I can remember making 3 bets in my life — all the result of foolish pride leading me astray.

Barely above the age of accountability at the time of the first bet, I was sitting in my kitchen while my mother gave me a haircut when she made some terribly offensive remark about how cute I’d be for all the girls. Somewhere immediately before or after a tirade about the general yuckiness of girls, I bet her $10 that I wouldn’t ask a girl out for a date for 10 years. This was a princely sum when my allowance was 25 cents per week.

She smiled knowingly — perhaps feeling that my inherent stubbornness would offer some protection against growing up too early. Indeed, my stubbornness lasted well into high school. But, then at a youth camp, there was this cute blonde from a congregation in the southern part of my Stake. As soon as I had access to  a car, my bet was lost. (Driving the lesson home, my Mother did take my money.)

Bet number two occurred in college. One of my best friends from church was quarterback of an intramural touch football team scheduled to play the intramural team I’d joined. He had the nerve to bet that his team would beat mine — and offer me a 75 point spread. We punished them for their hubris by blocking their last extra point as time ran out. Final score: Them 74, Us 0; Us wins. Despite my “victory”, I learned that sometimes the person betting on highly improbable outcomes knows something I don’t.

Bet number three was in grad school, where the grad students and professors often killed time in the evening by playing chess. (Experiments involving radioactive decay happen on atoms’ schedules, not yours.) Another student, who was good enough to frequently beat me, but had not studied the theory of the game as I had, bet me he could checkmate me with only his bishop and knight and king still on the board. I took that bet knowing it wouldn’t be possible even to blunder into a checkmate with any legal set of moves. When he finally gave up, I was kind enough to not take his money.

None of those bets were really fair to both sides.

There seem to be several arguments why Mormons and conservative Christians more generally are taught to avoid gambling. The most common, perhaps, concerns the “environment” in which gambling occurs. e.g., the presence of other vices — or at least the presence of people who don’t regard as vices things that conservatives do so define. Paradoxically, that argument begins to fade as the culture becomes more accepting of gambling. Many people regard gambling as harmless recreation (neglecting the very real possibilities of addiction as a concern for present purposes). Indeed, many state and local governments fund significant portions of their budgets through gambling or taxing other “vices”.  The food in a great restaurant doesn’t taste worse, nor the scenery in a great resort become less beautiful, nor a singer lose his voice just because a casino or an off-track betting parlor is put in down the hall.

So people who continue to oppose gambling have been pressed to think more deeply about why gambling poses ethical problems. To begin with, losing is poor stewardship. I suppose you could consider it a “stimulus” for the other gamblers and the people providing the gambling services, but stimulating an equal amount of economic activity through charitable giving might be more nourishing for your own soul.

On the other hand, winning a bet is pure wealth redistribution that may or may not have anything to do with merit. Reading a “tell” may make poker a game of skill rather than a game of chance, which is why there can be professional poker players. But professional gamblers should definitely not be at the same table with amateurs and call it recreational.

And so a related issue arises: gambling may be regressive, especially when used for government funding. It arguably places people who are disadvantaged at the point of accepting higher risks than the well-off need to take for similar benefits. In any gambling situation, the best position you can be in is to be the “house” — to know something that the true “gamblers” don’t know or that puts you in the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose-category. So, when government becomes the house…..

It is not my point in this post to decide whether these arguments about gambling are correct. It is my point that maybe we need to start considering whether they should be applied in other areas of public life.

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Jeff Spector and I got together for breakfast a couple of weeks ago. Among many topics, the discussion turned to the emerging Solyndra scandal. Although, at the time, the Solyndra executives had not yet “taken the Fifth” before a Congressional committee, it was clear that the “techies” within the government had found problems that would have killed Solyndra’s half-billion dollar government loan guarantee — until the political appointees gummed up the process. New details seem to emerge daily about missed signals reaching up to cabinet level officials, and we will see in the months ahead just how deep this rabbit hole goes.

We talked about how I had worked in DOE industrial energy conservation programs decades ago. I had worked in putting together the first primitive quantitative models DOE used to try to take some of the politics out of project selection. Political interest of upper management even then could certainly move a project to the front of the queue for analysis, which might mean that the DOE Office’s budget for the year was fully committed before projects submitted under the next Request for Proposal were considered.

Further, if a favorite project didn’t qualify (which most often was because companies claimed too many benefits to believe they would not have funded them out of company R&D assets), you were expected to do a more detailed independent analysis to assess costs and benefits more realistically. Unfavored projects with the same defects would eventually be independently reviewed under the same standards, of course, but nobody was pulling all-nighters to complete those analyses in time for a big public announcement.

Sometimes the parameters in the models themselves would be challenged. There was not pressure to do this on any case-by-case basis. If a parameter was changed, the change applied to all proposed projects in the Office’s “portfolio”. However, again, the schedule and resources for changing the parameters and reanalyzing the portfolio was not up to the techies.

The various documents already made public during the investigation show that these kind of pressures, at least, still exist. The “get the due diligence done because we need to do such-and-such in order to meet the schedule for public announcement” tone comes through, whether or not the political levels involved even imagined that there might be any problem with the project justification.

After I’d shared my old war stories, Jeff shared some corresponding experiences in the private sector, where clients had specified the use of some start-up company’s technology, only to have the start-up company fail financially in mid-installation of the system because venture capitalists had withdrawn support for the technology. Jeff pointed out that venture capitalists bet on lots of things, fully expecting most of them to fail, but profiting hugely on the occasional jackpot. I’m pretty sure Jeff used the term “roulette”.

That image didn’t initially spark much in me, but when during the same week, we saw world stock markets gyrate up and down, with paper wealth in the hundreds of billions of dollars appearing or vanishing over a 24-hour period depending on every rumor about Euro bailouts or collapse, I found myself wondering. Has our culture moved to a point where it is increasingly difficult to tell “investing” from “gambling”? And, if so, does the way Mormon culture discourages the latter not start to have applicability to the former?

“Investment” usually meant gathering savings as capital to produce tangible goods or services which could generate a sustainable (and hopefully growing) revenue stream to which the investors would have title. The less connected the motivation for investment to that revenue stream, the more it seems to become like gambling.

So here are some examples of practices to consider. Are they to be encouraged as “investment”, or condemned as “gambling”?

  • Stock, commodity, or currency speculation? (And what makes it “speculation”?)
  • Hiring a professional manager for your assets?
  • Using computerized trading to give you an edge against the “house”?
  • Promoting policies that support your existing investments? (Is that “loading the dice” or fair competition? Or is it no more than putting your money where your values already are?)