The Larger Lesson

It’s hard to make predictions, especially when they’re about the future. —Yogi Berra

I was reading the daily update from the New York Times this morning, and one of the sidebar articles linked at the bottom was about the boom in online sports gambling on lesser-known sports. It’s one of those chipper “how about that!” pieces that fill space in every paper, things that can be run today or bumped to tomorrow if the real news gets busy. But rather than being cheerful, it kind of got me down. And then it got me way down.

So here’s the premise. The Russian Liga Pro table tennis league streams matches sixteen or more hours a day. It doesn’t live up to its name; these players are hobbyists, not Olympic or professional caliber athletes. Most of them look to be about as good as I was when I was in college, which is to say not very good at all, even though committed, and way better than most people grabbed at random off the sidewalk. But with a match every half hour, Liga Pro offers constant action to bettors all over the globe. “Points in the Liga Pro move quickly, and many table tennis gamblers… focus entirely on fast-action midgame bets, wagering on which player will win the next point. Matches are brief, too, with winners often decided in less time than an N.F.L. halftime show.” 

I’ve never had to face a gambling addiction, but I’ve known some folks for whom it’s a huge problem. And that was my first shift downward from the pleasant surface of this story. Listen to these descriptions…

For gamblers, it is a quick rush, the equivalent of a scratch-off lottery ticket… Anything you can do to get the rush you get from winning or losing a bet more quickly, people tend to do that, which is why slot machines are so addictive… shrewd wagerers always believe they can find an edge… Arriving home from work around midnight, he takes a shower, eases into bed and begins looking for enticing table tennis matches to bet on. Some days, he said, his table tennis winnings exceed his earnings at his job.

This is nothing more than an intravenous line for gambling addicts. You’d never imagine that a low-level Russian table tennis league could damage the lives of people from Chesapeake, Virginia, to Sydney, Australia. But there you go. There’s always somebody willing to feed the beast.

But as bad as that is, my elevator had another couple of floors to go down.

Isn’t much of what we think of as capitalism just a broadly delusional gambling addiction? We often look at people like Bezos and Gates and Bloomberg and think, “what is an extra billion dollars going to get for you? You literally don’t have enough lifetime to spend anywhere near what you already have.” And the easy pop-psych answers are a) that they’re competitive and the money is a way to keep score, and/or b) that money is a proxy for power, and they love having power. Yeah, maybe. But what if it isn’t? What if it’s just a way to always be in the action? What if it’s always having a horse on the track, a seat at the table, a handful of this week’s Powerball slips? What if it’s nothing more than the adrenaline addiction of instantaneous outcomes?

“Shrewd wagerers always believe they can find an edge.” And we’d all like to think of ourselves as shrewd, when we invest in a company, choose a location for our restaurant, open our pool room. We read the cues, do the analysis, strike boldly. But according to the Small Business Administration, half of all small businesses fail within the first five years. And of the half that remain, a lot of them are bumping along while their owner works her day job to keep the family afloat, always hoping for the turn card to fill in the hand.

There’s a lot of blather about “rewarding risk takers.” Well, why? Why should risk be rewarded? What is it that’s noble about gambling that it should form the entire basis for our social organization? (And when a company or person gets to a certain level, they know how to displace the risk onto you and I, in a process commonly known as privatizing the gains and socializing the losses. Oh, time to lay off three thousand workers this afternoon? Sorry. Oh, that waste stream we’ve put into the river for forty years? Sorry. Winners gonna win, too bad about you.)

And it’s only certain risks that get rewarded, anyway. I mean, write a really elegant, adventuresome novel. Write a really marvelous, inventive concerto. Is THAT risk going to be rewarded? Not very likely, or very much. So we truncate our risktaking down to the modes that have a gambling market associated with them, even as we know that the house always wins. We surrender innumerable opportunities to live our lives in humane and delightful ways because we’re always at the service of people with gambling addictions that they call strategic plans.

We all rely on certain imbedded and rarely examined assumptions about human nature. Competition is thought to be the only appropriate governing mode of economics, that we will win or die. That comes from a notion that people can only be motivated by acquisition or fear, that we’re fundamentally lazy and need to be scared enough to get off the couch. But there are other ways of thinking about what humans are. We can become great not merely so that we don’t lose, but because we’ve been inspired by beauty and elegance. We can surround ourselves by aspiration and become greater through the attempt to enact some of that beauty ourselves. We don’t always need the threat of financial ruin or displacement to spur us forward. Ask any artist.

Adrenaline and competition and gambling are easy hits, huffing the gas of exhilaration. But they’re not the basis for a steady, rewarding personal or social life. We know the costs to our cognitive capabilities of being online all day every day. But we don’t think about the costs to our lives and our families and our communities from constantly seeking out that next big win, turning that next card, picking that next stock—or from working for those people.

Like sports gamblers, we invent stupider and stupider bets just to give us that hit more often. Every time a stock is sold, there’s one person betting that it’ll rise, and another person betting that it’s done rising. One of them is right, but they both play, over and over and over. There’s a “Dow Jones Futures” market (formally known as “extended-hours trading“) in which we can bet on what the stock market will do in its next session. Doesn’t that sound like betting on who’ll win the next point in a ping pong game? Doesn’t that sound like the kind of desperate need for action that an addict would take? We have no control over it, the outcome doesn’t respond to our actions or rely on our skills. We’re just flipping the coin over and over, imagining ourselves to have some system, some inside info, some method that makes us something other than another guy at the liquor store buying scratchers.

The next time you hear some legislator soapbox about “risk takers should be rewarded,” ask them to buy you a few bingo cards at Saturday’s parish game. It’d be a cheaper investment than trillion-dollar tax cuts to distribute investors’ gambling risks onto the rest of us.

Really, all we have is a life, to spend with the people we love, doing the things that lift us from animal necessity. Let go of the scorecard and do the things that matter.

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