America's Last Honest Place
Even though the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center slowed (slightly) what has traditionally been the recession-proof Vegas economy, a steady stream of 5,000-6,000 domestic economic refugees a month still pour into and around the city. Only 6 percent of adults living in Vegas's Clark County were born here--the lowest such figure anywhere in America. And although water supplies are drying up, schools are strained and suicide and domestic violence rates are among the highest in the nation, they keep pouring in. Purchasers of new houses--at prices far below those of the two coasts--are wait-listed. Vegas's population doubled during the 1980s, and doubled again in the '90s. Vegas continues to be the fastest-growing metropolitan area in America.
This generation of immigrants, however, is different in many ways from the grifters, hustlers and outcasts who huddled here over the past century. Sure, there will always be a certain batch of trimmers, fugitives and shakedown artists looking to launder themselves in the Vegas sun. But most of those now crowding into Las Vegas are fleeing from an America where everyday life has become too much of a gamble--where either the Reagan recession of 1981, the Bush slump of 1990 or the burst bubble of a decade later has left them as devastated as a blackjack player who bet it all only to have his pair of tens get trounced by the dealer's Ace-King. The only risk they are interested in now is the off chance that Vegas can provide the normalcy, the security, the certainty, that once underpinned their lives, or at least their dreams.
What a turnaround it has been for once lowly Las Vegas--and for the nation around it. Barely fifteen years ago, the august Citicorp was queasy about publicly admitting that its major credit-card processing center had been relocated to an unincorporated suburb of Las Vegas. A deal with state authorities allowed the banking corporation to postmark and camouflage its mail as coming from "The Lakes, Nevada" instead of from sinful Vegas. Today, that same neighborhood sports several high-end casinos and luxury hotels. And Citicorp's own credibility, in the aftermath of the great Wall Street accounting scandals, ranks somewhere below that of a midtown three-card-monte hustler.
Nor could Neil Postman have known back in 1985 that casino gambling was about to be fully destigmatized within a decade--and delicately renamed "gaming." The resulting shift in public attitudes would not only definitively cleanse Vegas's image but also net it a growing bonanza. As recently as 1988, casino gambling was legal only in Nevada and in Atlantic City. But as American industry continued to wash up offshore and the commercial tax base atrophied, one strapped state and municipality after another turned its forlorn eyes toward the gaming tables and slot machines. Impoverished Indian tribes were more than willing to sign gambling compacts with state governments. The result: Now twenty-seven states have Nevada-style casinos, and forty-eight states have at least some form of legal gambling. With local budgets again being squeezed by burgeoning deficits, government itself is thinking about going into the casino business. In the spring of 2003, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said he'd like to open a municipal casino. Before the 1989 opening of the Mirage unleashed the New Vegas revolution, only 15 percent of Americans had ever visited the city. By mid-decade that number had doubled. In its 1996 annual report, Circus Circus celebrated the news: "In an era when social attitudes toward play, and the means to afford it, have dramatically changed, so has the role of the casino."
The past seven years have shown an ever more dramatic shift toward the mainstreaming of gambling. A gambling-industry poll claimed that in the single year of 2001, 51 million Americans--more than a quarter of the population over age 21--visited a casino, chalking up a national total of almost 300 million visits. More than 430 commercial casinos nationwide brought in $26.5 billon in revenue--two and a half times what Americans spent on movie tickets, $5 billion more than they spent on DVDs and videos, and $3 billion more than on cosmetics and toiletries. The explosion of legalized gambling nationwide has had little but positive impact on Las Vegas. "All it did was increase the average Joe's appetite for gambling," says a veteran Vegas Strip pit boss. "You know, it's like baseball. We see all those local Indian casinos and riverboat casinos and local slot parlors as our farm teams. They suck in a lot of average American types who never thought about gambling before. But once you play on the farm team, who doesn't want to play in the majors? And Las Vegas is the friggin' World Series. It's kind of like, You build the casinos out there and they'll come. But eventually they'll come here."
The difference between the marketing of Vegas a half-century ago and today is precisely the difference in mainstream American attitudes. "Fifty years ago, Lucille Ball was pregnant, and they couldn't say that word on I Love Lucy,'' says historian Green. "Today we have lesbian kisses on TV. We have the word 'bullshit' on prime time, not to talk about cable programming. As the culture has become more open, Las Vegas can market itself more honestly." And, Green might add, there's a whole new line of Lucy-themed slot machines now out on casino floors.
In a time when Martha Stewart gets busted, Mark McGwire is on chemicals and Sammy Sosa gets caught with a corker; when everyday economic life in America has become a breathtaking risk and it's an all-out crapshoot whether you'll still have a job next month or your HMO will cover your spinal tap or you can hock the house for enough to pay for your kid's college tuition, who can say whether it would have really been that stupid to let it all ride on 18 Red? Was it smarter to invest ten years of savings in an Enron-backed 401(k) or to spend your time studying the probability charts for single-deck blackjack? Is the integrity of the roulette wheels at the Bellagio more tainted than the quarterly corporate reports coming out of WorldCom? Both are iffy propositions, but at least in Vegas the rules of the game are clear-cut, the industry tightly regulated and the unfavorable odds publicly posted. There are no multimillion-dollar-a-year cable TV touts telling you that red or black or double-zero green is the next best thing or that life somehow owes you an eternal double-digit annual return. Haven't we, in fact, reached a point in our culture where the button-down bankers and arbitrageurs have become the reckless "casino capitalists," while those who actually run the casinos can get away with labeling themselves responsible and conservative "entertainment visionaries"? Even if they are, increasingly, often the same people?
A couple of years back at a gambling industry convention in Las Vegas, the chief financial officers of three major casinos sat on a public panel. When someone from the floor asked if investment in the casino business was a good bet, one of the CFOs answered, essentially: The difference between us and Enron is that at least our money is real. That globally recognized icon of Las Vegas, the neon-lit, hand-waving cowboy Vegas Vic, unveiled in 1947 and still presiding over downtown's Fremont Street, used to regularly and electronically call out "Howdy, pardner" until the complaints of card-groggy hotel guests got him permanently muted. But if Vic could speak today, he might well be saying, "Welcome to Las Vegas, pardner. The last honest place in America."