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JOEL STEIN

That's a losing hand

Banning online gambling is a fool's wager, not to mention it just won't work.

October 24, 2006|JOEL STEIN

I DON'T GAMBLE ONLINE. I've seen too many of my friends get so addicted to poker that they've got no time left for Internet porn. And I'm not going to let that happen to me.

But I didn't expect Congress to pass the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, treating people who spend all day at partypoker.com like criminals. Maybe I'm a traditionalist, but I think of criminals as people who I can't beat up and who do math slower than I do.

It breaks my heart when the greed our nation is famous for gets trumped by the religious posturing we were founded on. It's a horrible conundrum. Either we give up the tax receipts on the $6 billion that Americans spend gambling online, or we let people do whatever they want with their own money. It's like making Poland choose between scowling and yelling.

So we've decided to forfeit all that income -- almost enough to let us invade a very small Middle Eastern country, or at least an emirate -- to foreign governments. Within 10 years, all the world's great bridges to nowhere will be on the Isle of Man.

It's kind of sweet that our government wants to protect us from ourselves. It's like it loves us. It has made it clear that it wants us to stay away from drugs, gambling, prostitutes and Janet Jackson, all of which it is right about.

And I recognize that the Internet is a particular danger because it makes sin too easy. How can our economy grow when the machine you work on all day also lets you gamble, buy OxyContin and watch porn? If moving your factory lever up built a car engine, and moving it down let you see Little Egypt dance the hootchy-kootchy, we'd be driving like Fred Flintstone.

There's a great sense of American optimism in all this lawmaking. Sure, prohibition didn't work, and the drug laws have no effect, but, darn it, we really believe that we're going to stop the 23 million Americans who waste their money gambling online. The cutest part is that Congress doesn't see the irony in telling people not to waste their money.

But, of course, capitalism always sneaks its way into morality. Because of strong lobbies, the new law makes an exception, allowing websites for lotteries and horse racing. Because, as anyone who's been to a 7-Eleven or an OTB place knows, it's online poker that sets back the poor. Imagine the economic success Appalachia would be if not for PlayBaccarat.com.

At a time when giving up free tax revenue seems particularly insane, the Senate was smart enough to bury the new law in a bill aimed at enhancing port security. Senators didn't see the irony of linking legislation that takes away some of our freedoms with legislation about protecting our remaining freedoms from terrorist attack.

Legislating vice never works, mostly because vice is a lot of fun. The laws wind up being weakened by so many inconsistencies -- you can gamble on a boat permanently docked a few feet off the riverbank as long as it pretends to sail every 15 minutes; you can drink in public as long as it's covered by a brown bag; you can't clone stem cells but you can clone Kelly LeBrock -- they make us lose respect for the law in general.

So, as more people gamble online, the government will eventually have to find a way to back down without looking stupid. The obvious solution is to borrow the Indian casino reparations idea and allow gambling sites to be run by released Guantanamo Bay prisoners. Not only would the profits erase any bad feelings, the former detainees would be great at running poker sites. After all, four years of water-boarding is the perfect training for having to listen to endless stories about bad beats.

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jstein@latimescolumnists.com

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