The bet America needs to make

When Congress adjourns in a few weeks for the final time before the November elections, members will hit the campaign trail to talk about the economy. We will hear our nation's fiscal state analogized to leveraged credit card users -- our government spending wildly and postponing the day of reckoning. Given my life experiences, I prefer to call it gambling, which, ironically enough, could help resuscitate an America at the financial brink if Congress is willing to pass legislation that would legalize online gambling and raise much-needed funds.

It is ironic because I am a former compulsive gambler, and much of my life has been devastated by the poor decisions I made in service of that addiction. I lost all of the money that I earned as a successful health care entrepreneur and served time in prison after my gambling contributed to a bank failure. Examining the financial state of our government reminds me of those dark days when I would borrow money just so that I could either pay my debts or head to the casino.

Even if you succeed at that game temporarily, it eventually catches up to you. Always.

Looking at the unsustainable condition of the nation's balance sheet, this drunken night at the casino will end soon too, and it will end painfully for all of us unless we start generating taxable revenue that does not simultaneously hamper production.

Legalizing and regulating online gambling is one such means of accomplishing that, and, as a concerned citizen who is nonetheless acutely aware of the dangers of gambling, I urge Congress to recognize the advantages of doing so. Unlike, say, an Annie Duke, who recently testified before the House Financial Services Committee to urge legalization and passage of the Barney Frank-sponsored HR 2267, I have not gambled in nearly nine years and have no personal interest in ever doing so again. Instead, my position stems from my belief that gambling, while not for everyone, can be a source of responsible entertainment for many adults and should be left to an individual's personal choice, that it can generate very significant funds for the government, and that it is most dangerous when left to the shadows of the international underworld, where it could pose a national security risk.

Gambling, like drinking, predates our republic, and has always been a stigmatized activity given how it can destroy lives, as opponents of legalized gambling observe. Paternalism, however, does not make good policy, and politicians who want to use the gambling issue to make a moral statement are only exacerbating its dangers.

Gambling is already a massive business in America, and people will engage in it no matter what. Certainly that, in and of itself, does not justify its legalization, but combined with the potential to generate revenue and the fact that legalized, regulated and monitored gambling would better protect vulnerable addicts like myself, does.

The technologies that could be employed through online gambling could be effective at identifying and curtailing problem gamblers by limiting the number of bets that could be placed within a certain time frame, limiting amounts waged, and requiring banner ads for addiction services. The current system, on the other hand, continues to be plagued with cases like mine and that of Terrance Watanabe, who has been engaged in a legal battle with Harrah's after he alleged that part of the more than $100 million he lost gambling was due to wrongful inducement.

Gambling, like it or not, is part of the American culture, whether it is making a bet on who wins "American Idol" or placing a friendly Sunday wager on the football game. Life, metaphorically speaking, is a bet, with decisions made every day based on risk-reward calculations and inherent uncertainties.

What is certain, however, is this: Our country is in fiscal crisis, gambling is a big business, and the current underground gaming model is ruining many more lives than would an appropriately regulated federal system. It is time that we as a society accept that reality and proactively deal with the issue for all of our benefit. If I gambled, I'd bet that doing so could be worth it.

Adam Resnick is author of "Bust: How I Gambled and Lost a Fortune, Brought Down a Bank -- And Lived to Pay for It" (Harper Collins, 2007). He writes from Chicago.