Senator's Position Prompts Tough Question: Are You a Snob If You Oppose Casinos?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

In announcing his opposition last week to the hottest piece of legislation on Beacon Hill, the bill that would license three casinos and one parlor for slot machines, Dan Wolf presented an interesting scenario to all the parents and grandparents of Massachusetts.

"One day the phone will ring, and it will be one of our children, or grandchildren, calling with the great news -- they've found a job and will be starting work in a few days," the rookie state senator from Cape Cod and the Islands wrote in an op-ed piece published in one of his local newspapers. "We'll share their excitement and wonder what, of all possible things, they'll be doing. Providing health care? Building a school? Planting quahogs? Teaching kindergarten? Driving a bus? Writing computer software? Installing solar panels?

"Of course we'll be encouraging no matter what, but if the answer comes back that they'll be working in a casino, who among us would be quite as proud? And who will celebrate that legacy, which now belongs to us?"

In that same piece, Wolf noted, "Our economy has always been about education, innovation, health care, financial services and creative entrepreneurs. Our tourism industry has always attracted visitors from around the world because of our environment, culture and history."

With those who argue that casinos and slots are the "best way, only way, or right way for Massachusetts to create work -- or that those who oppose casinos somehow don't understand that we need jobs and need them now," Wolf said he "respectfully disagrees."

" doubt some jobs will be created -- solid, short-term construction jobs at the outset, then generally low-wage, longer-term jobs staffing casinos and related resorts," allowed Wolf, who co-founded Cape Air, perhaps the most successful regional airline in the U.S., and has been a leading voice of the business community on Cape Cod for more than two decades.

I'm inclined to agree with Wolf, but there are many folks following the casino debate today who say the case he espouses -- that we can and should be stimulating our economy in better ways, that we should be creating a higher-class of jobs -- borders on snobbery.

When I tried the Wolf argument on a co-worker, Walter, the other day, while shamelessly presenting it as my own, he responded as if I had suddenly addressed him in a voice like Prince Charles's.

"You're being a snob!" he said. "Who are you to tell someone the job he's doing is beneath him? Who are you to dismiss a job, any job, as low-class when you have a nice job for yourself?"

He's right in a way. If today you don't have a job, if you and your family are suffering the consequences of joblessness, and tomorrow someone offers you a job in a casino, tomorrow is going to be one of the best days of your life. If your family is cooking pancakes for supper and a constable is going to boot you from your foreclosed home tomorrow, a discussion on the finer points of job creation in the "innovation economy" could not be more beside the point.

Even though I wear a monocle, I don't think Walter really believes I'm a snob. He just wanted to put me on the defensive and put himself on a high-ground position. (He can't help it, he's a lawyer.) It's all about positioning these days, positioning and timing...and timing is certainly working in favor of the gambling conglomerates eager to enter the virgin Massachusetts market.

Back in the 1990s, when the economy was booming here and across the nation, it's hard to imagine casinos and slots getting the attention on Beacon Hill they've been getting the past two or three years. As Governor Deval Patrick and legislative leaders have observed, casino legislation tends "to suck all the oxygen out of the room," making other issues seem less important and consuming huge blocks of the legislative calendar.

There's a lot at stake in the upcoming competition for casino licenses. Reportedly, the gambling industry has sized up Massachusetts as another Pennsylvania, where casinos became a $2 billion per year industry within a few years of legalization. Estimates of the number of permanent jobs that would be created by three casinos and one slot parlor in Massachusetts range as high as 20,000 and as low as 7,000.

Someday we may look back and wonder why we didn't spend as much time in 2010-11 considering novel ways to promote our economy in the areas where it has been traditionally strong, like the ones identified by Senator Wolf, as we did on enabling a new form of legalized gambling.

Or maybe the sound of all those slot machines and of those Las Vegas-style shows at our resort casinos will forever drown out those who are saying we can stimulate our economy in other ways -- voices like that of University of Massachusetts President Robert L. Caret.

Commenting on a recent UMass analysis of increasing income and wealth disparities in the Bay State, Caret said, "Increasing education attainment and spreading the opportunity to benefit from the Bay State's global leadership in the innovation economy to our working families and communities outside Greater Boston will be critical to reversing these trends (toward greater disparities). The future economic and social health of the Commonwealth is dependent on that outcome."

If that's a snobbish message, I'll eat my monocle.

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