Friday, July 26, 2019

Gas Station Casinos

Do we allow people to exploit other people's weaknesses, or do we let people have the "freedom" to be exploited?

In the West, particularly in Montana, you see a lot of "casinos" all over the place.  A local gas station advertises itself as a "casino" by dint of having a few slot machines.   While in the rest of the USA you have to drive a half-hour at least to get to an Indian reservation casino or a riverboat casino, out West, they are everywhere.   And when I was a kid, there were none, outside of Las Vegas.

Back in the day, we had laws in place to prevent people from exploiting themselves.   You could not borrow money - legally - at usurious rates.  You could not "play the numbers" - legally.   You could not hire a prostitute or buy drugs - legally.   And at one time, in our county, you could not even buy booze, legally.

It seems there are two opposing forces at work here.  The first is the more puritan, which posits that temptations should not be offered to the masses, because they might take them - and they do.   So this first group of people tries to outlaw drugs, alcohol, prostitution, gambling, and whatever else we squander our money and lives on.   These are the same folks who decry violent video games (which as we know, never, ever, ever lead to actual violence, such as is going on in Canada right now, a few hundred miles North of me).    They also decry the decline in "decency" and "moral standards" and argue that explicit lyrics, lewd movies and television shows, swear words, and whatnot, have a corrosive effect on our society.

And of course, they are right about all of this.   The world would be a better place if no one got drunk, did drugs, exploited prostitutes, gambled their money away, spent hours playing violent video games, listened to misogynistic rap music lyrics or watched television shows with no moral compass.  Everyone would be happier, although the world would be a bit boring - sort of like Salt Lake City on steroids.

But of course, that is a fantasy world - it doesn't exist, it never could exist, and it never did exist, despite all the cries about "returning to the good old days!"    As we learned in economics 101, when you make something illegal, you don't eliminate it from the stream of commerce, you just drive it underground and raise the misery level as well as the price of the item in question.   So when you make prostitution illegal, women end up trafficked.  When you make drugs illegal - and the penalties so stiff they exceed those for murder - people kill each other over drugs.   When you make alcohol illegal, you enrich the mafia for decades to come.   When you make gambling illegal, it just goes underground, where again, the mafia takes control and makes a wild profit.

This is not to say we should give up and stop trying to control these things.   Well, the second group of people in the US do think this.  Some are "libertarians" who believe that everyone should be allowed to "do their own thing" even if it means they ruin themselves and sometimes others.   And others believe that they should be allowed to exploit other peoples' weaknesses without interference from puritans or the government.   If you can create an addictive "thing" - whether it is a drug, a gambling game, a form of sex, or some sort of cell phone app - and then get people to obsessively use it, you can make a lot of money.   And if you can get people to gamble their lives away or borrow money at onerous interest rates, you can make a real fortune.

And the latter is where we are today.   In addition to casinos, the governments of every State, it seems, have multiple lottery games, effectively putting the "numbers running" of the mafia out of business.   You can gamble your life away, you can buy legal pot, you can sign loan documents that have insane terms (for worthless merchandise or educations) and basically ruin your life.  Just don't smoke while you are doing it.  You are "free" to do everything else, however.   We live in a libertarian paradise - and yet so many today say they are fettered by unnecessary government interference.  I just don't see it.

Which side is right, and which side is wrong?   You decide.   Because the upshot is, even in the "good old days" before dirty words on television and casinos on every corner, you could still ruin yourself if you really wanted to.  Today, it is just a lot easier to do, and I doubt conditions will change radically in the short-term.

So, it is up to the consumer to protect themselves.   Consumer protection agencies are a fine thing and all, but the people who make so much money from payday loans are not going to go quietly into the night.   It is up to YOU to not sign $100,000 student loans or even $300 payday loans.  It is up to YOU not to lease a car or buy a motorhome on a 20-year loan.  It is up to YOU to drive past the casino instead of stopping in for the steamship round buffet and "just a little" gambling.   It is up to YOU to say "No" to meth, cocaine, opiates and whatever else can ruin your life.

I wish it were different, but human nature being what it is, there will always be the exploiters and the exploited, no matter what form of government is in power, no matter what party rules the government, no matter who sits in the White House or in Windsor Castle or the Kremlin or wherever your local ruler resides.   You do have choices in life, and they are the most important things you do have.   Yet so many people claim to be helpless and victims of external forces.

Take, for example, a recent article about flood insurance.   Since I don't have a mortgage, I am not required to have flood insurance.   I have it anyway.   For $900 a year, it insures $250,000 or more of reconstruction costs.   Recently, we were re-zoned by FEMA and our cost went down to $450 a year, which I think is insane - we should be paying far more!   Of course, I still have a policy, even though FEMA is saying the risk of flooding is even less.

In the article cited above, the authors posit that people who were flooded in the recent hurricane are "victims" of FEMA, because FEMA zoned them as "X" zone, meaning there was a low risk of flooding and mortgage companies would not require flood insurance.   This did not mean the homeowners could not buy flood insurance, and in fact, it would mean their premiums would be ridiculously low for the risk involved.   But since their banks weren't forcing them to buy it, few did, and now they are flooded out.   It's all FEMA's fault, right?

It would be like if the finance company said you didn't need collision insurance on your car, so you didn't buy it.  You wreck your car, and now you are out a lot of money.   Obviously, this is the finance company's fault for not telling you what to do!   Or is it?   Somewhere along the line, people have to step up and take responsibility.   And if you are in zone "X" of FEMA, the cost of flood insurance would be a couple-hundred dollars a year, if that.   So whose fault is it that people don't buy it?

Again, you decide.  But the reality is, if you make bad decisions life, they often lead to bad outcomes.  You can blame the casino for taking your money.  You can blame FEMA for not "forcing" you to insure yourself.   You can blame the drug dealer for selling you meth, the pill-mill doctor for prescribing Oxycontin for a foot injury, the banks for loaning you money for student loans.   Somewhere along the way, however, you took an affirmative action, or failed to act in your own best interest, and thus let these things happen.   Maybe you were susceptible, maybe you were ignorant.  Maybe.

All I know is this:  Gas station casinos are not going away, nor are marijuana dispensaries, the local liquor store, the payday loan place, or the girl on the corner in fishnet stockings.   You can blame others if you ruin yourself (or your family or others) with temptation.   Or you can take action in your life.

There really is only one choice.