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29 April 2008

the mathematical expertise of America's chief philosopher of conservative Morality

"William J. Bennett, the former Republican secretary of education, said that the nation's crime rate could potentially be reduced through aborting blacks." (From a 2005 caption in The New York Times.) (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Sometimes you get your first petite collision with Probability in high school math, but if you don't run fleeing and shrieking from math at the first legal opportunity, you get a more thorough car wreck with it in undergrad college.

You may remember it because nearly all the introductory examples are about gambling games -- playing cards, dice, etc. -- figuring out the odds for drawing a certain poker hand, or the odds of rolling a certain dice number, or four 7s in a row.

This is because the whole branch of Probability originated in 16th century Europe with some questions posed by addicted gamblers. They wanted to know more details about why they were losing so much money all the time, and if there just might be some possibility that they could actually win money for a change.

The addicted gamblers asked the questions to Europe's most brilliant mathematicians -- people like Blaise Pascal -- and the mathematicians quickly realized that although the gamblers were total morons who shouldn't be allowed out unsupervised, their questions raised very deep and profound issues about Reality. Because Reality seems to love to do whatever it is that Reality does in ways that astonishingly resemble gambling games. The math's the same.

Expressing his deep suspicion of the new quantum physics, Albert Einstein famously said

"God does not play dice."
"Gott w├╝rfelt nicht."

... but he seems to have been wrong. Whoever/whatever created the Universe apparently constructed much of it along the lines of a large Native-American or Monte Carlo casino, and it is only ours to wonder why the Creator of the Universe thought that was a good idea. But that's why we get taught some introductory Probability in math class. It's no longer about the Craps or the Chemin-de-Fer or the Baccarat or the Roulette. It's about describing what we can perceive most intimately about the behavior of matter and energy.

My last calculus professor had a doctorate in Probability, and was an addicted gambler; the buzz was he had flushed several family fortunes down the toilets of many casinos around the world. Mathematicians tend to be the most vulnerable to this addiction; they succumb to a hallucination that, unlike ordinary addicted gamblers, they know so much about the mathematics of what is going on that they can devise a foolproof "system" to beat the odds and win a fortune at the casino. His favorite game was Blackjack, and he had concluded that its house-to-player odds were so favorable that a brilliant Probability Doctor like him could push it from the Loss column to a fortune in Profits. Two divorces later, and he was still not Rich Beyond His Wildest Dreams.

Now we come to an esteemed and famous American philosopher and moralist, William J. Bennett, who was U.S. Secretary of Education under President Ronald Reagan, and then was named America's Drug Czar under President George H.W. Bush (Bush Daddy), tasked with the easy chore of making everybody in America completely stop using illegal drugs -- marijuana, heroin, cocaine, etc. He was supposed to develop a national strategy which would reflect Nancy Reagan's solution to the problem of young people using illegal drugs: "Just say no."

Since eradicating illegal drugs from the USA, Bennett has gone on to become a lecture-circuit and Fox News Channel star espousing his conservative philosophies of Personal Responsibility, and has authored a series of books telling Americans what they've been doing that's wicked, sinful and naughty, and why they should stop immediately, and Act Right.

A few years ago, this Paragon of Moral Virtue was outed with a Naughty Little Secret: Not only is he an addicted gambler, but he is addicted to Slot Machines, the most notorious Toilet in the casino, and has flushed away millions of dollars (that perhaps his wife and children thought were safely tucked away in sound investments and banks for their benefit) sitting alone in a dark corner of the casino pulling the lever of the One-Armed Bandit over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and ...

After this article in The Washington Monthly magazine, and a New York Times article about Bennett's belief that the solution to crime in America is to provide abortions for African-American fetuses, Agence-Vleeptron Presse could not resist the temptation of another profile of Saint William J. Bennett, from the World Socialist Web Site. Essentially it's just a rewrite of the Washington Monthly article, but it's a very tasty job by the Far Left of stomping a Big Famous Cheese of the Far Right in the head endlessly with heavy boots.

Well, he asked for it.

Speaking strictly from a Mathematical Viewpoint -- this guy is dumber than a box of sterilized rocks. But you can find his syndicated radio show and listen to him explain Morality to you. Or you can buy his series of best-selling books about Personal Responsibility.

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The Washington Monthly
(magazine, Washington DC)
June 2003


The Bookie of Virtue

William J. Bennett has made millions lecturing people on morality -- and blown it on gambling.

by Joshua Green

"We should know that too much of anything, even a good thing, may prove to be our undoing...[We] need ... to set definite boundaries on our appetites."

-- "The Book of Virtues," by William J. Bennett

No person can be more rightly credited with making morality and personal responsibility an integral part of the political debate than William J. Bennett. For more than 20 years, as a writer, speaker, government official, and political operative, Bennett has been a commanding general in the culture wars. As Ronald Reagan's chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, he was the scourge of academic permissiveness. Later, as Reagan's secretary of education, he excoriated schools and students for failing to set and meet high standards. As drug czar under George H.W. Bush, he applied a get-tough approach to drug use, arguing that individuals have a moral responsibility to own up to their addiction. Upon leaving public office, Bennett wrote The Book of Virtues, a compendium of parables snatched up by millions of parents and teachers across the political spectrum. Bennett's crusading ideals have been adopted by politicians of both parties, and implemented in such programs as character education classes in public schools--a testament to his impact.

But Bennett, a devout Catholic, has always been more Old Testament than New. Even many who sympathize with his concerns find his combative style haughty and unforgiving. Democrats in particular object to his partisan sermonizing, which portrays liberals as inherently less moral than conservatives, more given to excusing personal weaknesses, and unwilling to confront the vices that destroy families. During the impeachment of Bill Clinton, Bennett was among the president's most unrelenting detractors. His book, The Death of Outrage, decried, among other things, the public's failure to take Clinton's sins more seriously.

His relentless effort to push Americans to do good has enabled Bennett to do extremely well. His best-selling The Book of Virtues spawned an entire cottage industry, from children's books to merchandizing tie-ins to a PBS cartoon series. Bennett commands $50,000 per appearance on the lecture circuit and has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from such conservative benefactors as the Scaife and John M. Olin foundations.

Few vices have escaped Bennett's withering scorn. He has opined on everything from drinking to "homosexual unions" to "The Ricki Lake Show" to wife-swapping. There is one, however, that has largely escaped Bennett's wrath: gambling. This is a notable omission, since on this issue morality and public policy are deeply intertwined. During Bennett's years as a public figure, casinos, once restricted to Nevada and New Jersey, have expanded to 28 states, and the number continues to grow. In Maryland, where Bennett lives, the newly elected Republican governor Robert Ehrlich is trying to introduce slot machines to fill revenue shortfalls. As gambling spreads, so do its associated problems. Heavy gambling, like drug use, can lead to divorce, domestic violence, child abuse, and bankruptcy. According to a 1998 study commissioned by the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, residents within 50 miles of a casino are twice as likely to be classified as "problem" or "pathological" gamblers than those who live further away.

If Bennett hasn't spoken out more forcefully on an issue that would seem tailor-made for him, perhaps it's because he is himself a heavy gambler. Indeed, in recent weeks word has circulated among Washington conservatives that his wagering could be a real problem. They have reason for concern. The Washington Monthly and Newsweek have learned that over the last decade Bennett has made dozens of trips to casinos in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, where he is a "preferred customer" at several of them, and sources and documents provided to The Washington Monthly put his total losses at more than $8 million.

"I don't play the 'milk money.'"

Bennett has been a high-roller since at least the early 1990s. A review of one 18-month stretch of gambling showed him visiting casinos, often for two or three days at a time (and enjoying a line of credit of at least $200,000 at several of them). Bennett likes to be discreet. "He'll usually call a host and let us know when he's coming," says one source. "We can limo him in. He prefers the high-limit room, where he's less likely to be seen and where he can play the $500-a-pull slots. He usually plays very late at night or early in the morning -- usually between midnight and 6 a.m." The documents show that in one two-month period, Bennett wired more than $1,400,000 to cover losses. His desire for privacy is evident in his customer profile at one casino, which lists as his residence the address for Empower.org (the Web site of Empower America, the non-profit group Bennett co-chairs). Typed across the form are the words: "NO CONTACT AT RES OR BIZ!!!"

Bennett's gambling has not totally escaped public notice. In 1998, The Washington Times reported in a light-hearted front-page feature story that he plays low-stakes poker with a group of prominent conservatives, including Robert Bork, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and Chief Justice William Rehnquist. A year later, the same paper reported that Bennett had been spotted at the new Mirage Resorts Bellagio casino in Las Vegas, where he was reputed to have won a $200,000 jackpot. Bennett admitted to the Times that he had visited the casino, but denied winning $200,000. Documents show that, in fact, he won a $25,000 jackpot on that visit -- but left the casino down $625,000.

Bennett -- who gambled throughout Clinton's impeachment -- has continued this pattern in subsequent years. On July 12 of last year, for instance, Bennett lost $340,000 at Caesar's Boardwalk Regency in Atlantic City. And just three weeks ago, on March 29 and 30, he lost more than $500,000 at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

"There's a term in the trade for this kind of gambler," says a casino source who has witnessed Bennett at the high-limit slots in the wee hours.
"We call them losers."

Asked by Newsweek columnist and Washington Monthly contributing editor Jonathan Alter to comment on the reports, Bennett admitted that he gambles but not that he has ended up behind. "I play fairly high stakes. I adhere to the law. I don't play the 'milk money.' I don't put my family at risk, and I don't owe anyone anything." The documents offer no reason to contradict Bennett on these points. Bennett claims he's beaten the odds: "Over 10 years, I'd say I've come out pretty close to even."

"You can roll up and down a lot in one day, as we have on many occasions," Bennett explains. "You may cycle several hundred thousand dollars in an evening and net out only a few thousand."

"I've made a lot of money [in book sales, speaking fees and other business ventures] and I've won a lot of money," adds Bennett. "When I win, I usually give at least a chunk of it away [to charity]. I report everything to the IRS."

But the documents show only a few occasions when he turns in chips worth $30,000 or $40,000 at the end of an evening. Most of the time, he draws down his line of credit, often substantially. A casino source, hearing of Bennett's claim to breaking even on slots over 10 years, just laughed.

"You don't see what I walk away with," Bennett says. "They [casinos] don't want you to see it."

Explaining his approach, Bennett says: "I've been a 'machine person' [slot machines and video poker]. When I go to the tables, people talk -- and they want to talk about politics. I don't want that. I do this for three hours to relax." He says he was in Las Vegas in April for dinner with the former governor of Nevada and gambled while he was there.

Bennett says he has made no secret of his gambling. "I've gambled all my life and it's never been a moral issue with me. I liked church bingo when I was growing up. I've been a poker player."

But while Bennett's poker playing and occasional Vegas jaunt are known to some Washington conservatives, his high-stakes habit comes as a surprise to many friends. "We knew he went out there [to Las Vegas] sometimes, but at that level? Wow!" said one longtime associate of Bennett.

Despite his personal appetites, Bennett and his organization, Empower America, oppose the extension of casino gambling in the states. In a recent editorial, his Empower America co-chair Jack Kemp inveighed against lawmakers who "pollute our society with a slot machine on every corner." The group recently published an Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, with an introduction written by Bennett, that reports 5,500,000 American adults as "problem" or "pathological" gamblers. Bennett says he is neither because his habit does not disrupt his family life.

[Agence-Vleeptron Presse has been unable to reach Bennett's wife or children for their opinions on Dad's hobby. Maybe one of them will read this and Leave A Comment.]

When reminded of studies that link heavy gambling to divorce, bankruptcy, domestic abuse, and other family problems he has widely decried, Bennett compared the situation to alcohol.

"I view it as drinking," Bennett says. "If you can't handle it, don't do it."

Bennett is a wealthy man and may be able to handle losses of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Of course, as the nation's leading spokesman on virtue and personal responsibility, Bennett's gambling complicates his public role. Moreover, it has already exacted a cost. Like him or hate him, William Bennett is one of the few public figures with a proven ability to influence public policy by speaking out. By furtively indulging in a costly vice that destroys millions of lives and families across the nation, Bennett has profoundly undermined the credibility of his word on this moral issue.

Reporting assistance provided by Robert W. J. Fisk, Soyoung Ho, and Brent Kendall.

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The New York Times
30 September 2005


White House Criticizes
Bennett for Remarks

by David D. Kirkpatrick and Marek Fuchs

WASHINGTON, Sept. 29 -- The White House distanced itself today from the comments of a prominent Republican who said on a recent radio program that the nation's crime rate could potentially be reduced through aborting blacks.

William J. Bennett,
the former Republican secretary of education, said that the nation's crime rate could potentially be reduced through aborting blacks.

The White House called the comments, made by William J. Bennett, the former Republican secretary of education, off base. The White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said that President George W. Bush "believes the comments were not appropriate."

Mr. Bennett has said the remarks were taken out of context, noting that he immediately said such abortions would be "reprehensible."

Mr. Bennett, who served as drug czar for the president's father, came under fire from Democratic Congressional leaders on Thursday for the comments, which were made on a his radio show, "Bill Bennett's Morning in America," earlier this week.

"I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down," Mr. Bennett said in the broadcast. "That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky."

In a radio broadcast on Thursday, Mr. Bennett called the criticism of him "ridiculous, stupid, totally without merit."

"I was pointing out that abortion should not be opposed for economic reasons, any more than racism or for that matter slavery or segregation should be supported or opposed for economic reasons," he said. "Immoral policies are wrong because they are wrong, not because of an economic calculation. One could just as easily have said you could abort all children and prevent all crime, to show the absurdity of the proposition."

Mr. Bennett, who was the secretary of education in the Reagan administration and is the author of a best-selling book on morality, said he was referring to a debate in the online magazine Slate that had discussed race in the context of an argument about whether abortions contributed to lowering the crime rate. That debate, involving Steven D. Levitt, an author of the best-seller "Freakonomics," apparently appeared in Slate six years ago.

In an interview with Fox News, Mr. Bennett said critics had distorted his comments by omitting his statement that aborting all black babies would be "morally reprehensible."

"When that is included in the quote, it makes it perfectly clear what my position is," Mr. Bennett said, "They make it seem as if I am supporting such a monstrous idea, which I don't."

The Democratic Congressional leaders, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, both sought to put the remarks in the context of a Republican effort to court African-American voters. Mr. Reid said Mr. Bennett's comments would "feed the fires of racism," and Ms. Pelosi called them "shameful words."

David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Washington for this article and Marek Fuchs from New York.

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World Socialist Web Site www.wsws.org
9 May 2003


William Bennett:
the secret high-stakes gambling life of a former drug “czar”

by Kate Randall

William Bennett, secretary of education under Reagan and drug “czar” in the first Bush administration, has engaged in high-stakes gambling to the tune of as much as $8 million in losses in recent years. This revelation was greeted with revulsion -- but not surprise -- by anyone who has followed the moral preachings of this reactionary zealot. It is a further exposure of the rank hypocrisy of the group of extreme-right ideologues who have justified the accumulation of unprecedented wealth through the assault on the social conditions of working people and the poor in the United States over the past two decades.

The gambling habits of Bennett -- who has made his millions peddling books such as The Book of Virtues and The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family — were detailed in an article by Joshua Green in the Washington Monthly Online this past weekend. Bennett has apparently been a high-roller on the gambling scene since at least the early 1990s. Green reports that Bennett would often visit casinos for two or three days at a time, and enjoyed lines of credit of at least $200,000 at several of them.

Bennett was no small-time, recreational gambler. The Washington Monthly reports a source saying, “He’ll usually call a host and let us know when he’s coming. We can limo him in. He prefers the high-limit room, where he’s less likely to be seen and where he can play the $500-a-pull slots. He usually plays very late at night or early in the morning—usually between midnight and 6 a.m.”

Although Bennett claims that “Over ten years, I’d say I’ve come out pretty close to even,” documents obtained by the Washington Monthly show Bennett wired more than $1,400,000 to cover his losses in one two-month period. On July 12, 2002, he reportedly lost $340,000 at Caesar’s Boardwalk Regency in Atlantic City, and on April 5 and 6 of this year he lost more than $500,000 at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

After the story broke, Bennett defended his behavior, saying, “I adhere to the law. I don’t play the ‘milk money.’ I don’t put my family at risk, and I don’t owe anyone anything.” All true — and revealing — statements.

Bennett is a multimillionaire. In addition to profits from his moralizing books, he pulls in $50,000 an appearance to spew out his reactionary drivel on moral virtues and traditional family values to select audiences. The fact that $8 million in losses has had no impact on his family budget shows just how privileged and distant his lifestyle is from that of the majority of people who frequent casinos. For Bennett to tap into the “milk money” he would have to lose hundreds of millions of dollars.

The situation is different for the millions of lower-stakes gamblers who lose money at US casinos every day. While only a few decades ago gambling was restricted to Las Vegas and Atlantic City, New Jersey, in recent years casinos have sprung up in many metropolitan as well as rural areas across the country plagued by economic decline. Politicians have embraced casinos to make up for the fall in revenues resulting from shutdown industries and cuts in taxes on the wealthy. In Michigan, for example, where gambling was once a relatively rare activity, state residents spent over $5 billion last year on legal forms of gambling.

While the casinos Bennett has frequented are surely happy to profit from his losses, the gambling houses in general target their business to the higher volume of lower-stakes customers. Gambling is big business. In Detroit, huge tax breaks have been granted to the three casinos that have set up business in the city. These gambling houses mainly target their business to workers and the poor in the city as well as working people from the surrounding suburbs. While many come for entertainment, a large number come with the unrealistic hope that they will “make it big,” take home large winnings and solve their economic problems. A far more frequent outcome is indebtedness and gambling addiction.

The Michigan Department of Community Health writes on its web site: “For those who become addicted, gambling leads to serious family and financial strain. Approximately 5 percent of people who gamble ultimately become addicted. In Michigan, that translates to about 350,000 compulsive gamblers.”

On January 26, 2000, 38-year-old Solomon Bell, an off-duty cop from suburban Detroit, shot himself in the head after losing between $15,000 and $20,000 at two Detroit casinos. But according to William Bennett, such problem gamblers —and sufferers of other addictions — are morally weak and derelict and their addictions have nothing to do with the economic conditions under which they live.

Spending entire nights in the solitary activity of pulling the arm of a slot machine or playing video poker — both games that involve no thought or skill and which the house is strongly favored to win — would certainly be a symptom of gambling addiction and undoubtedly deeper psychological problems. For Bennett, however, the loss of millions — not to mention a mere $20,000—was not grounds for contemplating suicide.

In The Broken Hearth, Bennett chastises “some on the American Left” who say that the breakdown of the family and America’s other social ills can be traced to “economic deprivation and social inequality, including a decline in job prospects and real income, wage stagnation, and an unraveling social safety net.”

Bennett has made an industry out of moral proselytizing as a crude cover for maintaining this social inequality, and defending capitalist society and its class rule. This includes support for reactionary domestic policies — including draconian sentencing laws for drug offenders, prosecuting children as adults, legal barriers to divorce and abortion — as well as the promotion of US imperialist aggression.

Bennett was one of the signatories of an October 1, 2001 open letter in the Weekly Standard which called for retaliating against Iraq for the September 11, 2001 suicide hijackings, regardless of whether the Hussein regime was in any way responsible. The letter read in part: “Even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power.”

Bennett was also in the audience of the Conservative Political Action Conference, January 30 - February 2 in Arlington, Virginia, when right-wing columnist and television commentator Ann Coulter advocated execution for John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban. “We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed too,” Coulter told the cheering gathering of ultra-right Republicans.

He also devoted an entire volume — The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals — devoted to moralizing against Bill Clinton in connection with the Monica Lewinsky affair. According to Joshua Green, Bennett continued to gamble throughout the campaign to drive Clinton from office.

In the wake the gambling revelations, Bennett’s supporters have attempted to defend him by saying that he never personally condemned gambling, so he had not compromised his convictions. While this may be technically true, Bennett’s organization, Empower America, opposes legalized gambling and includes “problem” gambling as a so-called negative indicator of cultural health.

In the end, Bennett has been forced by all the publicity to give it up. “I have done too much gambling,” he said, “and this is not an example I wish to set. Therefore, my gambling days are over.” The conservative Concerned Women for America commented that it hoped Bennett would “remain firm in his resolve to eliminate gambling from his life and will not hesitate to seek any help he may need in keeping his resolve.”

The entire sordid affair is, in the end, not a moral issue but illustrative of the hypocrisy of those like William Bennett who are motivated in their personal and political lives not by principles, but by a right-wing and reactionary political agenda and an appetite for wealth and the luxuries that come with it.

With the profits gleaned from preaching to Americans about their moral deficiencies, Bennett entertained himself by dropping millions of dollars into slot machines and video poker. But he asks that he be forgiven his transgressions, because, after all, he didn’t “play the ‘milk money.’”

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