Monday, December 14, 2009

Video poker? Not here.

Chicago Tribune article "Video poker? Not here." (December 14th, 2009) submits legalized gambling to an auto-de-fé. The Illinois legislature has passed a law enabling legalized video poker machines. A portion of the revenue generated by these machines is transferred to the state. The Chicago Tribune vociferously objects:

If your county or community is on the first of these two lists, congratulations. Your local officials have "opted out" of legalized video gambling. They have declared their disgust with the Illinois legislature's decision to bankroll a $31 billion capital improvements bill in part by luring more people into neighborhood gambling. These communities have said: Go somewhere else.

If your county or community isn't on the first list, get cracking.

It is a herculean task to describe the foolishness this represents. Six powerful economic arguments for legalizing video gambling abound. First, and foremost, individuals should be free to choose. Second, even if gambling is addictive, individuals still make rational decisions. Third, when utility is concave, even taking unfair bets can be a rational decision. Fourth, if even unfair bets are in the interest of multiple individuals, they will likely provide gambles privately. Fifth, the creation of another good to tax decreases deadweight loss for all other objects, on average. Sixth, if all other districts ban gambling, and a significant number of individuals from other counties are willing to travel to gamble in mine, it is in my interest to provide gambling to other districts.

The first argument, that individuals should be free to choose, should not need explanation. As a matter of conditional probability, the chances that a government has decided to limit an individual's liberties for his own good, and is correct in its conjecture, is miniscule compared to the chance that it is doing so for the narrow, personal incentives of legislators, or that it is incompetent in execution, even if well-meaning.

The second point, that gambling may be addictive but should still be legal, is more interesting. Following the earlier argument in Corrections, there is ample evidence that individuals are rational in their decisions, even about addictive goods.

The third point, that individuals are able to accept even unfair gambles is best depicted graphically below (click to enlarge). If they find themselves at a spot where there is local convexity, expected utility from a gamble is greater than expected utility without that gamble. Our fourth point, related to this, is that if we take away efficient private means of redistributing wealth efficiently, individuals will provide them, under the conditions that they are able to match with one another properly and able to provide bets with sufficiently cheap overhead, which it seems apparent they would be able to do.

We turn to the fifth point: the "creation" of a new, taxed good decreases existing deadweight loss (the amount of possible economic gain that disappears in the face of taxation) on average. This point is a subtle one, an idea that will likely be entertained in more depth in a later article. The idea behind this is the same lessons as one gains from the Ramsey Tax problem: if one can, one wants to tax every good at an equal percentage--given that one cannot, one wishes to tax the most inelastic goods. This new good decreases deadweight loss from all other goods, which all have increasing marginal deadweight loss, while creating its own (which starts at a smaller base for its increasing marginal deadweight loss). Additionally, presuming video poker is as addictive as many detractors would claim, the deadweight loss from taxing it is minimal, and such a tax decreases the deadweight loss for other goods.

Sixth and finally, if all or most other localities have successfully banned gambling in their districts, then it is in one's own localities interest to legalize video poker, provided that a large enough number of individuals from foreign localities put a sufficient amount of their money in local businesses for a locality to recoup whatever moral deracination that occurs from allowing the travesty that is video poker to exist.

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