My apologies to Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (RIP) but I couldn't resist his book title which, for this particular post is most appropriate in both a literal and figurative sense.
I spent this past (long) weekend in Vegas with my twin boys, celebrating their 21st birthday. This is a 3+ decades-old Abraham-family tradition, begun by my father who took me, my sister and my brother, respectively when we each became "legal" adults. Never mind that at 18, I narrowly missed being drafted and sent to Vietnam; but that is another story altogether.
Our trip was greatly enhanced by my 84 year old father's presence in tow with my much younger brother. My beautiful baby sister has long departed this life, but I felt that she was there with us in spirit.
Vegas is a great spot for a short vacation. Owing to the poor economy, travel and lodging were dirt cheap and while there, we were never extravagant with spending on meals, shows and such. I think the twins learned many lessons in Vegas, not the least being that if you can't afford to play a game correctly, you are betting too much in the first place (this lesson has great applicability way beyond casino games.) They also put their high-priced college educations to work in calculating the payoff odds for craps, and in employing basic blackjack playing/betting strategies (please don't ask me how I learned all that.) Their risk-taking function was amplified when they (finally) realized that in video poker, sometimes you have to throw away a winning hand in order to play for the monster jackpot that comes from scoring a royal flush. They also received the 100-level tutorial in casino design. For experimental purposes only, I tried, with very mixed results, to teach them how to spot the high-class hookers that adorn all the gaming establishments. The boys and I also got to shoot machine guns with live ammo...that's not something (I hope) that you can do every day. Taken as a vacation and a memorable life experience, we all had a great time in Vegas.
However, after acclimating for a day or so (it takes that long to see past the glitz and action) I began to get a queasy feeling in my stomach. Is Vegas a proxy for the "American Dream," and if so, it seems that this dream is fleeting. I saw many gargantuan, partly-finished structures where construction had been halted, and the banks have refused to complete the financing. It's easy to determine that if the crane is idle on a Friday morning, and there are no workers to be found on the structure, that this sucker isn't going to be finished at any time soon. Casino floors were relatively empty except on Saturday night and the fashion places with names from 5th Avenue in New York seemed abandoned by customers. We had a terrific empirical exercise going because we had to pass the "shop with a thousand Rolex watches" every time we went to our elevator bank. The family "poll" indicated that in three days, collectively we had only seen one couple in the store; I doubt that they bought anything . We visited other, swankier and newer casinos that had even fancier boutiques, and again, we saw no prospective customers.
Then the next "wave" hit me. Who builds these places and what are they expecting? Is the "American Dream" forged by going into the Cartier store in Vegas (of all places) and buying a huge diamond? How many hotel rooms are enough? Who is financing all this excess? Why aren't people showing up like they did before, and why are those who did show up, there now? I know why we were there and I also know what we spent and what we (mostly) didn't.
Then I started to understand. This was the "American Dream" and it is no longer that. With people the world over suffering from the recent financial catastrophes, Vegas and all the fancy emporiums are a very distant afterthought. Those that propagated this town had no clue that the "bubble days" would ever end, and they had bankers who were willing to go along with that vision. Now the bankers, mostly, are left holding the bag. Let's be clear here, there is and there always will be a place in this world for a recreational mecca like Las Vegas, but when you go into a fancy hotel, and each chandelier on the ceiling has the promise to feed an entire village in Somalia for a year, then you begin to fathom the largesse that we have, as a society, been living with.
I first visited Las Vegas 33 years ago and it was very entertaining back then, but not so outrageous. I think the same can be said for the American consumer. We have always been eager to buy things, but in the past, we were more circumspect.
As I have said frequently in my earlier blogs, and confirmed by the evidence presented to me in Las Vegas, our society is rightfully pulling back, reverting to solid basics and avoiding the overindulgence that has guided us so often in the recent past.
So if Las Vegas is a proxy, it offers both caution and hope.