As post-Katrina reality begins to take shape for the Gulf Coast, I noticed one blurb on the evening news that is exemplary of how little changes made in emergent times might prove to be larger in the long run. In order (I’m sure) to “help the economy” or “get the area back on its feet,” Mississippi passed a resolution that would land their riverboat casinos. It was phrased this way in an article in the Arizona Daily Star: “The rebuilding process got a boost Monday when the state Senate sent Gov. Haley Barbour a bill that would allow the coastal casinos to move short distance onshore, giving them greater stability in future storms.” So, for stability reasons, politicians and the people who elected them were okay with unstable boats so as to be in denial about the fact that they had normalized a vice for money, and the pursuit of pleasure.
For those unfamiliar with the concept of riverboat casinos, here a few of their more silly features. Even though these boats have no real possibility of going anywhere, most cities (my home city of Shreveport, LA being no exception) ask that if gambling is to become a legalized vice that at least the casinos have to be mobile. Usually, a great deal of work has to be done to the rivers where these boats live. Currents have to be reduced to manageable amounts and water levels have to be capped. In other words, pretty much anything that would put a boat in danger of actually behaving like a boat has to change. I’m not going to debate environmental ramifications of such change to rivers, though I wouldn’t deny that they may exist. The boat itself is clearly tied down in a cul-de-sac that keeps the boat at bay and the water from the river actually influencing its movement. If you’re on the boat, you’ll quickly realize there is no need for Dramamine; sea sickness is not a possibility. So it’s not as though these riverboats are out floating on just any section of the river; the river is clearly manipulated to allow for the boat to be there, and certainly to stay for a while.
The obvious question is why don’t cities just allow landed casinos? After all, it makes a mockery of law to allow for such a silly loophole. Anyone with eyes can see how the casinos and the city government simply work together to deny the obvious point: that cities support gambling, and they don’t want it leaving their city anytime soon, even though making the casinos be riverboats may hint that they’re temporary shots to the arm of the economy.
So given the fact that these boats-that-aren’t-really-boats act as land-based casinos, why does it matter that Mississippi has officially allowed their riverboat casinos to land? Call me a fuddy-duddy, but to my mind, this could set a precedent to make gambling a more and more legitimate business in the long run. And it’s not just the gambling, but all that often comes with it, mainly strip clubs and the normalization of pornography. Whereas gambling was once reserved for the Wild West back rooms, it is now salty, but legitimate behavior that goes with having a good time. Whereas strip clubs were once confined to windowless buildings on the outskirts of town, now they are downtown front and center, in bed with politicians who see it as merely a part of redevelopment. In other words, these things which used to be considered vices, have now been normalized to the point where anyone can frequent casinos (and their most common spin-off, strip clubs) as though it were entertainment on par with reading a book or going to the theatre.
And herein lies the beauty of the so-called “riverboats.” Politicians too weak and cowardly to admit what they were getting into bed with, have been able to pretend bravery when they said that they would allow casinos, but only if they were on boats that could easily leave the city should the city change its mind. But the gaudy hotels, city-funded convention centers and downtown renewal projects that inevitably follow make it impossible for these concrete boats to simply float away. In fact, Katrina is about the only thing that had the power to rid of these ridiculous contraptions.
But the unintended consequence of Katrina’s grace is a harder push by politicians to make gambling more permanent and normal. Gone is the small apology politicians used to have to make about gambling. It’s been accepted, even welcome for politicians to make their cities miniature Las Vegas'. As our country becomes more affluent and pleasure-driven, it appears the market for casinos and such legal vices will only increase, and now we don’t even need to live in the myth that they’re temporary.
All of this hides the most practical sin of casinos: the original reason for their being built proves again and again to be a lie. Whereas untouchably noble plans that benefit children and their education are drawn up in the beginning, money is almost uniformly transferred from education budgets to the general fund, so these brave politicians can spend their extra revenue as they see fit. And all of this hides the great myth of our time concerning education, which is that higher education budgets results in better-educated children.