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The Southern gamble

How the South Joined the Gambling Nation: The Politics of State Policy Innovation by Michael Nelson and John Lyman Mason (Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, $35, hard cover).

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The authors are Memphis-area academics and they've developed a three-pronged theory concerning the different political approaches that seven states of the late Confederacy, including Arkansas, have used in recent times to whore up to the old rascal gambling.

“The main elements of our theory of state policy innovation [are] diffusion, internal characteristics, and policy entrepreneurship,” they write, and you can try to figure out what the hell they might be talking about, or you can read around their proud, incomprehensible, oft-explicated theorizing, as I did, and enjoy their rather brisk and interesting reporting on how each of those seven Southern states has in the last 20 years maneuvered to get itself a piece of the big-time national gambling action.

In 1963, only one state, Nevada, had legal casinos, and no state had a lottery. Less than 50 years later, there are only six states that don't have one or the other, and Arkansas, of course is one of the six. Forty-one states now have lotteries, 11 have casinos and 25 — half of them — are neoned up with tribal Native American casinos.

Arkansas sucks hind teat insofar as latter-day gambling proceeds because we have a unique coalition of Baptists and political liberals who steadfastly slap down every gambling proposal that comes along – most of them, it must be admitted, eminently deserving of being slapped down. We wouldn't even have horse-racing (or dog-racing) if we hadn't been dead-ass dirt-eating broke during the Depression, and our race tracks certainly wouldn't be sporting all these games-of-skill-ha-ha slot machines today if the gamblers hadn't finally learned that half a loaf from a bought legislature is better than the diddly-squat they were going to get by the initiative route.

The book's Arkansas chapter is one of the shorter ones, and one reason for that might be that our gambling experience for a generation now has had none of the wickedness or color or chutzpah that characterized it back in the good old rip-roaring illegal days. It deserves short shrift.

Mississippi's is the most entertaining chapter. The Magnolia State made the most of the epochal gambling opp, partly because its political crooks were both crookeder and cleverer than those in the Southern elsewhere, and also because they had some unlikely and extremely lucky riverboat-gambling precedents to work with. That's really a fascinating story, adequately told here.

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