It is now painfully clear that our civilization is in serious jeopardy, due in large part to our failure to manage resources responsibly.
Unsustainable exploitation of natural capital threatens the web on which countless species of life and fragile human cultures rely. Perhaps then, it should come as no surprise that we have also fallen short in managing monetary capital, the medium through which we exchange the fruits of human capital, the knowledge, skills, and energy that earn our daily bread and a cushion between ourselves and an uncertain future.
Public and private debt have reached all-time highs. For those with a financial cushion, “investment” increasingly means betting on one speculative bubble after another, including dot-com stocks, sub-prime mortgages, and hedge funds (the collapse of which put Vancouver taxpayers on the hook for the Olympic Village fiasco). Increasingly, North Americans have no financial cushion; when asked how they plan to support themselves in retirement, they wistfully mention lottery tickets.
While “gaming” is not the root cause of this malaise, it is both a symptom and a significant contributor. As legalized gambling becomes ubiquitous, not just tolerated and regulated but promoted by our governments, it increasingly undermines more productive economic and cultural activities that are the genuine foundations of the arts, recreation, and charity. Casino “cannibalization” of discretionary income means that the gaming industry’s gains are losses to other enterprises, including donations to the charities that gamblers assume they are supporting.
“Pathological gamblers”—individuals who get trapped in compulsive behavior destructive to themselves, their families, and friends—are the tip of a growing iceberg of personal and social decline. Gambling “cross-addictions” compound the difficulties of treating alcoholism and chemical dependency. While most of those who play the lotteries, slots, and roulette tables will not be driven into bankruptcy, it eats away earnings that they and their dependants might otherwise invest to secure more rewarding and contributive lives.
There is little evidence to suggest that government-sponsored gambling reduces organized crime, as is often claimed by gaming apologists. As a Chicago mobster once candidly explained: “The stooges who approved Las Vegas nights, off-track betting, lotteries, etc. became our unwitting frontmen and partners. The publicity gave people a perception of gambling as healthy entertainment.” Subtly and insidiously, social acceptance of gambling instills a mindset that perpetuates the squandering of our monetary, human, social, and natural capital.
Gambling has a way of corrupting the entities entrusted to regulate and ensure that it yields a modicum of public benefits. The promise (when casinos were first allowed in Vancouver) to divert a third of gaming proceeds to nonprofits and charities has been forsaken, and returns have degenerated to 11 percent. Each year the B.C. lottery commission returns bonuses in the millions of dollars to casinos, and the proposal, now before city council, to rezone land adjacent to B.C. Place Stadium to enable a 300-percent increase in the Edgewater Casino’s capacity would increase contributions to the Social Responsibility Reserve by only 50 percent. Gambling is a chump’s game, and we, the public, have been duped by a “bait and switch” scam.
For these and other reasons, including loss of livability due to noise and rowdy behavior, the False Creek Residents Association, which connects and supports the community and neighbourhood associations around False Creek, and many other community groups, are opposing the casino proposal.
They are ticked-off that proceeds from development that normally would have provided community amenities were hijacked to refurbish B.C. Place Stadium. The casino, it turns out, is part of an elaborate scheme involving multiple rezonings, which would have the city lease two acres for a “temporary park” from Concord Pacific for a $3.9-million community amenity credit. According to the Vancouver’s manager of real estate, this is to “compensate” the developer for the loss of “lucrative commercial enterprises” consisting of event rentals and parking fees. But in what amounts to a sweetheart deal, the entire nine-acre “park” site was accessed at only $400,000 because it is not designated commercial, even though that is how it has been used. Under this scenario, the developer could continue to extract revenue from the balance of the site—a strong disincentive to fulfill their obligation to produce “Creekside Park”, which the public would have started enjoying years ago were it not for a legal loophole. Instead, the site could remain a dump for toxic soil for another 15 years.
On examination, other amenity contributions, totaling $2.5 million in supposed value, turn out to be for projects that have been virtually completed or funded from other sources, and for things the developer would do in any case to enhance the four-tower market condo development adjacent to the hotel/casino site. In short, it’s a bad deal for the community and taxpayers, but another terrific deal for Concord Pacific, who (like casino operators), regularly show their appreciation for provincial and municipal politicians by showering them with campaign contributions.
Pundits tell us the downtown casino is a done deal, forced upon the public by a city council trapped between a carrot (crumbs from gaming profits) and the provincial government’s assortment of sticks. That’s what they said in 1968 when, against all odds, citizens decided to say “No!” to inner-city expressways, allowing Vancouver to become one of the world’s most livable cities.
With provincial leadership contests underway, and a municipal election in the fall, voters have an opportunity to do some collective arm twisting of their own. Expansion of casino gambling in Vancouver, disguised as a rezoning, is currently at the public hearing stage. E-mails are beginning to flow in to mayor and council (firstname.lastname@example.org), and about a hundred concerned citizens have signed up to speak, ensuring several nights of hearings beginning on Monday (February 21).
City council says they want to sustainably manage our natural capital to make Vancouver the world’s “greenest” city. We should also strive to set an example of a city that makes the most of its human, social, and monetary capital, because, as my mother, Jane Jacobs, wisely pointed out in her 2004 “wake-up call”, Dark Age Ahead, “Everything is connected to everything else.”
Ned Jacobs is a spokesperson for the Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver network of community groups.