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To Gamble, for Better or for Worse

Photo © antoinemonat

I have a vivid memory of walking through a big casino to a room where a meeting was being held and feeling a deep sadness. Hundreds of solitary people were each sitting silently at a machine, pushing buttons and pulling levers, parting with dollar after dollar, hoping to make the big lucky win. It confirmed what I had always believed—that gambling had no redeeming value, and we Quakers were right to take a stand against it.

While I stand by my assessment of that particular manifestation of gambling, I am coming to believe that there is considerably more nuance to the story. What, at its core, is a gamble? If we step outside of the common betting‐on‐money frame, a rich variety of quite different examples come to mind.

Farmers gamble on the weather, making decisions about what to plant and when. High school students gamble on their future, hoping that the job or college they choose will put them on the path to the life they want. Entrepreneurs gamble that their product or service will attract enough customers to pay off. Those contemplating marriage gamble on their choice of a life partner. Immigrants gamble that life will be better for them in a new country.

In all of these cases, we are risking the known present for an unknown future, acting in the face of incomplete knowledge, with the hope that something will be better as a result. It could even be said that we gamble on a choice to live by our faith values. When we “stake our lives” on a belief or way of being, with no hedging of our bets, we are making perhaps the biggest gamble of all.

There is something very human here, as we make choices in the face of the unknown, then do all that we can to help the desired result along. If a gamble aligns with our values and calls out the best in us as it strengthens our connections, why not go for it with all the vision and courage we can muster? Perhaps we Quakers should be encouraging each other to gamble more—to take bigger risks on the basis of what we believe and want for ourselves and our world.

 

If a gamble aligns with our values and calls out the best in us as it strengthens our connections, why not go for it with all the vision and courage we can muster?

To discern if a gamble is rightly ordered, these may be the deciders: Does it involve our whole selves? Is what we’re risking ours to lose? Have we put our own honest effort into the gain? Within this frame, the decisions of those sad figures in the casino come into clearer focus. Throwing away good hours—and likely scarce resources—in a lonely pursuit of luck pales in contrast to that rich risk‐taking that calls for all that we have, in relation to all that we love.

It’s easy to point accusatory fingers at the gamblers and the casinos that profit from them. But if we widen our lens, we see that we are all enmeshed in a much bigger and more dangerous casino—our very financial system.

Not every part of this system is a casino.
Credit unions function as borrowing and lending pools. A community bank is rarely a gambling operation. Bank staff put in time and effort to know their community, know their customers, work with them to gather the resources to increase individual and community value. Honest work goes into the increase, on the part of both the borrower and the banker.

But the broker who takes other people’s money and bets on where it might get the highest return is surely a gambler. Those who bundle subprime mortgages into opaque financial products; who bet on whether some group of assets will increase or decrease in value; who wager on currency fluctuations, raking in millions over fraction‐of‐a‐second deals, are gamblers of the highest order.

 

If gambling with integrity involves putting honest work into the gain, we have to face the reality that there’s no honest work involved in accruing interest.

Perhaps the biggest sin is that this is where the greatest profit is to be made in our economy these days. I continue to be haunted by the lament of one of the founders of Odwalla over the shift in emphasis in their company from “making juice to making money.” Wall Street can make more money in buying up Main Street companies, bleeding them dry, abandoning them (and their towns), and moving on, than in producing real goods.

It is sobering to acknowledge how deeply entangled we are in this casino, despite our best efforts to make ethical money decisions. We can avoid associating with some of the worst players. But if gambling with integrity involves putting honest work into the gain, we have to face the reality that there’s no honest work involved in accruing interest. It comes to us only because we had the means to invest. Not only that, but it plays a key role in our society’s steady march toward greater inequality, where receivers of interest gain and debtors who have to pay interest fall behind.

What a puzzle! Our fears may hold us back from potentially life‐giving gambles, while our best efforts to make choices of integrity in the financial markets can’t shield us from a gambling role that we abhor.

Photo © Jean Beaufort (publicdomainpictures​.net)

 

We did not choose a system that requires us to save individually for big life events, like our children’s education and our own retirement. We did not choose the critical role that endowments play in the financial health of many of our beloved Quaker institutions. It can be tempting to take the position that we’re helpless in the face of forces beyond our control, but I see two possible pathways forward.

First, in response to the reality that, without attention to justice, interest will accrue to the haves at the expense of the have‐nots, we can choose investments with an explicit focus on addressing injustice. This is more than applying negative screens to avoid “bads,” like weapons (or gambling!). It is even more than applying positive screens to favor “goods,” like renewable energy. It’s about looking for funds that invest actively in disinvested groups and communities. The good news is that more and more of these opportunities are becoming available. We just have to search—and be content with somewhat lower returns.

The second is to join the conversation about transitioning to an economy that doesn’t depend on gambling. This conversation requires imagination—a critical ingredient in change—but we can also build on what we know. The source of our Social Security checks is the income of current workers. The free college education of young people in the Nordic countries comes from taxes. There’s plenty of money in our country to pay for adequate education and retirement. The lack of attention to just distribution over the past 50 years, however, has skewed it all to the top, where it seeks to maximize profit in areas such as housing speculation, military contracts, and big pharma, as well as straight‐out gambling on the financial markets—all of which diminish the well‐being of the rest of us.

If workers were making a decent wage, if the wealthy were taxed at the rate they were in the Eisenhower era (91 percent on income over $250,000—or about $2.3 million today), and if the military budget were cut, our Social Security system could be strengthened, hundreds of billions of dollars could be freed up to meet our basic needs, and we wouldn’t have to face the moral dilemmas of gambling on the stock market.

 

Gambling, I am discovering, is a many‐layered phenomenon, encompassing both our best and our worst selves

In an even bigger stretch of the imagination, we could talk about different ways of creating money altogether. Instead of private banks bringing it into existence when they make loans (which have to be paid back with interest), the government could create money by spending it directly into the economy, as was done with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation during World War II. Or we could talk about state‐ or city‐owned public banks, like the 100‐year‐old Bank of North Dakota, which can keep public funds at home to re‐lend at lower interest rates to meet real needs, rather than sending them off to the big‐bank casinos.

Gambling, I am discovering, is a many‐layered phenomenon, encompassing both our best and our worst selves: the life‐affirming challenge to stake our lives on our deepest values; the small‐time, soul‐destroying pursuit of easy money; our ethically focused and socially sanctioned investment gambles on our future security; and the big‐time, stacked‐deck, high‐flyer gambling of our country’s big financial casino. We are faced with the prospect of threading our way through this thicket with all the compassion, imagination, discernment, and courage we can muster—a fitting challenge for Friends.

Pamela Haines, a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, carries a long-standing concern to invite Quakers into conversation around economics. Her most recent book, Money and Soul, is an expansion of a Pendle Hill pamphlet by the same name.

Posted in: Features, Gambling

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