Photo: Lee Pellegrini

The Odds Father

How the Jesuit priest and Boston College professor Richard McGowan, SJ, became a leading gambling expert.

Richard McGowan, SJ, has taught courses in finance and statistics for more than thirty years at Boston College, where he is fondly referred to as “Father McGowan.” But in El Salvador, where he travels twice a year to teach executive education courses at the University of Central America, his colleagues have given  him a less traditional moniker. “They call me the sin priest down there,” McGowan said with a laugh. “I don’t know whether to be honored or not, but it actually is quite true.”

McGowan has spent nearly the entirety of his academic career studying humankind’s various vices—namely gambling, alcohol, and cigarettes—and the public policies designed to regulate them. Today, he’s one of the nation’s foremost experts on the so-called “sin industries,” commenting in national news stories on casino policy and marijuana legalization and consulting with state governments on gaming regulations. He’s published numerous articles on everything from state-run lotteries to the Spanish cigarette industry, as well as six books, with another on the way. 

McGowan’s research interests run in two directions: As a trained economist, he spends much of his time searching for trends in data and creating models to predict economic outcomes, such as how much revenue will be generated by legalized sports betting. But as a Jesuit priest, McGowan is also fascinated by human behavior, including the public’s shifting opinion of which “sinful” behaviors are ethical, and which aren’t. “In the sixties, only one state had casino gambling and you could smoke anywhere,” he said. “Now, cigarette smokers are absolute pariahs and everyone accepts gambling. Why is that?”

McGowan began studying the sin industries in the 1980s as a doctoral student at Boston University, where he completed a dissertation examining the effects of excise taxes and anti-smoking laws on cigarette sales. After completing his first book on the topic, he shifted his attention to the alcohol industry and later became an expert in legalized gambling, sitting on several gaming commissions and attending regular conferences in Las Vegas, despite his personal aversion to the city. (“After three days I’ve about had it.”) As states began to contemplate legalizing marijuana for medical and recreational use, McGowan added another sin to his arsenal, writing articles on the pros and cons of legalization and testifying about the public policy implications.

More recently, McGowan has expanded his definition of “sin industries.” He now studies soft drink manufacturers, as well as tech companies like Facebook and Amazon. This more recent focus will feature prominently in his upcoming book, Economics, Ethics and Public Policy: Past and Future Sin Industries. McGowan and colleagues in Spain and Australia are also studying the potential consequences of legalized sports betting, including the cost of gambling addiction, which is difficult to quantify, but important to understand, McGowan said. “The Jesuits were always famous for looking at both sides of the issue and when you do that, you realize there are consequences for whatever action you take, even if it’s the right action,” he said. “The first thing I teach my economics students is that there’s an opportunity cost no matter what you do.” 

Traditional theologians might cringe at the subjects he’s chosen to study, but McGowan said his research helps policy-makers and elected officials make the choices that most benefit society. Where others may see products like e-cigarettes or soda as purely bad, McGowan has a more nuanced view: What if e-cigarettes could help lifelong smokers quit? Would you rather a person smoked marijuana or used opioids? Sometimes, he said, “you have to measure the lesser evil.”  

Whatever else you can say about being the sin priest, it comes with job security. Recently, a conversation with a student got McGowan thinking about self-driving cars, a controversial topic with a long list of pros and cons—his favorite kind of topic to explore. “As soon as I hear people say, ‘we’ve got to regulate this,’ my ears perk up and go, ‘aha, a new industry!’” 

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