Confessions of a Global Gambler

From New Internationalist magazine, October 1998

 

Cross the American desert to Colorado, climb along the snaking road up to 8,000 feet above sea level, and you can get a glimpse of the effect that unrestricted gambling can have on a community.

The small community of Black Hawk was a quiet inoffensive place with a population of 350, until the state legalised gambling and it changed overnight. When I went there a year or so later, the place was suddenly crawling with people.

A man in a flourescent jacket and dark glasses was directing traffic at the tiny crossroads in the centre, and every building from the Silver Hawk Saloon to the end of the town seemed to have been devoted to gambling - Doc Holliday's Casino, Bonanza Casino, Crook's Palace, Bronco Billy's.

There was something rather horrifying about it, especially as Black Hawk merged into the next town, Central City - 'The Richest Square Mile on Earth', according to a large poster - with earthworks and new buildings and shacks flying up wherever we looked, some of them apparently unattached to the ground.

It was a tribute to the astonishing power of money. The gold rush towns must have looked similar over a century before, like the brutal place Sherlock Holmes hears described in The Valley of Fear.

Most casinos in the USA now sell their own credit cards, and provide cash dispensers which give you money while they rake off a 20 per cent commission. A slightly lower commission, but a hidden one, exists for the slot machines. The result, said Simon Hoggart in his book America: A User's Guide, is "that 100 dollars in quarters will allow you to pull the handle 2,660 times before it's all gone".

"Old ladies feverishly shovel the cash in, and at first you think they must have lost their minds," wrote Hoggart. "But the maths shows that they have to work fast, in order to lose all their money before the bus goes back to New York, Washington or Philadelphia."

Money can make you shiver sometimes. It can make your flesh creep, especially - I suppose - when you realise there are circumstances when you might visit betting shops yourself, or even fill in the occasional lottery slip. And when you know that, if you thought there was a reasonable chance of winning in Doc Holliday's Casino, you would have allowed the man in dark glasses to direct your car and gone right inside.

The truth is, I have to admit, that I'm addicted to gambling too. My pension contributions, my building society account, my mortgage are all modest to say the least, but they link me into the explosive global financial system which we increasingly rely on.

Through all my debts and investments, not to mention my purchases, I am taking part in the biggest casino the world has ever known. There are winners and losers, the markets shoot up, and - especially if you happen to be in the Far East - they shoot down. But there are also mega-winners. Like bookies or croupiers: the Masters of the Universe in Wall Street and the City of London win whether it goes up or down, just as long as it moves.

Which is one reason why the 190 partners of the Wall Street investment bank Goldman Sachs look set to make $100 million each if they go public this year.

This global casino is a shadowy world, where rumour and mood can shift billions of pounds in minutes, once described by Citibank chairman John Reed as "a little like the physicist who created the bomb".

"We see about 400 billion dollars every day of foreign exchange transactions going through the system," he said, and that was a good decade ago. The daily flows in the currency exchanges are now running at an estimated $1,300 billion, and the World Bank reckons that 95 per cent of them are speculative, which means that only five per cent is actually related to the real trade which keeps our economies moving along.

The new phenomenon of derivatives - the trade in futures and options which allow corporations to hedge their bets - takes the risks and rewards of the global casino to an even greater extreme. Derivatives trading now comes to twice total world output. Only a two per cent loss on derivatives would be greater than all the world's reserves.

"There's blood in the water," Morgan Stanley's president John Mack urged managing directors in his bid to sell derivatives. "Let's go kill someone!"

The problem is that the Masters of the Universe - as they were described by Tom Wolfe - are supposed to keep world economics stable; actually they have a vested interest in keeping it mildly unstable. Stability is not profitable: mild instability is, because it is the changes which make profits. It's just that instability is very unpredictable for the rest of us, especially if we happen to depend for our lives on the value of the rouble or any of the currencies of the Far East.

And if we are dependent on export earnings to pay off a hefty debt, as the populations are in many developing countries, a slight shift in the global casinos can blow away our carefully constructed niche in the world market.

We are all dependent on the casino, and as shareholders we are directly so. And encouraged by governments which are less and less able to afford the burden of pensions for their rapidly-ageing populations, Europeans are joining their American cousins in their fascination for the stock markets.

The net assets of Italian mutual funds shot up from $123 to $206 billion in just last year. Investments in Spanish equity funds tripled. Stock markets soared last year by 99 per cent in Italy, 85 per cent in Spain, 43 per cent in France and 48 per cent in Germany. As I write, the historic bull market in the USA is still roaring ahead, as the Dow Jones edges a historic 10,000 points - a fearsome total given that the index is now just over a century old and took 70 years to reach its first thousand.

The trouble is that , once on the bandwagon, it is very hard to get off. Disappointments are dangerous and can lead to market collapse, yet the system has to sustain repeated record growth for it to keep going. Worse, continual growth depends on us all over-consuming - and demands that over-consumption should spread to developing countries as soon as possible.

The Wall Street Journal has already warned against damage done by downshifters. "Our enormously productive economy," wrote the post-war retail analyst Victor Lebow, "demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and the use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption... We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever increasing rate."

We may not want to. We may realise that the things which get worn out and burned up are actually ourselves. We may rebel at having to carry on the ultimately self-defeating dance to keep the economy moving a little bit longer. But it is difficult to opt out when we all depend, apparently, on its froth.

Carolyn Wesson in her book Women Who Shop Too Much claimed that 59 per cent of Americans were addicted to shopping. Another survey showed that only a quarter of people shopping in malls had gone there with any specific product in mind. The global casino depends on them staying hooked.

Of course, it is easy to be puritanical about this dilemma, but we global gamblers are actually caught on the horns of a number of serious dilemmas like this. Here are some more:

  • Derivatives were developed as a way of spreading risk, but have developed into one of the riskiest of all - witness the collapse of Barings Bank and even more terrifying Japanese experience facing debts of over a billion US dollars.
  • Debt is a useful way of allowing us to develop the projects we need to move forward, but can also have catastrophic effects - which is why the average American now retires having earned enormous sums by the world's standards, but having amassed an average of only $5,000 from all that tumultuous cashflow. It is, paradoxically, immensely profitable: the junk bond revolution plunged American business into debt, and led to the recent phenomenon of downsizing, but at their height they were earning $1.5 million a day for their greatest enthusiast, Michael Milken.
  • The invention of compound interest has been one of the most civilising forces in modern life. It makes old age pensions possible, and has meant that the workhouse or begging on the street no longer awaits the majority of us when we get too old to work. Yet the expectations of interest means that money demands greater and greater returns, and increasing sums of spare capital hurtle around the world, building dams, demolishing forests and destroying lives.

The problem is that money was never meant to sustain these kind of returns. When the ancient Egyptians stored their surplus grain - encouraged by Joseph no doubt - they received marker sticks to record their deposits, which they then used as money.

Grain, like all natural things, tends to decay or be eaten by rats, which meant that this money also lost value as time went on. Our modern interest-bearing money works the other way around: the casino we are all chained to depends on producing returns simply from possessing and investing money.

It turns the parable of the talents on its head: if you leave it lying in a bank account, it works for you. "It is amazing that this monster interest has not devoured the whole of humanity," said Napoleon Bonaparte, awed by a power greater than his own.

Still we have to be realistic and see things as they really are: that is probably the advice that Gamblers Anonymous would give us. The money system may collapse disastrously, but will almost certainly continue in one form or another. Interest-bearing money is here to stay, for lots of good reasons as well as many bad ones.

So what, in those circumstances, can I do about my addiction? I have four suggestions for myself:

  • Use new kinds of money, which could be anything from LETS currencies or old-fashioned barter to the simple exchange of favours with neighbours. These kind of exchanges are more human, they build what economists call 'social capital' and they are not dependent on the global casino.
  • Shop small: where possible, avoid the big chains and the big names, and use your money to support small, local businesses. We may need them some day.
  • Invest ethically where possible. Over £1.6 billion in investments is already screened ethically in the UK alone, and the evidence is that ethical investors are beginning to have clout. BP's stock price rose when it dropped out of the Global Climate Coalition - the group of oil companies trying to undermine agreement at the Kyoto conference.
  • Downshift anyway. We don't have to go all the way, but every decision we take which puts our broader health, wealth and happiness above immediate financial returns weakens our dependence on the casino, and weakens the power of the casino over the world.

The more of us taking these simple steps - what we might call a Four Step programme - the more we can unravel our addiction to gambling. If we don't, the horrible transformation of Black Hawk, Colorado, could happen to us all.

In fact, it is probably happening already: somewhere in my heart, there is already a man in dark glasses parking my car.

David Boyle is the author of the forthcoming Funny Money: In Search of Alternative Cash, published by HarperCollins in January 1999. He is also the editor of New Economics magazine and Liberal Democrat News.







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