I didn’t realise that the Rialto Bridge has a moving walkway and muzak, that the gondolas beneath it float on a clear blue pool, and that the school of Tiepolo had so many apprentices available to paint hotel ceilings. ‘Still in Venice, Martin?’ you’re thinking. ‘Surely that was last month?’ Well no, your intrepid columnist has moved from the old world to the new, and reports this week from the desert frontier where unfettered capitalism meets the lowest human urges: Las Vegas. It’s an overwhelming experience, so forgive me if my grip on what’s happening at home — reactions to David Cameron’s CBI conference speech, for example, and the rejected Qatari bid for Canary Wharf — is a little hazy. I’ve just spent a long weekend on another planet.
I’m here to discuss ‘Money: Winners and Losers’, which in a sense is what I do here every week. But in Vegas there’s no point in addressing the topic in the abstract, in a conference suite: better to walk the cavernous casinos and glittering concourses that draw 40 million visitors a year, 400,000 from the UK. Here, via the replica Rialto, is the Venetian hotel and its sister Palazzo, 8,000 suites and rooms between them; proprietor Sheldon Adelson is one of the world’s richest men, worth $30 billion, and a major funder of Republican candidates. Clearly he’s a winner — although his master company, Las Vegas Sands Corporation, paid $47 million to the US government last year to avoid possible criminal charges over alleged money-laundering activities involving a high-stakes Chinese gambler at the Venetian.
But are all gamblers losers, ruthlessly exploited? Not quite all, of course. One of our conference participants, a serious card player at home, finds himself several thousand dollars to the good on the first evening, having survived a stewards’ inquiry into his ‘perfect’ blackjack play; but by the third night his luck has reversed, and for want of the taxi fare he’s had to trudge back from the Strip to our hotel, the Palms, via the less glamorous walkways where the vagrants live. In aggregate, Americans leave $37 billion a year on the tables to the benefit of the casino corporations, the banks who finance them, and state and federal revenue collectors. In the early morning, even before the Palms’ breakfast buffet opens, its slot-machine hall is thronged with players — many of Chinese ethnicity, predominantly older women and heavy smokers, some in wheelchairs. The atmosphere is intent, fatalistic, depressed: never once a jackpot fanfare.
I think what I’m observing is a vast conspiracy in which the delusional and largely skill-free bad habit of gambling is licensed to flourish (these days in every state except Utah and Hawaii) because it’s an easy way to harvest taxes for states whose voters don’t like paying them in other forms. If you want a metaphor for post-industrial America, it’s not Vegas — which is sui generis, a desert water-hole turned mobster paradise before corporations took over in the 1980s — but Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. There, on the site of a famous steel mill that fell victim to globalisation and went bankrupt a decade ago, stands the newest Sands Casino Resort. ‘Even in this economy,’ smiled Adelson on the day it opened in 2009, ‘people still want to challenge luck.’ Even redundant steel workers, he might have added, and even at the odds I’m offering them.
It was to Gordon Brown’s credit that one of his first decisions as Prime Minister in 2007 was to scrap a proposal for a £200 million super-casino in Manchester. But recent developments inter alia at Milton Keynes and the Stratford Westfield centre, and the soon-to-open Resorts World complex at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre, represent a 30 per cent expansion in UK casino gambling. Ah well, at least it will help the Chancellor combat the deficit.
Just up the road — turn right at the Hacienda hotel-casino in Boulder City, where former high-rollers find rooms for $249 a week — is the Hoover Dam on the Colorado river between Nevada and Arizona. Completed in 1936, it was the world’s largest construction project of its time, the symbol of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the ultimate example of Keynesianism in action. It created hydro power for the urban and industrial expansion of Los Angeles, and a controlled water supply and irrigation system for the whole of southern California. Like all large-scale human interventions, it has also had major unforeseen effects on its surrounding ecosystem, and one day (no one knows when, but its concrete is being gradually decomposed by water) it will crumble, collapse and sweep the ultimate free-market example of Las Vegas away with it. I leave you to make your own metaphor of that.
My last night in Vegas is a ‘gangsters and molls’ party in the Mob Museum, a former courthouse, and the star turn is the city’s former three-term mayor Oscar Goodman, who made his name in this very building as defence attorney for legendary casino boss Frank ‘Lefty’ Rosenthal (a thinly disguised version of whom was played by Robert de Niro in Casino) and a long roll-call of vicious organised crime bosses. Goodman is hilarious as a Jewish comedy double-act with his wife Carolyn, who succeeded him as mayor. But the content of his speech is bizarrely amoral and self-congratulatory, provoking angry heckles from some of our crowd. He looks startled, then deflated. It’s a moment of collective embarrassment, and I can’t help thinking it’s all a bit sad: we’re lucky not to have anywhere in Britain, not even high-season Blackpool, not even the great financial casino of Canary Wharf, that begins to resemble Vegas. Or am I just a party pooper? How long are you going to be there, a friend asked before I left home. Four nights, I said. ‘I think you’ll find that’s three nights too long.’ I’m afraid he was right. Beam me up, Scotty: take me back to Yorkshire.
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