Casinos are mostly about losing
By Kurt Rogahn
The people enthused about bringing a casino to Cedar Rapids sure talk a winning game. But everything they promise — the jobs, the money for education, social needs, the arts, and community development and beautification — depends on just one thing: A steady parade of people willing to lose money. Losers, they are. Losers, like my younger brother, Mark, of Oconomowoc, Wis.
To look at Mark, you wouldn’t think him a loser: Maintained a career in sales for years, driving to work in a black Lincoln Continental. Always wore laundered shirts — no wash-and-wear for him. Still, he lived a double life, over many years, with huge appetites on his dark side — first for alcohol, then for drugs, and then, for something else.
While Mark’s wife, Michele, underwent treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the University of Nebraska in summer 2006, he crossed the river to the casino at Council Bluffs. If he regularly visited casinos before then, it’s beyond me. After Michele died that fall, Mark’s casino visits accelerated: Milwaukee, Chicago, Hammond, Ind., and Las Vegas.
To fund his losing over the next three years, Mark drained Michele’s substantial retirement accounts, and then his own. Then, without permission, he tapped the trust fund he and I and our sister had set up for a fourth Rogahn sibling. Mark’s fortunes roller-coastered. He lost his job selling forklifts.
Bank deposit slips indicate substantial winnings, confirmed in notices from the Internal Revenue Service: He saw one in July 2009 demanding nearly $40,000 in back taxes for 2006, but by then the money was gone. He never saw the notice for $69,000 in 2007 taxes, or nearly $85,000 for 2008. Those came to my house, here in Cedar Rapids, after his suicide in April 2010. At his death, Mark was immediate past president of his church, a big mainstream congregation.
Not everyone lives a double life. Not everyone who drinks is alcoholic — though Mark was — and not everyone who visits a casino has a gambling problem. Still, problem gamblers do exist in sufficient numbers that the society in which I grew up confined gambling to Las Vegas and few places else.
Today, we not only forget why that was so, but we have enfeebled our aspirations. We used to build communities by attracting the means to provide jobs and produce goods and services people need. Yet what passes for economic development in the March 5 casino vote depends instead on losers losing big.
To build a casino in Cedar Rapids will make it easier for losers to lose, and that’s what that industry is counting on. In gambling, the odds favor the house. Any charitable contributions are but a fraction of the losers’ losses. We all like nice things for our community, but the benefits are indecent if we rely on indecent means to obtain them.
I’m voting no in March. If I had the power, I wouldn’t vote for any more casinos in Iowa.
I care too much for losers.l Kurt Rogahn, onetime reporter and assistant opinion page editor of The Gazette, is a senior proposal writer for Pearson Education in Iowa City. The views are his own. Comments: Kurt.Rogahn@hotmail.com