If Meyer Lansky, Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel and Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano were reincarnated in the UK today they would never choose organised crime as a career.
Successive governments and their corporate paymasters have created an environment vastly more friendly to loan-sharking and gambling than ever existed in their time, even in Vegas and Havana. The facility to have their customers gamble away their pay cheques online using credit cards and to promote the same by TV advertising would surely convince all three that they had landed in gangster heaven.
With no FBI to worry about and no risk of finding themselves on the business end of a Thompson, what better guarantee could there be of a high life for a lowlife?
Gambling and debt are an evil mixture. Seen as a cause of misery in society for millennia, the great religions historically prohibited or at least restricted both to some degree.
Harking back to such thinking may sound very Old Testament but religious doctrines are, in reality, man made and often had good practical reasoning at their foundation.
A Jewish friend of mine once explained to me that their dietary laws had come about originally because shellfish and pork were likely to cause food poisoning in the pre-refrigerator Holy Land. No doubt a similarly wise Hebrew mind realised that having the weak gamble away their shekels instead of using them to buy food for the kids was also a bad idea. Likewise they probably figured that letting one man tempt another into usury by encouraging him to covet his neighbour’s ass would not make for a peaceful and harmonious society.
I have friends who are or have been MPs in all three main parties. Most MPs are genuine people, good men and women on all sides doing a largely thankless job.
What were they thinking, though, when gambling laws were liberalised and payday loan sharks started colonising our high streets?
I knew the Labour Party had lost what remained of its soul when it had the bright idea of promoting ‘Super Casinos’ but even they pale into insignificance compared with online gaming.
The media is no better. Tabloid hacks love to use the clichés that stockmarkets are ‘casinos’ and that investment means ‘gambling on risky shares’ but their scribblings all too often sit cheek by jowl with ads for the likes of Wonga and Sky Vegas. So perfectly is our politicians’ blind spot mirrored in the fourth estate.
Contrast then the barely-discernible regulation of gambling and lending on the one hand with that of saving and investment on the other.
There has to be something wrong with a system that requires me to provide half-a-kilo of written justification to a client wanting to make a modest-sized investment when any number of bookies can and will take the same amount of money from him in an instant, no questions asked.
I do not seriously expect the regulation around investment advice to be much liberalised but with the FCA taking over consumer credit licensing, might a similarly strict regime be imposed on lenders?
An outright ban on using debit and credit cards for any kind of gambling would be a good start along with limits on the interest rates that lenders can charge. Don’t hold your breath.
Neil Liversidge is managing director at West Riding Personal Financial Solutions