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Daily Journal

Flashback: New Year of Ridicule

Jan. 4th, 2010
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After reading News & Observer reporter Ben Niolet’s excellent piece on the pathetic lot who make up North Carolina’s chronic lottery players, I felt motivated to lavish ridicule on all those state politicians who voted for the lottery and profess to care about such issues as poverty and government corruption.

But after writing a couple of paragraphs, I realized that I’d already said pretty much the same thing, in a column first published two years ago. I also realized I couldn’t do it any better a second time. So here’s the original.

RALEIGH – While traveling back to Raleigh recently from a family cook-out in Mint Hill, my kids and I stopped at a convenience store in the Montgomery County town of Troy for gas and soft drinks. At 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, there was a gaggle of bedraggled, middle-aged men standing at the counter buying and pathetically scratching North Carolina lottery tickets.

I was disgusted. And angry.

Disgusted that North Carolina politicians had chosen to take advantage of these desperate and deluded lottery players, and thousands like them across the state, to finance more government spending, much of it benefiting higher-income households.

Angry that because the “Education Lottery” is a state enterprise, not just the creation of some amoral flim-flam man, I had to explain to my boys that what the men were doing was unwise and self-destructive but officially encouraged by North Carolina’s elected government leaders. I can’t blame the boys for being confused. They’ve never entertained the idea that adults in positions of authority might urge people to be foolish or sinful.

I have decided to focus my disgust and anger in the following way: I will no longer take seriously any claim about tax fairness, poverty, or honest government from politicians who supported the state lottery.

When these politicians complain that North Carolina’s current tax system is regressive, I will answer that in supporting the lottery they voted for one of the most regressive choices on the government-revenue menu. Indeed, most of these lawmakers have also voted for increases in sales and excise taxes, which range from mildly to steeply regressive. Judging by their actions, it’s clear that they don’t really care about tax fairness. They care about getting more money to spend, period.

When these politicians complain about poverty in North Carolina, I will answer that most chronic poverty today derives not from the structure of the economy or the vagaries of climate, disease, and luck, but instead from unfortunate choices that individuals make when they are young and inexperienced – choices such as dropping out of school, having children out of wedlock, and experimenting with drugs and alcohol. One of the most-destructive elements of the behavioral-poverty syndrome is gambling. These politicians voted not just to permit gambling but to promote it actively, using state resources and personnel. They have set a horrible example. They’ve increased the likelihood of poor choices leading to poor economic conditions.

When these politicians complain that the misdeeds of a few politicians, such as former House Speaker Jim Black and former state Sen. Frank Ballance, have unfairly cast an ethical shadow on North Carolina government as a whole, I will snort and then answer that there is, indeed, a shadow. It’s called the “North Carolina Education Lottery.” Corruption abounded when the bill was initially introduced and lobbied. Both the N.C. House and the Senate then ignored the state constitution by enacting a revenue bill without the required multiple votes on successive days. That was corrupt. And by intertwining state government and gambling, these politicians chose to participate in the corruption of thousands of North Carolinians, taking advantage of their dreams of quick and easy wealth.

When it came right down to it, most elected state politicians chose to redistribute income from the poor to the middle-class and wealthy, tempt North Carolinians to destroy themselves and their household finances, and bring state government into disrepute.

No one should take their current protestations seriously. What they’ve earned is ridicule.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.