Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Letter from California-July 19, 2004

In my younger, more ideological days, I got a little steamed whenever I thought of the government making money from gambling. State lotteries, in particular, struck me a as a tax on the stupid, although I’m sure I softened it up with sympathy for the people who spent real money for a one in a zillion chance to win. The winners usually cash their oversized novelty checks and go shopping at the Porsche dealership, Mike’s Monster TV Palace, the Wholesale Liquor Barn and to a neighborhood where every house has a bonus room. Within a few years, they’re often broke, divorced, and hooked on something stronger than rock candy. Meanwhile, the state collects all those crumpled one-dollar bills in its giant money-counting room, like the guy with a monocle on the Monopoly board.
Time moves on. I’ve gotten older and my feelings about a lot of things have changed. I’m not angry anymore about states raiding your change purse like this. No, not me. Now, I think it’s hilarious. In fact, the showdown between Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the so-called Indian casinos of California has so much comedy potential that I’m surprised one of Arnold’s old showbiz pals hasn’t made a TV series about it. Imagine a new and improved Welcome Back, Kotter, with Arnold as the crotchety old school teacher and the casino owners as the wise-cracking Sweathogs. They’re always trying to put a tack in Arnold’s chair or re-arrange the letters of his name on the chalkboard to spell something naughty. Those wacky Sweathogs!
Indian casinos in California have slowly become an economic powerhouse. Just 10 short years ago, the casinos were limited to a handful of raggedy old card rooms where you could get the worst surf-n-turf of your life for just $8.95. Now, they’re bigger, flashier and everywhere. Last year, California’s Indian casinos did about $4.2 billion in business, which is about 10% of all the casino business in the whole country.
Did I mention that casino-style gambling in illegal in California? Illegal, that is, unless you’re actually not in California, but on a reservation which is technically its own little nation. As nations, though, they’re pretty pitiful, with no Olympic team, flag, national anthem or official bird; and, as Dudley Moore once said, Rhode Island could kick the crap out of them in a war. These little nations have in fact decided to skip all the silly stuff that those others nations do--print money, write laws, set up an army--and pretty much stick to casinos. Maybe that’s the problem with the American government; too much time wasted on things other than places to gamble.
The problem for California, as you may have heard, is that the state is a little short of cash, meanwhile the Indian casinos are making billions of dollars and paying almost nothing to California. The Nevada government mostly runs on casino money (and alien space saucer landing fees, of course), so naturally California wanted in on the action. Earlier this month, Schwarzenegger made a deal with several of the largest casino-owning tribes, allowing them to add more slot machines to their casinos in exchange for paying the state of California a fairly large chunk of wampum each year, including about $1 billion right away.
By the way, no one seems offended by the term “Indian casinos” for some reason instead of “Native American casinos.” Just thought I’d point that out.
Anyway, a couple months ago, I was driving through the desert about 2 hours east of L.A. through a particularly Road Runner cartoon-like stretch when I noticed that a very, very large building was going up. Most people, when laying out the kind of cash that builds 30-story buildings, look for little signs in the area that the big risk is actually going to pay off. Signs like people and other buildings. Little clues like that.
What kind of business builds an enormous, expensive building, miles from anyone, anything or any conceivable reason to stop on that particular patch of sizzling, dusty desert?
Only a casino.
Casinos know that people will drive through the desert for the privilege of giving away their money in return for nothing. You walk in on Friday evening with $10,000, and if you’re like 9 out of 10 people, you’ll leave on Sunday morning with nothing but the complimentary copy of USA Today they put outside your hotel room door. And don’t forget, USA Today doesn’t even publish on the weekends!
Most of the time, businesses expect to have to give you something back when you pay them giant gobs of money, and that’s what’s beautiful about the casino biz. It’s also why it’s illegal just to set up your own little gambling parlor in the garage. It’s just too easy, and the government thinks you should be challenged. It builds character.
Maybe you don’t mind turning a few greenbacks over to a Native tribe. After all, isn’t this an economic opportunity for Native Americans to expand their economic horizons and start the climb upward in society? Maybe you don’t mind because of that commercial in the 70s where Iron Eyes Cody shed that single tear at the sight of the garbage left there on the side of the road by slobs like you and me. Didn’t he make you feel like a real jerk? If you’ve ever wanted to apologize, you can do that by going to an Indian casino and hitting on 17 every time.
Oh, you didn’t realize you weren’t supposed to hit on 17?
The taxpayers of the State of California and the Agua Caliente band of the Luiseno Indians thank you.


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