Pokies

The prospect of gambling brings to mind the glittering lights of Las Vegas, but its real home is a dingy RSL club in Western Sydney. Here, countless desperate folks see their only chance at escape within the tawdry reels of what is euphemistically called ‘gaming’. These dens of inequity ensnare the poor, the uneducated and pensioners with little to live for but the promise of riches through feedback specifically designed to trick players into taking just one more spin. Loyalty programs turn saps into VIPs and give them a free spin every visit to re-engage those gambling faculties and maintain the addiction cycle. Australia leads the world in gambling spend per person, thanks to these obiquitous poker machines. We spend $1,273 per adult each year on gambling in this country. More than half of this expenditure is taken up by the particularly loathsome category of poker machines.

 

Australia has the second highest number of poker machines in the world, 195,631 at last count which places us second only to the USA (but with a much higher number per capita). This makes one poker machine for every 95 adults. Of those machines, nearly half are in New South Wales, which records an abominable machine per 65 people. Consequently, the average New South Welsh adult loses $1,580 per year gambling(roughly 2/3 of that on the pokies), or about $30 every week. We lose $23.7B each year on a turnover of $204B to the gambling industry. To put these numbers in perspective, the agriculture industry earned profits before tax, depreciation, etc of $21.1B last year, while the construction industry earned $43.2B.

 

What these statistics conceal however is that not all of us gamble. The HILDA survey found that 8.1% of Australians play poker machines once or more a month. So neglecting the (likely only small) losses of irregular players, each poker machine player loses $8,023 a year on the pokies alone. Eight thousand bucks per person per year, so more than the average household spends on electricity, gas, clothing, footwear and telecommunications combined! Losses per player are likely higher within NSW alone, but HILDA doesn’t break down participation to state levels. Even worse, the HILDA survey asked gamblers how much they thought they spent on a monthly basis. Pokie players underreported their losses by a factor of six compared with the industry data, demonstrating how the tricks of the machines cause addicts to lose track of their spending.

 

HILDA does break down demographics, so we can see who these players are. Poker machine gamblers are disproportionately poorer, less educated, more likely to be indigenous, of lower socio-economic status, older and more likely to be on government assistance than the general population. So those who are compelled to throw their money away are also those who can least afford it. Pokies steal from the poor addicts and give to the rich owners of these suburban casinos, who are commonly professional sporting teams. This isn’t just a moral issue, but also one of social justice.

 

How have we got to the point where pokie addicts each sacrifice eight thousand dollars every year to these one armed bandits? Governments are well aware of the clear and present harm which they are doing to the community, with multiple studies undertaken and maverick NXT leader Nick Xenophon starting his career as a ‘No Pokies Independent‘. One major problem is that state governments have themselves become addicted to the taxes pokies bring in. Government revenue from gambling comes to $6B across the country, making up around 8% of taxation taken in by the governments of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania and 12% in the NT. Both major parties have also been given hefty donations from hotels and clubs, with $6.6M donated to Labor and $4.4M to the Liberal and National parties since 1998. This includes $3M just from Clubs NSW (split $1.2M to Labor and $1.8M to the LNP), the statewide representative group for the clubs which hold most of these machines. So there is quite an incentive to maintain the status quo.

 

Is it any wonder that the government’s committment to problem gamblers focuses entirely on overseas online sports betting, which accounts for only a small sliver of the gambling pie? Or that the most recent Productivity Commission report into gambling found that “people‚Äôs willingness to pay for gambling over alternative products reveals their underlying preferences” rather than addiction and so “gambling provides significant enjoyment for many Australians”, in a classic case of the economist’s ignorance of reality? Both governments and the parties who run them have been entirely captured by this callous industry which sells an illusion of glamour coating an exploitative core.

The Russia Excuse

The election of Donald Trump was the rebel yell of the forgotten seeking an alternative to the neoliberal status quo. Any alternative. He not only smashed the overton window, campaigning on policies which were outside the narrow acceptable margins, but his manner was also entirely outside the established norms. For a press which is more used to challenging politicians on procedural rather than policy grounds, these mannerisms were particularly offensive. Democratic pundits and pollsters refused to believe that such a man could win. When faced with the choice between four more years of status quo neoliberalism and a loose cannon promising to drain the swamp, the disenfranchised masses opted for the Trump, hoping for a wrecking ball.

 

The liberal press and democratic establishment still refused to believe it. An odious man who refused to hide his racism and sexism behind any of the obligatory smokescreens could not beat their golden girl, the pre-ordained first woman president. In the world of Red Brand versus Blue Brand, each occupying the sensible centre with a different sales pitch, such a result was unthinkable. So they rejected reality and substituted their own.

 

The conservative right understood that politics was a class war rather than a beauty pageant, as demonstrated by the rise of the Tea Party. The liberal media and political establishment instead had so thoroughly oriented themselves towards the market that even elections were understood as a marketplace of ideas, one where facts and reasonableness would outshine emotional appeals. Educated coastal elites saw Trump’s statements fact-checked and the charlatanry at the core of his being digested by the media. But desperate folks in the rust belt left behind by neoliberalism only saw a successful man promising that he alone could fix their problems. Whatever his faults, he offered the strugglers something different, the chance of something better. With the status quo offering only continued despair, these folks grabbed onto the only life-raft they were offered.

 

If America was already great, as the Clinton campaign asserted, then there would be no reason for these folks to make such a desperate choice. With Democrats having controlled the presidency for 16 of the past 24 years, the degredation of the rust belt couldn’t be palmed off as the fault of the conservatives. It was the direct result of neoliberalism; of the third way policies which liberals had espoused. Their governance, supposedly from the left, had driven the poor to such desperation that they were willing to burn it down and start again. This was understandably hard for the liberal establishment to accept.

 

But what if the people didn’t really vote for Trump? Then the illusion could be maintained, the crippling effects of neoliberalism on communities could be ignored again. America was already great so the electoral college couldn’t be blamed, nor the other absurdities of the voting system (Tuesday elections, first past the post, etc). The problem had to be international. ‘Fake News’ provided an initial suggestion – scammers from Macedonia were duping Americans with misinformation. But between the adoption of the term by Trump against those who criticised him and the generally dreadful quality of the US media, this couldn’t be sustained.

 

Who had they been trained from birth to fear? The Soviet Union. Nothing riles up Americans like a good old fashioned red scare. Despite the absence of anything remotely socialist in modern Russia (thanks in part to US support for Yeltsin selling off the state to his oligarchic mates), Putin’s KGB history provided enough connection to tap into a fear which has been built at a cultural level. So the spectre of Russian hacking was invoked, which went down a treat with the public. Throw in any past connections between Trump and Russia to demonstrate this, and you’ve got a media show which can go on for months. America is already great, our neoliberal policies are fine, but our nefarious enemies will do anything to stop us.

 

Updates on the Mueller investigation are given pride of place daily in the American media, with much of the remaining space for politics taken up with disgust at Trump’s Twitter feed for breaking political norms. This has effectively crowded out discussion of what the regime is actually doing, which is mostly the very same neoliberalism the Democrats support. The Trump administration sells weapons to Saudi Arabia to use in their war on Yemen. So did Obama. Trump gave a massive tax cut to business. Obama cut tax on business too. By moving the focus to Russian interference, the liberal and media establishment can avoid discussing the failures of neoliberalism which Trump continues to perpetuate. By avoiding policy, they starve the oxygen from other challenges to the status quo. Massive corporate donations to the Democrats would be lost without support for neoliberalism, while the media is increasingly owned by oligarchs who favour business interests.

 

Russia probably did try to influence the election. Anything which shows democracy as chaotic supports Putin’s autocratic rule at home, and a reality TV star as US President certainly fits in that category (as does Brexit). But to suppose that this is a calamitous injustice as the extent of coverage suggests is to be willfully ignorant of recent history. The Soviet Union didn’t just post fake tweets, it actively ran political parties promoting its interests overseas. But while the Soviet/Russian state interfered in 36 foreign elections between the end of World War 2 and 2000, one other country managed more than double that number, with 81. That other country? The United States of America.

 

US interference in the affairs of other nations goes far beyond just intervening in elections to support their interests. The American state apparatus has supported coup after coup, from Iran to Guatemala, Chile to Grenada and across the world. For the US establishment to suddenly consider Russian email hacking to be beyond the pale shows either complete ignorance or breathtaking hypocrisy. But when their media has continually downplayed the extent of US involvement in these actions, one can understand the American public playing along. The conflation of freedom and free markets has propagandised these folks to believe the US is the capital of democracy rather than of the unrepentent capitalism which has driven 13% of their population into poverty. So they swallow the line and wait with baited breath for each update on the Mueller investigation, hoping that this leak will be the one which sinks Trump. Then democracy and civility will be restored, as a less vulgar Republican continues with the policies which drive the shrinking middle class into destitution.

What is Knowledge Good For?

I seek to read and learn widely, building an understanding across a wide range of areas in order to understand the world I live in. If you’re willing to trawl the internet widely enough to find this blog, then that probably applies to you as well. But what good does all this knowledge do us? Does understanding the dynamics of society improve our lives if we lack the power to change them? Is the ignorant worker-drone who spends his leisure time with mindless entertainment more at peace and happier than one who understands his problems yet cannot solve them?

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The Unexamined Lives

We are all free to choose our own purpose, our own values and to make our lives our own projects. In a world without godly codes, everything is permitted and it is up to us both as individuals and as members of the greater mankind to decide what is good and just. Our own choices and actions demonstrate what we see as good, and our society’s conception of ‘good’ is the sum of our individual choices. So far, so Jean-Paul Sartre. But most of the folks who make up our society don’t ever actually consider their values or examine their lives the way a bourgeois philosopher might. How many amongst us have ever really considered the meaning of their lives beyond simple surface level goals?

 

For most of us, our values aren’t defined by a heady contemplation of ethics – we muddle along and try to make the best of the limited information which is readily available. At best, our ethics are informed by looking at parents and role models, at worst by simple osmosis from the society in which we are immersed and only in the case of rare individuals through active contemplation. So if, as Sartre asserts, “everything happens to every man as if the entire human race was staring at him and measuring itself by what he does”, what happens when the bulk of people are not actively choosing, but merely being swept along in their unexamined lives?

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