: cheesy, flashy, pseudo-elegant games of chance, in as otherworldly a setting as possible. Casinos are usually billed as resorts, and what goes on inside them is termed "recreation", but you wouldn't know it from the dead-earnest faces of the gamers themselves. These people are serious. They are investing money.
But, as I said, there's demand for it. When Foxwoods -- the world's largest casino, owned by the Mashantucket Pequots of Connecticut -- first opened its doors, management had planned to close the place between 2 and 6 AM for cleaning & such. But the games were going so strong at 2 AM, on that first night, they just didn't have the heart to close -- and since that day, Foxwoods has been open twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty five days a year. (I've always wondered how they clean the carpets.) Mohegan Sun, about six miles away, now operates a billion-dollar-a-year operation (which also never closes). Competition from Mohegan Sun has not diminished Foxwoods's volume!
We shouldn't be too hypocritical about this. Yes, having a big casino nearby will bring increases in drunk driving, problem gambling and bankruptcy. But, people often have trouble controlling their drinking and smoking, and that doesn't stop us from selling booze and tobacco by the tankerload. (Many of the "junket services" that bus consumers to casinos, by the way, make free drinks at the gaming tables part of their package.) When it comes to casinos, well, we want the excitement and we want the revenue -- but we're not willing to be responsible for the unsavoriness of the things. So, we get the Native Americans to do the dirtywork for us?
Well, not exactly -- they are provided with copious venture capital at the start, and although they will likely agree to give a lot of the proceeds to the investors who made it possible, they'll still be well compensated, without having to set foot in those places. So what is their role, exactly? Why do Indians "do" casinos? The quick answer: Because they can. Indian Nations have a "government-to-government" relationship with the United States of America. Federally-recognized Tribes on reservations are not subject to the laws or taxes of the states that surround them. They have, in fact, every aspect of a sovereign nation, except one: they have no territory. "Indian country" is Federal land that is held in trust for the Tribes. The US Congress can take it back whenever it wants.
To make a long story short, the US Supreme Court ruled, in light of all this, that if a state does not specifically prohibit certain gaming activites, but merely regulates them (as in, say, allowing a church to have a "casino night" once a year), then Indians can operate all the games they want. This could lead, of course, to big casinos -- and the States' fear of the chaotic consequences of this led to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 (IGRA) -- which provided for negotiation between the Tribe and the state on such matters as revenue sharing, law enforcement and oversight. This, then, is what folks in Maine are voting on: a specific, intricately-negotiated package detailing what sort of casino will be built, where, and with what revenue-sharing provisions. But if the referendum is defeated, that does not mean the Penobscots and Passamaquoddys won't be allowed to built a casino. If the Tribes and the state cannot agree on a package, the IGRA requires that a mediator be engaged to hammer one out.
Casinos are what passes for a growth industry, these days. Despite all our land, and our well-educated and eager workers, folks can't seem to figure out what to do to make a living without a deus ex machina such as credit-card companies, or casinos. (MBNA, which has been harvesting Maine's cheap labor for some years now, opposes the casino.) Actually, it won't affect us up here in poor old Waldo country either way: the proposed site is near Kittery, south of Portland. Waldo Countians consider that not really Maine so much as an outer suburb of Boston. But it's gonna relieve our property taxes and give us better schools? Right. The lottery was supposed to do that, too.
When you think about it, the casino serves as an apt metaphor for how our national economy seems to work these days. It's not about producing wealth, any more -- it's about finding ever-more interesting ways to divvy up what has already been produced. We don't really think of labor as having anything to do with its reward. We work, because we have to make a living, but that's not how we get ahead. We get ahead -- if ever -- by winning the Lotto.
Casinos exist on Indian Reservations because white folks have prohibited them in their law -- and yet, casinos make big bucks, because many, many Americans want to gamble. Has the doctrine of Native sovereignty, as applied to Native casinos, been a cynical, opportunistic scheme? Sure. But that by no means denies its moral force. By what principle should Indian nations, having been denied everything else, now lose their sovereignty? If that means they're going to cash in on Americans' hypocrisy by providing casinos, so be it. You don't like casinos? Well, I don't either. But they've come home to roost.
Lindy Davies is the Program Director of the Henry George Institute.
Email this article Sign up for free Progress Report updates via email
What's your opinion? Tell your views to The Progress Report:
Page One Page Two Archive Discussion Room Letters What's Geoism?