Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Lottery Wars -- Book Review

Gambling can generate big news. Several days ago, Michael Hiltzik (Los Angeles Times, Business, October 19, 2009) wrote about “calling America’s bluff on online gambling”. The Internet may undergo a dramatic change. Barney Frank (D – Massachusetts, which is a very successful lottery state) is pushing legislation to repeal a federal ban on Internet gambling.

If you can’t eradicate, regulate and take a big chunk out of the wages of sin while you’re at it.

Currently, the Internet has many legal issues. There are some elements which many do not consider suitable for the Internet at all. Financially, collection of sales taxes from state to state has never been settled. For moralists and many politicians, it is considered out of sufficient public scrutiny and particularly dangerous for the young. The usual treatment? Prohibition.

Lotteries have always been part of our colonial history. In 1754, Virginia authorized a lottery to fight the French and Indian War. In 1769, George Washington managed a lottery in Williamsburg. During our Revolutionary War, they raised money for fighting. After the war, they helped sustain the new and struggling country.

Lotteries have always been at war with causes, people, and politicians. Alexander Hamilton liked them, so I guess that his support generated strong opposition. In the decades since 1776, lotteries have gone boom or bust. They have been praised or banned. Only recently, since most states now have official lotteries, they have achieved a certain respectability. After all, they support good works, such as education.

Therefore, adding a new book, The Lottery Wars, to the Friends of 1776 library, seems timely and well-worth reading. The title describes the contents as “Long Odds, Fast Money, and the Battle Over an American Institution”. In spite of the millions who consider gambling a sin, it has never stopped.

This book makes for some very interesting reading. It is crammed full of facts including names and dates. It does not really write about gambling wars as a straight historical text. Rather, it focuses on winners and losers, who gambles and how, and the public fascination with those who win. What is that really like?

A great deal of The Lottery Wars focuses on the public side of lotteries, the business, including many pages exclusively on Joan Borucki, appointed California State Lottery chief in 2007. Her chief goal was to improve the whole financial position of the lottery, and therefore generate more revenue for the state, including education. The California lottery had been badly lagging. Better distribution of sales became very necessary. Tickets went into Big Retail. The $20 lottery ticket began to be accepted.

There is talk of privatizing the whole operation. States would get their money, up front, lots of it, but that would be it. Then the owner keeps the profits. There are a lot of financial and ethical issues with this proposal.

The book differentiates well between how official government regards the lottery and the players’ view. With government, you don’t consider sin, but marketing, growth, sales; it’s a business seminar. The player wants to know how much are the tickets, where are they, what are the prizes. A winner comes well-prepared with an attorney, tax accountant, financial advisor, who else knows what.

Groups, often employees, buy tickets together. I like this; there’s better organization and planning this way. More people have a chance to win something. The office football pool is a popular private lottery. You put your money in, if you win, you get everyone’s. I hope there are no expenses.

Do I gamble the state lottery? No, but I do participate in sweepstakes, a private lottery, run by Publishers’ Clearing House. This has gone on for years. There are good prices for popular magazines I sometimes order. Then I’m entered into the sweepstakes. Actually, I don’t have to order anything, just send in the entry. The payouts are quite high. Will I win? Are you kidding? But when I do, I’ve already made big plans on how to spend the money. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

The Lottery Wars: Long Odds, Fast Money, and the Battle Over an American Institution. Matthew Sweeney. Bloomsbury, 2009. 295 pp.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Gambling in America

Gambling, gaming, cards, lotteries, racing – they were an integral part of daily life during America’s Revolution. Frequenting gaming parlors and taverns was considered pleasant entertainment for aristocratic gentlemen. They were sophisticated and good company. Whatever criticism was out there, the general population cast away its doubts and gambled also.

Washington gambled all his life. He did what well-bred gentlemen did. After all, that’s what he wanted to be.

In the years since, public perception has varied widely. Lotteries, for instance, have achieved a certain respectability because they can help fund civic projects. In 1777 our Founding Fathers realized the value of lotteries to try to fund a war for which they essentially had no steady revenue. Lotteries weren’t a tax, which boosted their approval.

Today, most states run a lottery. The pay-off is good, it’s all legal, and it’s very easy to play. How much revenue for the state is generated is never completely clear to me. Schools are supposed to be large beneficiaries.

America is addicted to gambling, on anything, anytime, everywhere. Ominous facts about its effects on society have never made any difference. During our prohibition years, gambling (and alcohol) just went underground.

Washington’s troops carried their playing cards into battle. In lean times, they gambled who would get something to eat, even acorns. Washington, in a fine show of hypocrisy, was so concerned about rampant gambling in the ranks that he sent out orders to try and curtail the excessive wagering.

Gambling became an established part of US history. The Mississippi river boats plied their trade successfully. In the “Old West” every community had its representative gambling parlor, with entertainment, liquor, and probably ladies of easier virtue. Men, when not chasing outlaws, were playing and quarreling over poker. Today, casinos have become a glittering destination for serious card playing, slots, good food and accommodations, and of course, entertainment.

Alexander Hamilton, our new country’s money man, had practical ideas on how to sell lottery tickets. Make the tickets cheap. Concentrate on big pay-offs. And for state lotteries, sell ticket by their borders to entice neighbors.

Gambling was always part of our earlier culture. It helped found the colony of Virginia. There was always great dissent, as noted previously.

Americans were so fond of playing cards that when the Stamp Act (1765) included a tax on playing cards, it aroused fury. Our Declaration of Independence was declared only eleven years later!

Is it a sin, to use that potent term, ruining the very fabric of our society? Well, consider a front page article in the LA Times 10/16/2009, describing how a 97 year old woman and two sons in their sixties live in a ’73 Suburban on the streets. Among the items on the dash: lottery tickets.

Private lotteries – the raffle – are very prevalent today. Generally, they are smaller, entry is much cheaper, prizes are smaller, well, mostly. You buy a fifty cent raffle ticket, win a dozen prize cupcakes, and everyone is happy You betcha! –Renata Breisacher Mulry

Smuggling and the American Revolution

Monday, October 12, 2009

Revolution -- Movie Review

I am very afraid of revolutions.

They are violent, unpredictable, original rebels often end up as strongmen or dictators. Just consider Castro. Or more recently, the strong man of Chechnya, Kadyrov. Usually the evils of a previous regime are substituted with a situation just as bad or worse.

There are great hordes of refugees; many lives are ruined for ever.

Our Revolution produced a huge contemporary upheaval in France, 1789. That started out to bring freedom to the citizens, but what did they get instead? The Reign of Terror.

I don’t think France ever really recovered. In the next century, it lost part of its mainland, Alsace-Lorraine, to the Germans. Sure it got it back, at the end of World War I, but at a terrible price.

Revolutions in the 20th century involved millions; we still live with the effects of those in Russia and China and many others. Often there is a raging civil war which accompanies them. There are smaller revolutions usually focused on a specific group of people. They are designated as rebellions, insurrections, civil unrests, military coups.

Much closer to home, Mexico was riddled with revolution till practically World War II. A civil unrest in Sri Lanka has just concluded after decades. In Spain, Basque separatists still surface periodically to inflict terrorist damages.

Do Revolutions produce anything of value? Probably, very very little. But usually the average revolutionary follower is pretty desperate. There likely is no way to redress glaring problems and injustice. Consider the case of Russia. The last Tsar likely would have gradually adopted a more constitutional monarchy. Nobody was willing to wait for this. Instead, the rebel leaders promised people the moon, prosperity, a new order, freedom. None of this happened.

Then what is the amazing difference between our revolution and others? Most significantly, ours did not produce a dictator. We finished a war, signed a peace treaty, wrote a permanent constitution and concentrated on domestic affairs. Our issues with George III and Great Britain were over. Today, our former adversary is considered our oldest and strongest ally. Where else do you find that?

Revolutions have produced some memorable books and movies. The classic A Tale of Two Cities captures the danger of the French Revolution. The romantic Dr. Zhivago plays at the height of the horrendous Russian Revolution. The Spanish Civil War is the the background for Hemingway’s tragic For Whom the Bell Tolls. Marlon Brando portrays the Mexican Revolutionary Zapata in Viva Zapata.

The American Revolution has produced countless history books and documentaries, but I don’t find that much entertainment. So I wanted to mention that I just finished watching a rather interesting movie, with an unusual history. It was made originally in 1985, but was not well received at the time. Revolution: Revisited has just been remastered, with narration and a new introduction.

Al Pacino plays the lead, a very reluctant common revolutionary foot soldier. It’s not his fight, he states often; he doesn’t understand the burning issues which have mobilized people into revolt. He is press ganged into service, separated from his young son, who was tricked into joining up for a few shillings.

The American forces are ragged, ill-treated. They have nothing. But their cause is noble and patriotic; at least that’s what the recruiters tell them. I thought the plight of the common soldier was well portrayed.

What Pacino wants is to just find his son. His wife and other children perished with “fever”. He is doubly desperate. His sole support, a boat, has been commandeered from him with a worthless US chit. He doesn’t read, which would help him understand official-looking documents. The movie script is not strong or that logical. Pacino does find his son, and now they can plan to escape the bedlam around them. A fiercely patriotic girl, but from a loyalist family, turns up in a few confusing scenes. Confusion in some movie scripts seems to be a hazard for me. Strong regional accents don’t help.

Pacino is never converted to the revolution’s patriotic cause. Oh sure, the end of the movie expresses some inspiring sentiments, but I found them superfluous.

This is one man’s story. However, the end of this movie has a scene which I thought was good and very accurate. Pacino is shortchanged on his military pay. Worse, the 150 acres of land he has been promised are non-existent. The have been speculated away to help pay for the war. So Pacino, at the end, still has nothing. This scene shows well the classic case of a hapless citizen trying to deal with government bureaucracy. You may root for these citizens with all your might, but you know they don’t stand a ghost of a chance.

The musical score by John Corigliano throughout is good.

There are quite a few crowd scenes which seem amateurish. The extras are not well directed. One encouraging thing, though: I liked this movie a lot better the second time around.

My rating: a B-. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

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Saturday, October 3, 2009

What is Our Bill of Rights?

We had another constitutional milestone to commemorate this September.

On September 25, 1789, the 1st U.S. Congress sent twelve constitutional amendments to the states for ratification. This was completed on December 15, 1791. The first ten became our Bill of Rights. The United States had become a nation.

Many outspoken proponents of U.S. independence from Great Britain were fervent anti-Federalists. Patrick Henry was a strong opponent. Good Lord, we had just fought a long and bitter war to secure our independence, and now we should turn around and become again subjects of a powerful central Federal government? We had our Articles of Confederation between the states; people were doing fine. A Federal government would only diminish the power of the states; maybe eventually make them disappear altogether.

However, the formation of a Bill of Rights was supported by many anti-Federalists, including John Hancock. They saw that a recitation of citizens’ rights would serve as a powerful antidote against any central government’s attempt to usurp states’ authority. A Bill of Rights would be our protection against large, corrupt government.

I feel that maybe a lot of deals were struck in state legislatures during the ratification process. The Federalists felt that a Bill of Rights would vastly improve citizens’ confidence in a new government: it didn’t have carte blanche to do whatever it wanted.

Yesterday, I heard the expression “Bill of Rights” on a radio news show. It really caught my ear! If you think about it, we don’t hear the expression all that often. The fact that the first ten amendments are our Bill of Rights may not be recognized all that often either. Also, these amendments are referred to by number, such as the 1st, freedom of speech, the 2nd, right to own weapons, etc.

What concepts do these amendments predominantly contain?
1. No restriction by Congress on free speech, religion, the press, the right to assemble.
2. The right to own weapons.
3. Military can’t be billeted in peoples’ homes, without permission. This was very pertinent at the time of our revolution.
4. No unreasonable search and seizure. This amendment has received a lot of attention because of car searches.
5. No accusation for a crime without a formal indictment. Due process. No double jeopardy. No taking of private property for public use without just compensation. The latter has received a lot of attention. The emphasis is on just.
6. A speedy and public trial. To see witnesses. Counsel for defense. Right to counsel was treated quite casually until the Gideon decision in 1963.
7. Trial by jury.
8. No excessive bail. No cruel or unusual punishment.
9. Certain rights not denied to the people. All the rights not set out by the government.
10. States’ rights.

I have not found the Bill of Rights printed independently from the Constitution in sources I’ve used, except in the classic Miracle at Philadelphia*.

Looking over this list, I’m going to say that the Supreme Court spends a lot of time debating the meaning and limitations of amendments 1, 2, 4, 5, and 10.

All of the amendments have over the years been legally examined, debated, tweaked, and even restricted. It depends on the philosophical make-up of the current court. Many amendments have been added since 1791. Certainly, our 13th amendment outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude would find a place in the Bill of Rights today.

Most of the Bill of Rights is taken more or less for granted by us. This is good, because it shows that the bill is firmly a part of our national structure. A lot of the world doesn’t have a semblance of a Bill of Rights, including no freedom of speech, no free press, no freedom of assembly, no speedy public trial. What a permanent credit to so many individuals at the time of our revolution who saw the Bill of Rights as protection against repressive and corrupt government.

People propose adding new amendments all the time, often for the most partisan of issues. Let’s resist this urge! Amendments should be few and far between. Otherwise, we’ll be forced to double the size of the Supreme Court to figure out what all this new legislation really says. – Renata Breisacher Mulry


*Miracle At Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May - September 1787.Catherine Drinker Bowen. An Atlantic Monthly Press Book, 1966. 346 pp.

Gideon's Trumpet

Retained by the People: The "Silent" Ninth Amendment and the Constitutional Rights Americans Don't Know They Have