Another Stereotype of the Month entry:
Tribes of Gamblers
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
We were told that the glitzy gambling casinos springing up on Indian reservations across the land would lift poor Indians out of poverty. Certainly the slot machines and gaming tables produce plenty of money. The nearly 300 casinos pull in almost $13 billion a year in revenue, of which more than $5 billion is pure profit.
But where is that money going? In Time magazine's cover story this week, titled "Wheel of Misfortune: Look Who's Cashing In at Indian Casinos," Donald Barlett and James Steele -- a team twice awarded Pulitzer Prizes when at The Philadelphia Inquirer -- present the troubling answer.
A few tribes near big cities haul in as much as $900,000 per member. States with only 3 percent of the Indian population -- California, Florida and Connecticut -- take in 44 percent of the gambling revenue, while states with half our 1.8 million Indians account for less than 3 percent of the take. The poorest of our aboriginal Americans are getting poorer, while non-Indians get rich hiring lobbyists to get federal recognition of a tribal front for the sole purpose of buying land to build a casino.
Lim Goh Tong, for example, is the Malaysian contractor billionaire behind the Foxwoods spread in Connecticut. As a foreigner, he can legally avoid most U.S. taxes on his profit, likely to run about $40 million a year. The South African developer Sol Kerzner, "first of the Mohegans," worked a similar deal that was O.K.'d by a federal official now doing just fine as a lobbyist. And Minnesota's Lyle Berman, a tycoon reported to have taken down $18 million a year in salary and stock options in his leather business, has a hot casino deal going near Chicago. And those are only the most blatant examples of non-Indians cashing in.
I'm a free-enterprise freak who doesn't begrudge big profits to investors who take big risks, but this is no gamble; rather it is a financial-political scandal of stunning proportions. Under the cover of helping the 28 percent of Indians now mired in poverty, financial vultures and highly paid, revolving-door lobbyists are ripping off the U.S. taxpayer and promoting a noxious something-for-nothing slots philosophy -- not to mention degrading the countryside's moral and physical environment -- by gaming the American political system.
Who's to blame? The Department of the Interior, with its moribund Indian Affairs bureau, professes to have no authority to oversee the National Indian Gaming Commission, whose three members have just been appointed by Secretary Gale Norton to be sworn in today. The new chairman, Philip Hogen, a friendly member of South Dakota's Oglala Sioux, was a commissioner through the late 90's and will rock no boats.
He tells me he was "disappointed" with the critical tone of Time's story (another one coming next week) and notes that even the small, less profitable casinos far from big-city markets provide some jobs for Indians. What about the secrecy, fraud, corruption and intimidation rife in so many lucrative tribal casino operations? Hogen's agency has only 63 employees to inspect and audit the $13 billion take in the nearly 300 all-cash businesses. Despite many complaints, that toothless tiger has never uncovered a single case of corruption.
Here's why: The casino tribes lobbied for, and Congress supinely agreed to, a cap of $8 million that can be collected from casinos to finance the nation's Indian gaming commission. That should be tripled.
Will Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, next chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, ask why, as Representative Frank Wolf notes, 80 percent of the Indians in the U.S. have received not one nickel from skyrocketing gambling revenues? Will Representative Jimmy Duncan of Tennessee, likely to head House Resources in January, pull that committee's head out of the sand? Will House Government Reform, under Tom Davis or Chris Cox, dare to hold hearings on a scandal rooted in the manipulation of Congress?
Hard-hitting reporting will help. Casino press agents will continue to trot out warm and cozy stories of hospitals and schools built and Indian lives rehabilitated by gambling money, each one true, but distorting the whole truth of a rapacious operation protected by politicians fearful of seeming unkind to Indians. The result has been attention to the few, neglect of the many, and the herding of a proud people into the demeaning culture of slots and croupiers.
Safire's worst faux pas and my responses:
Showing his bias from the beginning, Safire starts with a ridiculous title. First, Indians are the owners of casinos, not the gamblers within them. Second, Safire himself claimed gaming is "no gamble." If it's no gamble, then tribes aren't gamblers. If it is a gamble, Safire contradicts himself later when he says it isn't.
Sort of like all the US corporations setting up phony headquarters in Bermuda or the Grand Caymans to avoid US taxes on their profits.
If casinos are so profitable, it's a shame all those US financial institutions didn't take a chance and invest in them. They would've made the big profits. Instead, the tribes were forced to go to outside investors. These investors took the risks and reaped the rewards.
When the majority of casinos aren't making big money? It certainly is a gamble. If Safire thought it was a sure thing, he'd be advising people to invest their money in casino-building syndicates. Or he'd be investing his own money in such syndicates.
How exactly is anyone ripping off taxpayers? The US government doesn't fund Indian gaming. If casinos are making money, they're getting it from private parties who enter their premises voluntarily, not from the public trough. The concept is called a free-market transaction, something you'd think a "free-enterprise freak"—or an anti-Indian freak—would know.
Note that Safire doesn't document a single one of these charges. He doesn't even repeat Barlett and Steele's scurrilous charges. Can you say "lazy journalism"?
Complaints aren't proof that problems exist. And Safire doesn't document the so-called "many complaints." More examples of lazy journalism.
Incredibly, he's taken the unblemished record of Indian gaming and spun it into something negative. No corruption => proof of corruption. You can bet Safire agrees with President Bush's "logic" on Iraq: "We haven't found any weapons, so they must be hiding something."
Probably not. Being reasonably informed on Indian gaming, Campbell probably understands it was never intended to be a welfare or income redistribution program for all tribes. It was specifically meant to help only those tribes that chose to pursue it.
Maybe Safire will get off his fat you-know-what and start doing some, rather than regurgitating a TIME report denounced for its lies and inaccuracies.
What condescending tripe. How has the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which legalized gaming but didn't mandate that tribes pursue it, "herded" Indians into anything? Which part of the process haven't Indians undertaken voluntarily, without pressure from the government?
That's like saying Bush is "herding" oil companies to drill in Arctic. Get a clue, Safire. Nobody is forcing Indians to open casinos. They're doing it willingly because they, unlike you, understand how America works. They understand that economic success is empowering, not "demeaning."
Safire is supposedly a language expert. He should be the first to realize "The result has been...the herding" is passive tense. Writers use the passive tense when they're unwilling or unable to identify a sentence's true subject.
That seems to be Safire's problem in this case. He's not sure who or what is "herding" Indians into gaming—Congress? Lobbyists? Investors? The public? Poverty?—so he doesn't say. It's called poor writing, old bean. Try to do better next time.
NIGA: Letter to William Safire
Responses to TIME's attack on Indian gaming
The facts about Indian gaming
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