Industries rise and fall, as do nations. Successful capitalism requires decline as well as creation. All this carries cost, as real people sometimes are lost in all the stopping and starting, the ending and renewal. But it seems that very dynamism and freedom to change is what allows economies to grow. Steel gives way to computer software, railroads take a back seat and Internet commerce is born. And so on.
Few, for instance, would have a couple of decades back imagined the significant role legal gambling now plays in our economy. The industry likes to talk about gaming, not gambling, and Las Vegas bills itself as a fun destination for the whole family. Come on, bring the kids along. And for a lot of people all of it's true. Legalized gambling offers a distraction, entertainment, a night of excitement, whether it involves a trip to a casino, a bingo hall or even the exploration of the still-developing world of cyberspace gambling. But as New York Times reporter Timothy L. O'Brien ably demonstrates in his wide-ranging survey of a growth industry, gambling is still different. It depends upon and profits from the ineffable longing people have to change their lives in an instant, as if they were rubbing a magic lantern. Amid all the competing data and studies introduced by casino gambling's critics and proponents is the fact that gambling can be an enormously destructive force in many communities and in many lives. O'Brien's book, due in October, is Bad Bet: The Inside Story of the Glamour, Glitz and Danger of America's Gambling Industry. The author starts with a description of gambling's newest frontier: the Internet. The legality of U.S.-based gambling cyberspace sites hasn't yet arrived, but there already are sites with offshore homes. Like much commerce in cyberspace, gambling is in its infancy, perhaps not even that far along. But consider the potential: relatively anonymous gambling without ever having to leave the glow of your personal computer. Until your credit card limit is hit, of course. If Internet gambling ever becomes widespread, it has huge implications for American society.
From there, Mr. O'Brien takes us on tours of Las Vegas, Atlantic City, the horse racetracks of Kentucky and Wall Street, among other venues. (It's to the author's credit that he acknowledges that some of the activity on what is generically called Wall Street namely, securities investing can bear a striking resemblance to gambling, regardless of socially acceptable defenses about capital formation for growing businesses.) Whatever the locale, Mr. O'Brien provides interesting historical context as well as present-day reality. His traditional reporting is interspersed with first-person life stories from some whose lives have been overtaken by gambling. After detailing the pluses and minuses of legal gambling in Atlantic City, once seen as a way to rejuvenate a depressed city, Mr. O'Brien concludes: But twenty years into its waltz with gambling, Atlantic City is still a dour, troubled town. He chronicles the rise of state-inspired gambling (lotteries) and details the decline of gambling at the racetrack, that erstwhile sport of kings. The problem with the track, in essence, is that things move too slowly. Today's gamblers can find a lot more action at a slot machine. Mr. O'Brien has produced a well-researched and cleanly written guide to a big business that still leaves many Americans ambivalent. That may always be the case. The reporting is strong, but the book would have benefited from a bit more analysis and point of view based on the plethora of facts.
The growth of gambling is one example of our increasingly post-industrial economy. Sure, someone has to build slot machines and card tables, but gambling is at least a kindred spirit to that increasing number of economic sectors where no one actually produces anything.
Neal Lipschutz is managing editor of Dow Jones News Service.