Secchia’s Economic Logic

[This is a response to Peter Secchia’s recent op-ed in the Grand Rapids Press arguing for the benefits of a downtown casino in Grand Rapids.]

For Peter Secchia, the generation of revenue covers a multitude of sins.

Despite charges of hypocrisy, I don’t think Secchia has really changed his mind. While he has opposed a tribal casino in West Michigan, his opposition was “based on economic factors.” Unlike others who oppose casino development on moral grounds, or on the basis of the documented social repercussions, Secchia’s opposition concerned economic fair play: as tax-free entities, tribal casinos are playing with a loaded deck.

But in his argument for a downtown Grand Rapids casino, I detect a worrisome logic at work. So let me take up his invitation to conversation about his proposal.

Secchia’s argument goes something like this: The federal law that authorizes tribal casinos is regrettable and lamentable, but won’t be changed anytime soon. So tribal casinos are inevitable. Since they are inevitable and unpreventable, they will inevitably suck revenue and profit from Grand Rapids. Therefore, we should build a Grand Rapids casino to stem the tide, protect private sector profits, and generate revenue that will benefit the community.

Let’s call this the argument from inevitability. It amounts to a version of the axiom, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” The argument begins with a sigh, recognizing a regrettable state of affairs. One then throws up one’s hands and laments, “But it’s not going to change.” Therefore, the argument concludes, we should harness this regrettable but inevitable reality and turn it to our good (where “good” means profit and revenue).

Based on this reasoning, Secchia suggests that a Grand Rapids casino could be a cure to all kinds of social ills in the city, from empty swimming pools to empty bellies. (Was he kidding when he suggested funneling gambling profits to churches?)

But why stop there? Based on the same logic, it seems like we could harness all kinds of lamentable but inevitable activities in order to generate revenue for our beleaguered city. For instance, consider this version of the argument from inevitability: Prostitution is a terrible thing. But given its status as “the oldest profession,” it’s not going away any time soon. As a result, prostitution represents an entire underground and tax-free economy that is, in effect, robbing our city of revenue. Therefore, we should legalize, regulate, and tax prostitution. The funds generated could open the pools and perhaps provide scholarships for GRCC.

And while we’re at it, drug trafficking in our city won’t soon go away. You get the idea.

Running the argument with these alternatives shows us more starkly that Secchia’s logic is purely economic. But the generation of revenue does not cover the multitude of sins and injustices associated with casinos and gambling. We shouldn’t let Secchia’s fiscal myopia blind us to that.