By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

It depends on the question

Jon Keller delivered a sneering commentary this morning about the supposed fear our political leaders have of “democracy.” His main example: House Speaker Sal DiMasi’s abortive suggestion that an advisory question about casino gambling be placed on the statewide ballot this fall. As Keller noted, neither side is enthusiastic about the idea, and it seems all but certain to be dropped.

Keller’s commentary hasn’t been posted on the WBZ Radio Web site yet, but you should be able to find it here later today.

Well, I’m one casino opponent who wouldn’t mind seeing a question go on the ballot. But what would the question be? Here’s a simple, fair and neutral question that I think gets to the heart of the matter: “Would you support a gambling casino’s being built in your city or town?”

That is really the only question that matters. Various polls have showed mixed results or mild support for casino gambling when those being surveyed are not required to focus on the possibility that it’s their community that will be affected. The results are quite different, though, when the issue is literally brought home.

Two examples:

  • Last summer, Middleborough residents attending the town meeting that approved a casino deal with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe immediately turned around and voted overwhelmingly against a casino’s being built in their town. This nonbinding vote, all but ignored by the media, stands as the only occasion that people in Middleborough have expressed their true feelings about the issue.
  • Several months ago, a poll of Massachusetts residents showed that two-thirds were opposed to a casino’s being built in their community. Most news reports focused on mixed results regarding the abstract idea of casinos. But what does that matter if no one wants one next door?

Let’s be clear — this isn’t NIMBYism, because we don’t need to build a casino anywhere. Call it NIABYism — Not in Anyone’s Back Yard.

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  1. Peter Porcupine

    DK – I’ve become fond of anew useage I’ve seen lately – NIMFY.Fill in your own blanks. :~)PS – the Lege which changes the law about the Senate because ONLY the people can vote, but disallows a ballot question because ONLY the Lege can make an informed decision could DO with a little sneering from time to time!

  2. Dan Kennedy

    PP: How about NIAFY?

  3. Anonymous

    A “sneering commentary” from Jon Keller? Gosh, imagine that!

  4. Dan Kennedy

    Personally, I never sneer, because it gets in the way of being snide. 😉

  5. Steve

    There certainly are two alternatives for a simple ballot question that would have drastically different results”Do you want casinos in Massachusetts” is liable to have at least 60% support (my wild-ass-guess).”Do you want casinos in your town in Massachusetts” might be considerably less popular.I’d like to hear Keller’s reaction is.

  6. Neil

    It would be NIABYism if the poll results were the same whether the question was about a casino somewhere in the state, or in your own community.If the results are indeed “quite different” if the issue is literally brought home, then NIMBYism is exactly what it is.I never heard that “needed” was part of the definition of NIMBY. More like, the project in question is “generally considered a benefit for many”, per Wikipedia .

  7. Bellicose Bumpkin

    Part the function of government is make decisions for the greater good. Sometimes acts of government are diametrically opposed to popular opinion. Popular opinion should never be wisdom that defines policy.Regardless of which way a casino vote goes, the decision on whether or not to have them should be based on a sound cost versus benefit analysis. A big part of the cost is the direct effect on the community an it’s quality of life. I’m sure if you took an opinion poll in the deep South in 1865, the populace would vote in favor of slavery. Point is – sometimes the will of the people is just wrong.

  8. Neil

    bellicose, good example. Abolish slavery? Not in my back yard! Said the deep South in 1865.Sometimes the will of the people is just wrong.Well the tricky bit of course is who gets to decide when that is, and if those “deciders” just end up being those with the most power, as opposed to those able or at least willing to try study the issue dispassionately and free of external (= $$$) influence. The undermining of popular opinion by backroom power moves isn’t preferrable to the will of the people. Unless of course when it corresponds with what you happen to want, then it’s “how democracy really works”. This study seems relatively free of partisan taint. One way to tell is that their conclusions are equivocal. They don’t come down with a heavy thump on one side or another.

  9. Steve Stein

    BB, you bumbling bucket of bolts, that’s what we have constitutions for – to protect the rights of people from the will of the majority. A more recent example – since 1967, inter-racially married couples have the right to have their marriages recognized in all 50 states, even though a majority in some states opposed it (and may still).Applying that principle to casino gambling is tricky. Perhaps people have a constitutional right to not have a casino built next door. (Alternatively, given this Supreme Court, perhaps towns have the right to seize property by eminent domain and give it to casino developers. I just don’t know what to expect from those whack-jobs in robes right now, but I digress.)

  10. Dan Kennedy

    Steve: I’m afraid that I have to agree more with you than with BB, despite my great admiration for BB’s anti-casino advocacy.I am not a fan of government by referendum. However, I really don’t see casino gambling as the sort of fundamental issue where the minority needs to be protected from the majority.Interracial marriage? Yes. Same-sex marriage? Yes. But casino gambling strikes me as the sort of broad public-policy question that our elected officials ought to be able to handle. (As long as they kill it, heh, heh.)

  11. Sean Roche

    Dan,Totally with you on the general question: I can think of nothing good that came of a referendum. Elect reasonable representatives and boot them if they govern badly.But, your proposed question is, as others have pointed out, the very essence of NIMBYism. Substitute “waste-water treatment plant,” “rail right-of-way,” or any other generally valuable item which is a not-so-welcome neighbor for “casino” in your proposed question.

  12. Dan Kennedy

    Sean: You can’t substitute essential projects and draw any sort of meaningful analogy. The whole idea behind NIMBYism is “this is something we absolutely need to do, but I don’t want it in my neighborhood or community.” Casino opponents are not saying casinos should be built somewhere else. They’re saying, “I don’t want a casino to be built anywhere, and I sure as hell don’t want one to be built in my town.”

  13. Sean Roche

    Dan,You’re overall argument against casino gambling is flawless. Casino gambling is a terrible source of revenue that relies on an unfounded hope that we can somehow painlessly finance what we want by having them pay for it.My quibble is with your proposed referendum phrasing. Your question only answers the NIMBY aspect. A No vote to your question doesn’t speak to the general value — or in the case of casino gambling, non-value — of the proposition. That’s the point of my analogy. Even good things — waste-water treatment, rail, &c. — would probably lose a referendum as you propose framing it.If there really is a strong constituency against casino gambling on principle, than the question ought to be:Would you support casino gambling, even in North Adams.

  14. Dan Kennedy

    But Sean … there probably isn’t a strong constituency against casino gambling in the abstract. I don’t think you need to be consistent in the least in dealing with good things, as you put it, as opposed to bad things. You try to find ways to do the good things, but you defeat the bad things by any means necessary. Some people would rather lose and stick to principle. Not me. I want to win.

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