When Money Isn’t Honey: Lessons From VegasBy Frederik Sisa @ 3:00 PM February 08, 2010
A peeved city of Las Vegas has apparently rolled up the welcome mat, shuttered the doors, and hid the children – at least insofar as President Obama is concerned. The bee in their bonnet? A comment the President recently made (http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/us_obama_las_vegas): "You don't go buying a boat when you can barely pay your mortgage. You don't blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you're trying to save for college. You prioritize. You make tough choices." Unfortunately for Senator Reid and other offended Nevadans, the President is right. I mean, be honest now: is there a more frivolous city in the U.S. of A. than Las Vegas when there are more critical things to spend money on?
Let’s consider the city that’s earned the nicknames City of Sin and Lost Wages: it’s a city devoted to parting people from their money. There’s the gambling, that Vegas raison d’être, an activity that really consists of losing lots of money and fattening casinos in the hopes of striking it rich with a lucky roll of the dice, pull of the lever or flip of the card. While an affection for gambling might qualify you for a job on Wall Street, it’s the exact opposite of what most of us would consider sensible money management, like putting money in an investment-bearing money market account. Then there is the shopping; high-end boutiques and designer fashions, like a Rodeo Drive writ large. Again, an activity that involves spending money with accomplishing very much – as is eating at any of the pricey restaurants backed by world-famous chefs. How about shows? Sure, there are big acts that you can’t necessarily find in L.A. or even New York, but parents telling their child, “Sorry, kid, we’d send you to college but we haven’t seen all billion Cirque du Soleil shows yet” doesn’t strike me as very plausible. And how about the new City Centre, that little slice of Dubai deep in the heart of Vegas? Another sign pointing to how Las Vegas is oriented towards people’s disposable income. Vegas is really geared towards people who have money and not people who don’t, which makes sense because you can’t take money from people who don’t have it. This makes Vegas a peculiar destination for people who don’t have money, and wouldn’t you know it? That’s Obama’s point.
The rich can treat Vegas as a vast playground because they have a surplus of money, far more than they need to meet basic needs. Everyone else, however, is left with the need to prioritize. Vegas Mayor Goodman may be ready to greet President Obama with boots on, but the point remains that Vegas is a luxury not everyone can afford. With some qualifications, it also undercuts the movement towards localism. Take L.A. – we have excellent restaurants, many that are world-class, as well as world-renowned arts and music. There are plenty of theatres both great and small. Just as putting money in a bank account is a better investment than gambling in Vegas, you could make the argument that spending whatever extra money you have locally will better return investments in your community than if you spend that money elsewhere. Like Vegas.
I understand that, reliant on tourism as it is, Vegas is hurting in this economy, and I don’t to want suggest that Vegas is worthless or never has any value. I have to wonder, though, to what extent this dependency reflects flawed economic thinking on the part of the city. It’s hard to be self-sufficient when funds come from fickle outside sources.
There’s a larger lesson in all of this, of course, and it is that we really, really need to get grip on how we conceive of and use money. This outrage over picking on Vegas, which Obama really wasn’t doing, illustrates a kind of rosey-eyed view where money flows like honey in a land of plenty. Yet, there is something seriously wrong when the economy is paralyzed while there is work to do and people ready to do it. There is something seriously wrong when the system, driven by the need for profit, makes it harder instead of easier for people to achieve their economic goals of stable work, a home, food and healthcare. But that’s the design flaw, isn’t it? In the perverse capitalistic system of incentives, that great motivator profit isn’t always aligned with “the good.” In a system whose health is measured not by stable self-sufficiency but by ever-increasing growth, stagnation is death. If communism fails because it assumes that people work at their hardest and take only what they need when, in fact, people try to take the most and work for the least, then so does capitalism. The name of the game may change, but it’s still all about getting the most of money and “stuff” while doing the least amount of work. The laborer breaks his back and ekes out a living, the Wall Street broker places a bet and pays off his sports car. You can get rich by doing little, and work very hard to stay poor. In this sense, the lesson to learn is this: we are all Las Vegas.
Frédérik invites you to visit his blog, www.inkandashes.net