March 06, 2011

Making Laws and Sausages

"Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made."

John Godfrey Saxe (often mistakenly attributed to Otto von Bismarck as "Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made." or "To retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making.")

One of the best perks of growing up on a farm was that meat was never lacking on the dinner table. We had two huge chest freezers in the basement, one for pork and one for beef (meat only filled half of each freezer, with the rest of the space reserved for bread and farm-grown vegetables; to this day, I despise canned veggies). When meat ran low, another steer or pig would be hauled off to the local butcher shop. Steaks, ribs, roasts, hamburger, bacon, ham ... you name the cut of meat, we enjoyed it on a regular basis (often with tasty homemade gravy; farm food is truly tough to beat!).

One problem with butchering whole animals is that you wind up with packages of some less than tasty cuts of meat—jowls, tongues, hearts, livers, shanks, and yes, whole heads. So, every fall, Grandpa would come over and we would go back to our German roots and make sausage.

The process took most of a day. First, the meat had to be cooked. Next, it had to be cranked through Grandpa's family heirloom hand meat grinder (see pictures below). Then, the meat had to be seasoned and mixed together. Finally, the meat had to be run through a sausage stuffer to be made into links (for the sausage that was made in link form). Once finished, it was off to the freezer, waiting for a cold winter morning or evening to be brought out for a hearty meal.

We usually made three types of sausage. My favorite was a breakfast sausage which was made by adding oatmeal to the sausage while it cooked; when fried with lard (what did you expect, canola oil?), the oatmeal on the outside would make a crunchy crust, while the meat and oatmeal inside remained a creamy texture. Another tasty sausage was brain sausage, made from lighter colored cuts of meat, along with head meat and, yes, cooked brains; the sausage was seasoned with diced raw onions and garlic, then stuffed into casings. While we're at it, "casings" is a fancy word for "intestines"; yes, traditional sausages are stuffed into intestines which have been cleaned and stretched, and are entirely edible when the sausage is cooked. The final regular sausage was a dark sausage, made with liver and darker meat cuts, and more heavily seasoned with black pepper and paprika, again stuffed into casings.

The great thing about our homemade sausages was that—much like your standard hot dogs, bratwurts, andouilles, chorizos, salamis, and other commercial sausages—they took scraps of meat that were otherwise shunned as "gross" and transformed them into something absolutely delicious. The sum was unquestionably greater than the parts. Yes, I knew full well what went into the sausage I ate, but I frankly didn't care. The end product was all that mattered.

A classic poster advertising the Universal Food Chopper.

A closer look at the parts of the meat grinder, which is remarkably
well-designed to be easy to assemble, clean, and store.
(Apparently you can buy one on for only $29.99!)

This is a pretty good look at how the meat looks going in and coming out.
(Heavy duty model from

A good picture of the style of sausage stuffer used by my grandpa.
The casing attaches to the hole at the bottom. The top is unscrewed on the right
side near the crank, then pivots up to allow the sausage to be put into the device.
When the top is screwed back down, the crank operates the screw mechanism
to twist down a heavy metal plate lying on top of the sausage, which in turn
presses the ground sausage down and into the casing.

This past week, I had the opportunity to testify in front of a subcommittee of the Iowa legislature in support of one of three bills I drafted at the request of a group of businesses and insurance carriers. It was an interesting experience, advocating for a complicated bill in front of a group of legislators who had little expertise in the area of law this bill addressed, and facing down a half dozen or so opposing lobbyists. After the meeting, the lobbyist who had asked for my assistance gave me a rundown of the chances for the three bills I drafted, as well as the legislative process going forward. The lobbyist gave me a list of concerns raised by opponents, and asked what areas we could compromise on (and language that would be acceptable), and what areas couldn't be touched. Although all three bills passed out of committee as written, we have already hammered out compromise language to propose if needed to secure additional votes, either in the House (where the bills originated), or after the bills (hopefully) move over to the Senate.

As most poker players are aware, the Iowa legislature is also considering a bill to legalize online poker within the state. Officially labeled SSB1165 ("SSB" means "Senate Study Bill", indicating a bill introduced via a committee chair without a designated sponsor, a tactic often used for bills on controversial topics), the bill sets up a regulatory system for intrastate online poker along with addressing issues related to horseracing purses and eliminating periodic county voter approval of casino gaming. These latter two topics are controversial gaming issues that might either help or hinder the cause of online poker; such is the risk of making sausage.

The poker bill itself sets up a mechanism for state gaming commission approval of one or more "hub" websites that would provide online poker subject to requirements for providing adequate security for private information and preventing underage gambling and fraudulent activities. Interestingly, although Caesars Entertainment operates the WSOP online poker website overseas as well as the Horseshoe Casino in Council Bluffs (near Omaha, with perhaps the best poker room in the state), the company has not yet committed itself to the proposal either for or against. Even more interestingly, the bill contains a strong "bad actors" provision which would prohibit current online poker sites from ever qualifying for licensing. So, if this bill passes, the choice for Iowa online poker players will be one of, at most, two or three (and possibly only one) online poker sites—not including Full Tilt, PokerStars, UB, Cake, etc. On the flip side, the poker site would be legal and regulated, providing players with legal protections against fraud and cheating they currently do not have.

To my mind, one important question remains unanswered—is online poker limited to the state of Iowa economically feasible? Proponents of the bill claim that approximately 150,000 Iowans regularly play poker online, and that online poker will generate approximately $30-$40 million per year in tax revenue. Under the bill, online poker will be taxed at the same rate as other gaming, which works out to essentially 22% of gross gaming receipts. Doing the math, the bill's proponents must expect online poker players in Iowa to generate gross gaming revenues (i.e., rake) of approximately $135-$185 million per year (actually somewhat more, as the gaming tax has a graduated structure capped at 22%).* That works out to an average of $900-$1,200 in rake per player, per year; no matter how you slice it, that's a lot of money being siphoned out of the Iowa poker scene solely in rake. Now, hard core recreational players and semi-professional grinders might generate that kind of rake, but the average microstakes player probably will be playing well below that projection. Even assuming new players flock to the legalized version of the game, I can't imagine many of them will be playing often enough or at high enough stakes to support these kinds of expectations. Also, online players who bust out a few times might simply give up the game altogether, killing the golden goose. Forgive my skepticism, but I doubt that Iowa's population base will support online poker profits consistent with these projections, certainly not on a long-term basis.

The moral of all this musing is that passing laws can be like making sausage in two widely divergent ways. Often, the legislative process can bring together a number of unpalatable proposals and churn out a delicious result, a pepperoni or bratwurst of a bill. A federal bill legalizing online poker which balances the concerns of poker players, Indian casinos, land-based casinos, off-shore poker sites, law enforcement agencies, and anti-gaming moralists might prove to be tasty and satisfying. But sometimes, legislation takes some crappy ingredients and spits out a completely inedible concoction. Regrettably, I fear that the Iowa online poker bill is nothing more than a stinky liverwurst.

"Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable—the art of the next best."

Otto von Bismarck

* By way of comparison, in 2009, Iowa's seventeen casinos together generated annual total gross gaming revenues of $1.3 billion and net gaming tax receipts of $306 million. In other words, online poker alone is projected to bring in roughly 10%-15% of the amounts generated by all casino gaming in the state. To my mind, this seems to be a rather "pie in the sky" projection.


  1. Thinking about those projections does the people behind this bill really think that allIowans that currently play online poker are going to drop sites like ilt and PStars for the ones approved by the bill? Yes those sites blocked off players from France and Italy when those countries passed their legalization laws but only because they got an "in" to those markets via seperate setups. Just ecause there is a legal version available doesn't mean people are going to flock to it. Moonshiners still exist and the underground numbers game is still going strong. Because of their popularity any law that doesn't take in to account existing sites, or at least the big 3, Pstars, Tilt and AP/UB is going to be doomed to failure unless they can figure a way to block them and force people to give them up. Either that or design a software that blows those sites out of the water and we all know how likely that will be.

  2. @ Wolfshead:

    Two thoughts. First, a legal site will attract money from newbies and unsophisticated players. In turn, that will attract the sharks.

    Second, states will either go after illegal sites directly, or via federal prosecutions. It will be much more difficult for current sites to operate once a state with an interest in online gambling ratchets up the enforcement.

  3. True to some extent but while a legal site may attract newbies and such unless there are enough of them out there the sharks are basically going to stay where the bait fish are schooling and the software plays to their advantage. There are a lot of unsophisticated players out there on the lesser sites now but the numbers are nothing like the big 3 not to mention the software on the whole sux. As for the second point we all know how well prohibition of anything really works. After all we're winning the war on drugs aren't we?