Thursday, November 24, 2011

No Thanks

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Good Fight

Gambling and politics is about winning or losing. Our Coalition is about doing the right thing, win or lose.
-- Tom Larkin, President
 United to Stop Slots in Massachusetts
April 2009

Gazing up Beacon Hill, it might as well be Kilimanjaro.

For some reason, Frank had dropped us off in the middle of Park Street, which tilts up toward the State House at what feels like a 45 degree angle, leaving Judy and me to hold what we now realize are the world's heaviest signs.

We were supposed to have a nice day for this event, but it's early.  Right now it's still dark and cold and drizzly and all of Boston is lacquered with a depressing coat of fog. Worse, for me anyway, today is what people with a chronic pain condition politely call, 'a bad day.'

Earlier this week my son and I had made the signs with six sheets of poster boards and a new pack of sharpies. I'd bought some tall wooden stakes to nail to the back, and Judy had volunteered her husband, a retired carpenter, to add some sturdy wood frames so they wouldn't curl up.

It sounded like a good at the time. And the signs do look great - but now each of them weigh about a ton. Maybe more. And they're all different sizes, making the bunch of them even more awkard and difficult to hold.

We tried putting them down on the sidewalk, but it wasn't much wider than the signs, and they were blocking pedestrians. Just then a cop car went by and we decided we couldn't chance it. The putting down and lifting up were worse than the holding on to, so we just stood there trying not to look as desperate as we are.  I try to hide the wince from Judy. Nobody needs a buzz kill.

We each call Frank about six times, but either his phone is off or he's parking the car in Worcester.  He should be back here by now.

I don't have the cell phone numbers of any other folks who might be here already. So I send a text message to a friend who's always early, a colleague with the brawn to carry maybe three of these signs up all by himself.

Need your help.

And, for the first time in about two years, he doesn't text me back. Which is how I learn he's not coming out anymore. He's done.

And why shouldn't he be? How many times can people learn how little their efforts translate into Beacon Hill currency before they give up? You only get noticed if you're part of a crowd. You'll only be recognized if you're wealthy or well positioned. And you'll only be listened to, it seems, if you if you can do something for them.

It's been getting harder and harder to get people to come out.  I've got some 'maybes' for today, and I'm grateful for that.  I know it's hard to juggle life.  Thank God for Judy and Frank.   I think it's coming down to us. Even so, I've told them I'm done at the end of June - of course, before June we have about a million things to do. Seems like it, anyway.

It's been a good stretch. A year and a half more than I thought it'd be. Now I'm tired, I'm sick. Let someone else do it.

We don't even have the luxury of broadcasting our events to get more people here. We have to get the word out over the network, or else the union will call out the troops, all in matching t-shirts and lunch vouchers, to shout us down.

And if not the unions, then the flying monkeys - the squadron of fellow locals motivated more by venom and vendettas than a social conscience - all frothed up and seething on comment sections and message boards to anyone who'll listen.

But you have to believe you can make a difference, don't you? I mean, what's the alternative?

So I stick around, I show up, I beg people to come out, and, I guess, l carry some heavy-ass signs up a perpendicular sidewalk when they don't.   Just another adventure in activism.

A guy walks by with his hands in his pockets, glances up at our signs, and gives me a look that says he'd rather be giving me the finger.

In the last two years, if there was ever a moment I thought I could just quit, just drop it all and go back to my old life, to leave the whole damn thing in the rearview mirror, it was that one.

But I know someone's waiting up there on the Hill for us. And I think, hey, maybe this is the one that'll do it. This is the one.

So I hand Judy four of the signs, and help prop her up against a parking meter, then take the remaining two under my arm. The pain is unreal. It slices me in two. But what choice do I have?

This started out being about a casino.  Now it's about so much more.  It's about what's right and wrong.  About whether you fight or you give up.  It's about letting the greedy stupid bastards with all the money and power push you aside, or showing them that, even if they do, you're never, ever, going away.

Just then, on the sidewalk at the top of the hill, through the fog and the gloom, is a familiar silhouette. The silhouette of someone who's never come out with us before, someone who I'd asked, but didn't think actually would.

But there she is. And sure, she's a senior citizen with her own chronic pain condition - but hey, I can work with that.

In my world, one person can still make a difference.

And usually does.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Together We Scam!

While experts from MIT and Harvard have testified repeatedly at legislative gambling hearings about the potential for addiction engineered into today's slot machines - touched on earlier this year in an episode of 60 Minutes - a colleague who works in the field of Business Intelligence recently shared a letter he wrote to Governor Patrick explaining other predatory practices the gambling industry employs to separate slot players from their money.

Keep in mind that slot machines account for two-thirds of casino revenue.

Like many other industries, the gambling industry collects information about their existing and potential customers to increase sales, encourage customer loyalty, develop marketing strategy etc.  However, because casinos are 'financial institutions', they
have access to all of an individual's financial information. They leverage this specialized status and "loyalty programs" to gain specific knowledge about how much cash and credit a patron has access to, when they use their credit cards in the casinos. The industry calls this Total Cash Availability.

Additionally, they will also be able to find out how much equity a patron has in their home, car and other assets; this is called Global Cash Availability. These can and will be taken as equity in exchange for credit. Casinos will also extend what amount to payday loans at high interest rates. These will be offered to patrons who are under the influence of alcohol, alcohol, that the casinos will be able to offer free of charge.

The casino industry uses all of this information along with real-time game-play data to make targeted offers to specific people. They are also able to alter the payout rate and the "near-misses" seen by each person to increase their rate of play and the amount per play.
The letter provides three links which demonstrate "how the casino industry collects and uses the financial and game-play data to identify patrons who can be tapped for more revenue."

The first, GCA Casino Share Intelligence
shows that casinos have access to all of your financial information as well as transactions outside of the casinos as soon as you use your credit or ATM card in one of their machines.
The second is a promotional page for GameVIZ Software 
which brags about this software's ability to identify "the most profitable customers and those which can be 'tapped' for additional revenue and profit." This software identifies these gamblers while they are playing and helps identify them for promotions. This software targets people to ply with free liquor.  It is not a random offering.
The third is a link to a patent for a method and system for dynamically awarding bonus points
which describes in detail how machines can be dynamically reconfigured to generate more revenue while they are being played by increasing the rate of play and reducing payouts.

Let me be clear. The methodology is as follows:

1. The casinos identify their patrons and prospects according to their potential value to the casino.

2. The casinos monitor the play of those patrons and determine when to offer them free alcohol to maximize their spend on the games.

3. The casinos then dynamically alter the speed at which the machines play and the rate at which they pay out to increase the profit they are making on a specific player.

4. When the player has exhausted his or her resources on hand, the casinos extend them credit.
While it's convenient to dismiss gambling as a mostly harmless form of entertainment, effecting only a small percentage of people, fact is, the gambling industry is increasingly engaging in furtive, predatory practices that can quickly deplete an individuals or an entire family's financial resources, for substantial profit - a large chunk of which it will share with the State.

It's not like putting the milk at the back of the supermarket to get people to buy more Captain Crunch.

After everything Americans have endured at the hands of corporate predators in preceding years, is it really advisable for our State to partner with them at this stage in the game?  In an age when people have mobilized in outrage over debit card fees, imagine how they'd feel about the State-sanctioned shell game casino billionaires get to play with our bank accounts.
All that this market fundamentalism is about is letting people's consciences off the hook. If the market is “just,” none of us is responsible for the havoc it may wreak. But the invisible hand of the market need not be free of ethical values, and ought not be. 
Deval Patrick wrote that, in his memoir.  And I couldn't agree more. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

My iRobot Vacuum Cleaner is More Sentient than Greg Bialecki

I think this editorial in the Globe by Citizens for a Stronger Massachusetts articulates one of the problems with Greg Bialecki, Deval Patrick's Secretary of Housing and Economic Development:
Now, in seeking to minimize his role in the gambling bill, Bialecki claimed in an interview that he was never Patrick’s “lead person’’ on casinos and instead describes himself as “the spokesperson for the administration’s position.’’ On the day that he testified, he said, he was handed “a three-page document’’ that was “prepared by others, without my input.’’

He paints a damning picture, both of his own lack of sensitivity to appearances, and of an administration that appears to be so committed to its gambling deal with legislative leaders that it would put words in the mouth of its own secretary of housing and economic development.

If Bialecki doesn’t know what’s going on with his personal finances or what’s going into the public policy he promotes, maybe he isn’t the best person for the job of secretary of housing and economic development..
Unless by "best person for the job" you mean "mouthpiece for the gambling industry", and by "economic development" you mean "an unvetted economic policy that has never solved any state deficit, has already opened the door to political corruption here in Massachusetts, and is poised to trigger a gambling arms race to the bottom here in New England," then... yeah.  Definitely.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Attack of the 50 foot Egos

This year's recipient of the Stan Rosenberg Award for Unwarrented Hubris in a Legislative Role is none other than Joseph Wagner (D-Chicopee)!

Wagner, who sits on the six-member gambling bill conference committee believes that a one-year ban on government officials from working in the gambling industry - which originally started as a five year ban - is still way too harsh, because:
“It’s my sense that this matter is so important that we should not preclude the best and the brightest from being eligible even if those people would be in government presently,”
Following this statement, the Committee once again quickly scurried to safety behind closed doors.

PhotobucketNot surprisingly, Stan Rosenberg, (D- Amherst) the senator for whom the Unwarrented Hubris award's was created, also serves on the committee, a prerequisite for which would appear to be narcissistic personality disorder.

Earlier this fall, during the Senate 'debate' on the gambling bill, an ammendment to create a five year ban on legislators from working in the industry compelled Rosenberg to notoriously argue that:
"passing such a no-revolving-door amendment would actually contribute to public cynicism about lawmakers by creating the impression that such a restriction was necessary to protect the public trust and ensure integrity.”
After convening that discussion behind closed doors, the Senate decided to drop the ban from five years to one.

It remains to be seen as to whether, following the current closed door session, the Conference Committee will, in the best interests of the industry, reduce the one-year ban even further and mandate legislators a guaranteed full year of casino employment upon leaving office, to include a lifetime pension and an automatic MacArthur Genius Fellowship.