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What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Stay in Vegas
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What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Stay in Vegas

On the corrupting effects of gambling.

The Super Bowl LVIII logo is projected onto Caesars Palace Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 9, 2024. (Photo by Jeff Speer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Welcome to the latest installment of Wanderland

Yes, it’s April 1. No, I don’t do that. 

Students Hit the Books—and the Bookies, Too

Las Vegas had a heck of a time landing an NFL franchise. For years, would-be investors tried to bring a team to the tourism mecca, where those efficient opportunities known in corporate-weasel speak as “synergies” abound. The powers that be in Sin City have long understood that the world is full of disposable-income-having people who are not gambling enthusiasts but who might enjoy a long weekend basking in the desert sun by the pool at an expensive resort, ordering a few overpriced bottles of wine at a couple of fancy restaurants, and maybe doing some high-end shopping. Nevada investors and economic-development types have spent decades thinking up new ways to bring in moneyed visitors who don’t want to smoke Winstons and drink discount Crown ’n’ Cokes in front of a video slot machine for 10 hours at a stretch. Vegas has had good luck with big-time boxing matches over the years, but the NFL really, really didn’t want to do business in Vegas. In 2003, when 30-second Super Bowl ads were going for $2.2 million and up, the league told the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority that its money was no good and declined to sell the tourism bureau advertisements during the big game. A naïve journalist who suggested that the “Aces” would be a great name for a Las Vegas NFL team was mercilessly hooted at for his innocence.  

Now, the Raiders are in Las Vegas. So was the 2024 Super Bowl. And the NFL has signed a $30 million deal with Caesars Entertainment that made the Vegas landmark the league’s official casino partner. There are NFL partnerships with DraftKings and FanDuel, too, along with in-game advertisements from sports-betting firms such as BetMGM, WynnBet, PointsBet, and Fox Bet. Tickets to NFL games at Allegiant Stadium are now part of Vegas package deals in case the Adele residency at Caesars doesn’t appeal or Cedric the Entertainer isn’t your thing. All good and fun. 

Except for the fact that, as countless urologists have awkwardly explained to their patients over the decades, the old advertising slogan is a lie: What happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas. 

Have you been on an American college campus lately? 

A meta-analysis of studies published by the Journal of Gambling Studies in 2013 found that one in 10 college students—a little more, actually: 10.23 percent—were “probable pathological gamblers.” More recent research from the NCAA found less dramatic, but unquestionably troubling, numbers: 67 percent of students living on-campus have bet on sports, 6 percent have lost more than $500 in a single day, 4 percent are daily gamblers, mostly betting through apps on their phones. 

“What they call ‘pathological gambling’ is a very specific thing, involving diagnoses,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. “We’d say, ‘There’s a tremendous amount of sports betting going on.’ The NCAA study found that 15 percent of college-age Americans exhibited behavior that made them high-risk for problem gambling, such as betting weekly, betting $50 or more, or losing $500 in a single day.” 

Many kinds of self-destructive behaviors are less prevalent among more educated populations. Gambling—and we’re really talking here almost exclusively about sports betting—bucks the trend. “The closer a person is to higher education, the more likely they are to bet on sports,” Whyte said. “That relationship is not found in any other form of gambling or in sports betting anywhere else in the world. College students bet more than high-school graduates; people who live on campus bet more than people who commute; graduates more than undergrads. There has long been a relationship between college students and sports, and now there is a relationship between sports and gambling and a relationship between college and sports betting.” Whyte theorized that familiarity with student-athletes on campus might make students think they understand the game better, or that the simple fact of being college students may make them think they are smart enough to outwit the odds. “They see it as a question of skill,” he said. 

And then there is the ubiquity of advertisements for betting apps, especially on the sports podcasts that count so many college-age men among their listeners. But the gambling operators are right there on campus, too: Many big-school sports programs have relationships with betting companies, often conducted at arm’s-length through third-party partners. In 2020, DraftKings—at that point not even yet licensed to do business in Nevada—signed a deal with UNLV to operate the “DraftKings Gaming Innovation Studio” on campus. A few months ago, DraftKings had actor Kevin Hart pitching its too-good-to-be-true offer: Bet $5 on a game, get $200 in gambling credit—in an ad that appeared, the times having changed a good deal, during the Super Bowl. 

There is a gambling scandal that really matters, and it isn’t the one involving Shohei Ohtani or Jontay Porter. It is the one right under everybody’s noses. 

A decade ago, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made the familiar libertarian case for legalizing gambling, the same case that 50 million marijuana advocates have made for weed, that it “should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated.” And there is something to that—but less than you might think, and less than libertarian-minded reformers might hope. 

Sometimes, legalization efforts don’t work because they are too narrow and restrictive: For example, Nevada’s legalization of prostitution at a few remote brothels an hour or more distant from the major tourism centers has not done much to alleviate illegal, street-level prostitution in Las Vegas, and it may have even made the situation a little bit worse by confusing some visitors about what is legal in Las Vegas and what isn’t. (Prostitution is not legal anywhere in Las Vegas.) Marijuana legalization has not starved the Mexican cartels of capital, and the de jure or de facto legalization of other drugs in some U.S. jurisdictions has not actually made it easier to do what reformers say they want to do, which is to treat drug addiction primarily as a public-health problem rather than an organized-crime problem. That shouldn’t be too surprising: U.S. cities have persistent public vagrancy not mainly because of economic factors but because of the inability or unwillingness of the public sector to deal with the strands of mental illness within their remit. 

In 2018, Adam Silver and the other partisans of gambling liberalization got their way from the Supreme Court, acting not on libertarian grounds but on federalist ones, vacating the federal prohibition on sports betting and leaving it up to the states to decide for themselves whether to permit sports betting. Most of them decided in the affirmative, with sports betting now legal in 38 states plus the District of Columbia. Gambling has an almost uniquely corrupting influence on governments, which can count on gambling to produce a fairly reliable stream of revenue—a revenue stream much more reliable than, say, government spending on mitigating the social costs of gambling. D.C., which takes in a good deal of gambling money, recently cut all of the problem-gambling spending from its budget. The taxes on gambling are mandatory—the public spending on the problems associated with that gambling is more flexible. Far from being a libertarian, free-market enterprise, gambling is one of the most statist activities in America, with state and local governments acting as gambling operators themselves (through lotteries and the like) or in the role of effective major stakeholders through taxes. Those taxes include both ordinary income taxes on gambling winnings as well as things like special taxes on casinos, sportsbooks, and racetracks. In many cases, governments see a considerably bigger piece of the revenue than the shareholders in gaming companies do: Shareholders get a claim on profit, but governments often tax gross gambling revenue

The corrupting effect on universities, sports leagues, and other institutions is as obvious and profound as it is on governments. Gambling operators offer their partners the same thing they offer their clients: the promise of free money. In both cases, the promise is a lie. Study after study has shown that legalized gambling is a terrible economic-development strategy for basically everywhere except Las Vegas—and even Vegas has understood the necessity of diversifying beyond gambling. While Vegas may be a lot of fun for tourists, that isn’t really what gambling looks like in the United States in 2024, when gambling looks like everything else: a sad, lonely person with his face stuck in a phone. The addictiveness of gambling coupled with the addictive features of smartphones produces the most predictable results. 

And the extent to which gambling addicts drive gambling per se is remarkable: One study found that half of the bets placed in Connecticut (home to the saddest of sad-sack gambling) were placed by problem gamblers, and that half of that population reported significant financial or mental-health problems related to gambling.

The National Council on Problem Gambling does not take a position on legalized gambling per se, but it does operate a helpline for problem gamblers, and here is an interesting fact about that: Nearly one-third of the calls to that hotline are not from gamblers but rather from the friends and family of gamblers seeking help for a loved one with an obvious problem. Sometimes, gambling problems are wrapped up in other problems—alcoholism, depression—and it can be difficult to sort out which problem is the main driver and which is being pulled along.

Governments don’t really want to do much of anything about this, and, at the risk of raising the Jonah Goldberg monocausal explanation alarm, that’s really about money. Some states allow sports betting by 18-year-olds even as the case for limiting things such as alcohol and handguns to those 21 and up is evident to many observers. But, here’s the thing: If we really wanted to “follow the science,” as everybody likes to say, we wouldn’t raise the age for gambling (or alcohol or, you know, voting) to 21 but to something more like 25, when the prefrontal cortex finally gets its act together. People have pretty sticky attitudes about age limits—18 and 21 have long traditions, and 25 does not—and we probably don’t want to do even more to infantilize people in their early 20s than we already do. That being said, we already know how to deal with a world in which an 18-year-old can serve in the Army but can’t buy a beer in a bar (we accept the arbitrariness of many such distinctions out of habit and familiarity) and pushing back the age of legal gambling to, say, 23—to the post-undergraduate years—is an idea worth considering. People who make it out of college without the beginnings of a destructive gambling habit (or a full-blown addiction) are a lot less likely to develop such a compulsion later in life. 

The federal government currently takes in billions of dollars in gambling-related revenue. Everybody can count the income—but who is counting the costs? 

I like Las Vegas. Maybe I’ll go to a football game there in the future. But I think the country would have been better off basically digging a moat around Clark County and letting Vegas be Vegas rather than slowly turning the rest of the country into a sadder, grosser, less fun version of it. Ours is a big, wild country, and it has room for a Las Vegas, a New Orleans, and a Miami Beach without turning the whole country into a version of one of those or some mix of the worst aspects of each.  

Words About Words

I like this policy, it’s “ambitious.” 

Very ambitious.

So ambitious

I don’t like this policy, it’s “extreme.” 

So extreme.

Mucho extremo

In Other Wordiness …

Consider this headline deck from Salon, about Beyoncé: “Texas pop diva’s pen game has never been stronger, bearing her soul and what it means to be American.” Ah, no: One bares one’s soul, i.e., laying bare one’s inner being. You may bear a soul, in a sense, carrying the damned thing around with you everywhere you go. (“What, after all, is a halo? It’s only one more thing to keep clean.”) But the expression is “bares her soul.” 

Speaking of Beyoncé, I will very, very fearfully offer a word of advice. Beyoncé has released a new album of country-ish music, though, as she says, it isn’t a country album—it’s a Beyoncé album. And it is pretty good, to my ear. Beyoncé also has taken to wearing cowboy hats, about which, a word: Beyoncé needs better hats. Those pedestrian Stetson Shasta and El Patron toppers she has been sporting are just not right for her. I suppose there is some kind of point she’s making in wearing an ordinary hat you can buy at Boot Barn or Cavender’s or wherever, but I think she might do better with something from, say, J. W. Brooks. Not everybody can wear a cowboy hat. Beyoncé can, of course: She was born and raised in Houston, and everybody born and raised in Houston can wear a cowboy hat. (Except Sarah Isgur.) I just think she needs a better hat: She’s Beyoncé, after all.

Speaking of which, some more wordiness: Beyoncé said that on her new album, she didn’t want everything to be perfectly in tune, especially the guitars. No worries on that score: The thing about guitars is, almost all of them are slightly out-of-tune at some point on the neck. It’s a physics thing caused by the fact that guitar frets are straight, which doesn’t allow for the perfect division of notes on all strings at all points on the fretboard. Have you ever seen a guitar with squiggly-looking frets? That’s a “true temperament” guitar, which fixes the tuning problem that afflicts traditional guitars. 

“Temperament” in music refers to the tricky business of dividing up scales. The “well-tempered” (wohltemperiert) scale was developed so that keyboardists could play all of the major and minor keys without sounding out-of-tune. It was such a big deal that J. S. Bach titled one of his most famous works Das wohltemperierte Klavier, The Well-Tempered Clavier, which contains exercises (preludes and fugues) in all 24 major and minor keys. 

(Like a lot of people who read things more than they talk about things, I never knew how to pronounce clavier until I asked Jay Nordlinger, who knows all about these things and much else. Was it sort of French, klah-vee-AY, or more English, KLAY-vi-er? Neither, as it turns out: It is kluh-VEER, only two syllables. 

Temperament describes people, too, of course: Oliver Wendell Holmes described Franklin D. Roosevelt thus: “Second-class intellect, first-class temperament.” 

Economics for English Majors

I’ll have more to say about Joe Biden’s tax proposals, but do read this from the Wall Street Journal

Between the top 10% and 5% were 7.7 million returns with earnings from about $170,000 to $253,000. They reported 10.6% of income, paid 10.2% of income taxes, and had an average tax rate of 14.3%.

Between the top 5% and 1% were 6.1 million returns with earnings from about $253,000 to $682,500. They reported 15.7% of income, paid 19.9% of all income taxes, and had an average tax rate of 18.9%.

Finally, we come to the top 1%, another 1.5 million returns with earnings in excess of about $682,500. Their share of income taxes paid was 45.8%, not quite double their share of income. Their average tax rate was 25.9%. Among the tippy-top 0.1%, or 154,000 returns with earnings above about $3,775,500 a year, the average tax rate was similar, 25.7%.

The burden of income taxes, in other words, falls almost entirely on the top half of earners and disproportionately on the top 1%.

What is worth emphasizing is that those with high incomes not only pay a hugely disproportionate share of federal income taxes but pay a share that is hugely disproportionate to their share of income—their share of the tax is about twice their share of the income. 

If you want a Scandinavian-style welfare state, you need Scandinavian-style taxes, which means that the middle classes can expect to pay half or more of their income in tax.


You can buy my most recent book, Big White Ghettohere

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You can check out “How the World Works,” a series of interviews on work I’m doing for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, here

In Closing

I was very pleased to learn that I was among the winners of this year’s Zenger prize, a journalism award given out by Zenger House, a Christian organization founded by Marvin Olasky, formerly the editor of World magazine (and an occasional Dispatch contributor). My path has crossed with Olasky’s a few times: He was a professor at the University of Texas when I was an undergraduate there, and he was the provost of King’s College in New York when I taught there. 

Crown v. John Peter Zenger, 1735, is an interesting case: Zenger, a printer and editor (the two occupations were one at the time), was accused of libeling the royal governor, William Cosby (not that one) of corruption and maladministration. Zenger was correct, but he also was guilty: At the time, truth was not a defense under law against libel, which, in this case, was a crime—“seditious libel”—rather than a civil matter. Zenger did some time in the pokey before his lawyer, Andrew Hamilton (the original “Philadelphia lawyer”), managed to convince the jury to effectively nullify the case against Zenger. Zenger and his advocates argued that if it was a crime to criticize bad rulers, then the act of writing the Bible had been a criminal one, since the Good Book is full of denunciations of princes and princelings and rulers and powers. The case helped to establish the doctrine that truth is an absolute defense against libel, though it took a long time for that idea to really take shape and take hold. 

Zenger House gave me the prize for my reporting from Ukraine, for “trenchant criticism of dictators, and depiction of how Ukrainian soldiers at the front lines—and technological nerds at the rear—fought for their lives and the life of their country.” I am grateful and honored. In my business, you don’t like everything you write, but every now and then, you produce something you think is pretty good, and I think that’s a pretty good one. I wish I thought my reporting would make more of a difference than it will. The inertia of hatred, bigotry, stupidity, and corruption that holds our Ukraine policy in thrall is not something that is going to be much moved by my work, but it is good for people to know what is happening, at the very least so that no one can say “I didn’t know.” There has been a lot of good reporting from Ukraine: Everybody knows what is happening there, and no one will have an excuse when the time comes to give an account of himself and make a reckoning.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.