Friday 8 February 2013

Second letter to Hamilton's city council

Dear Mayor,

Your statement in The Spec that gambling already exists is a terribly weak rebuttal to the opponents. Statements like that suggest to people that you haven’t given any thought to defending your claim or refuting the opposing argument. It speaks nothing to the question of whether or not gambling has negative social impacts in Hamilton. Therefore, it doesn’t answer the question “will the casino have a negative social impact?”, it just skirts the issue. Don’t infuriate the opponents by giving unsound arguments and failing to address their concerns. Present a grounded argument and the opponents will listen (most of them anyway).

You told opponents to dial back the emotional debate. From what I can surmise, it’s the proponents who argue baselessly and the opponents who are well-founded! But I’ll present to you my debate, emotionless and supported by evidence and expert opinion. The most powerful evidence are the observations and conclusions from an exhaustive list of studies. It just so happens that such a comprehensive report by Williams, Rehm, and Stevens exists. I doubt that you’ll take the time to read it, but I’ll give you the opportunity anyway (click to download) and provide you with the important conclusion: 

...the overall impact of gambling in a particular jurisdiction in a specific time period can range from small to large, and from strongly positive to strongly negative. That being said, in most jurisdictions, in most time periods, the impacts of gambling tend to be mixed, with a range of mild positive economic impacts offset by a range of mild to moderate negative social impacts. (emphasis theirs)

In other words, a comprehensive analysis of the socioeconomic effects of gambling reveals that investing in gambling is sometimes a good thing and sometimes a bad thing. It's a gamble that typically results in only modest economic benefit that is outweighed by negative social impact. Are you willing to gamble Hamilton’s future on a casino that the evidence says is more likely to fail than succeed?

In light of the fact that most casinos are failures, I urge you to really scrutinize casino proposals. Are the projected numbers deliberately misleading? Are proponents dismissing or downplaying the legitimate concerns of the opponents? 

Expert economists (including Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Samuelson) agree that casinos aren’t good for a local economy unless they attract new tourist dollars. Are you certain that a downtown casino will attract new tourists to Hamilton? What will make people choose Hamilton over Niagara Falls? Or Toronto? Or Las Vegas for that matter? The proponents are failing to make a convincing case that the casino would attract more tourist dollars, and until they do, they will fail to convince anyone with good economic sense that Hamilton should proceed with a casino deal.

The concerns are real, based on real observations of real casinos. Most casinos derive the bulk of their revenue from the existing local economy. 40-60% of gambling revenues come from problem and pathological gamblers. 65-80% of casino revenues come from 10% of casino patrons. These aren’t intangible feelings but are alarming facts that rightly have many people concerned. The rebuttals by proponents are superficial, unfounded arguments which often fail to even address the core issues. Statements like “gambling already exists” and “problem gamblers are a minority of the population”. Yes, gambling exists, but that doesn’t mean a casino couldn’t exacerbate crime rates. Yes, problem gamblers are a minority of the population, but they are a minority that casinos are designed to prey upon. A minority that furnishes the majority of gambling revenues. A minority that is a significant burden on society, including the 30% of the population that doesn’t gamble at all.

When it comes down to it, we know you’re no expert. You must rely on the expertise and judgment of others. But that doesn’t mean you should be naive. A proposal is by people with vested interest in their own financial success, not the needs of the city. You need to really analyze it to see through all the smoke and mirrors. Look beyond the information the proponents feed you. Look to sources that have no compelling reason to be biased one way or the other.

What do the citizens say? A recent poll of 5,402 residents indicates that 56% of Hamiltonians are opposed to a downtown casino.
What do expert economists like Paul Samuelson and Earl Grinols say? They report that gambling is detrimental to socioeconomic progress.
What does the empirical evidence say? Williams et al. have already examined and summarized it all. The evidence says that investment in a casino is a gamble that usually doesn’t pay off.

Do right by your city's citizens. Examine things closely and address their legitimate concerns with a legitimate response.

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