My partner and I went to Las Vegas a couple of weekends ago. Lately, I’ve found myself wanting to go to Vegas once or twice a year, which is odd because I don’t enjoy gambling, dancing, or swimming pools. Indeed, I much prefer to Vegas any number of West Coast cities that can be reached by a similarly short flight. Seattle and Portland have more interesting and varied activities. Los Angeles has better food. All three cities have more culture. This is not to say that I don’t have fun in Vegas. There are several restaurants that I like (that I can afford). The Bellagio fountain has been known to make me cry (true story). And the lights on the Strip at night are spectacular. But even so, after a few hours in Vegas, I often find myself wondering how I can possibly kill the remaining hours until our return flight.
So why do I keep going back to Vegas? The answer is complicated and involves many different factors, including, I will sheepishly admit, several massively successful national advertising campaigns that play on fantasies of leisure (“It’s not a vacation if you check your work email”) and fantasies of transgression as leisure (“What happens in Vegas…”). But there is more to it. It’s a city that seems to demand sense-making, even though it is very hard to do so. I like San Francisco, but I really don’t spend much time thinking about San Francisco. San Francisco, for the most part, makes sense to me. On the contrary, I don’t like Vegas, but I like thinking about Vegas. Now I’m not a sociologist or a geographer or an urban theorist; I am merely an curious and observant amateur who has spent some time walking the Strip and driving around the parts of Las Vegas where tourists rarely go. These are my recent thoughts.
Whenever I’m in Vegas, I feel like I’m in the future. A very specific future. The future from Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. It’s a beautiful novel (and very much worth reading), but it’s not a book that you want to live in. In the novel, portions of Manhattan have essentially become an exclusive entertainment complex for the global rich. Some NYC residents work service jobs to keep the upscale mall running, but most live in squalor–kept in check by a military and police. Sound familiar? Indeed, Shteyngart’s future is different from our present only in degree. And right now Las Vegas is closer than any American city to Shteyngart’s vision.
As far as I can tell, Las Vegas is a spectacular playground for the super-rich. Probably more so than I can even imagine, as so much of it takes place outside the view of people like me–in VIP sections, champagne rooms, high roller lounges, suites with secret elevators, private dining rooms. But what does life look like in Vegas outside of this archipelago of glitz? A lot like the Third World. If you drive a few blocks off of the Strip, things start to get ugly. You’re surrounded by flat, desolate warehouses–many of them abandoned. Vacant lots. Halted construction. Streets that don’t go anywhere, that just end in dusty concrete barriers. And farther from the Strip? More than once, I’ve accidentally exited the freeway into what appear to be ghost neighborhoods.
And then there are the inhabited neighborhoods. Seventy-one percent of Las Vegas mortgages are underwater. As my friend Todd discovered recently, you can buy a two-bedroom house on a golf course for less than $50K. Unemployment is almost 14%. And the most common jobs in Vegas aren’t those that produce a robust middle class: casino dealers, maids, cocktail waitresses, valets. In the year 2000, my fresh-out-of-college cousin moved to Las Vegas during the boom to become a teacher. There was an optimism in those years that Las Vegas could be a functioning city, an idea that a well-rounded community with a middle class could be built in a city devoted to tourism and service. We can see how that turned out. A decade later, Vegas is closer to having only two classes: casino billionaires and serfs.
But what makes this story even more interesting (and horrible) is that Vegas is not just a playground for the super-rich built on the backs of the poor. Because it’s not just the super-rich who play in Vegas. The rest of us do too: the remnants of the American middle class, retirees, students, underemployed twenty-somethings, the less poor. We’re allowed to play in a more crowded, less opulent approximation of the VIP spaces that we’ll probably never glimpse–for the 3-5 days of (often unpaid) vacation that we can afford to take. This is what is devious about Las Vegas: it’s a playground for the super-rich AND a parallel (and mostly separate) playground where the rest of us can pretend to be just like the super-rich. Not every twenty-something can be one of the millionaires on Jersey Shore, but any twenty-something with a tan and $25 can spend the afternoon at the Palms pool pretending to be on Jersey Shore. And although I’ve managed to resist fist-pumping in the pool, I’m not immune to fantasies of acting wealthy. Indeed, it’s hard to spend any time in Vegas without falling into them. In an American class system that is increasingly rigid, cruel, and inescapable, a long weekend of acting like your economic betters feels like a vacation.
But wait, there’s a final twist of irony here. What do the casino billionaires like Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn do with the money we spend at their resorts? They give it to Mitt Romney. Or to Karl Rove. And, undoubtedly, to many other candidates and SuperPACs that are devoted to transferring wealth from the bottom to the top. And so we have a situation in which people who are not rich (you and me) spend some of our money to pretend that we are rich, but the money we spend makes it more likely that we will have less money to spend in the future. In other words, Las Vegas casinos are essentially money laundering operations to make the non-rich contribute money to increasing income inequality–all while making us feel like we’re on the winning side. It’s a con disguised as a vacation package and it’s hard to resist.