Report from Las Vegas
Going to Las Vegas had been important to me for more than a year. During that time, several of my friends had gone, out of the same motivation: to understand this unique magnet of contemporary society.
Las Vegas is not a City. It is an island of pure industrial commerce about four miles long, half a mile wide, surrounded by suburbs that house the nearly half million employees of the elongated island.
It is not necessary to go Las Vegas, unless like me, you are fascinated by the triumph of commerce over all other aspects of American life in the past two decades.
For the past two decades, retail commerce has increasingly recognized the fantasy aspect of sales. I recall teaching Bay Area Briarpatch businesses how to think about retail fantasy as early as 1978. In the past decade, the 1990s, the concept has become de rigueur. Las Vegas has elevated retail fantasy to a new level. I was immediately reminded of Japanese love hotels (in Japan you rent the rooms in two-hour segments), where the whole 20- to 40-room hotel is a fantasy theme and each room is a variation on the fantasy. In Las Vegas, the hotels have thousands of rooms, acres of retail shopping, restaurants and gambling. All organized around a main fantasy theme.
In some instances the fantasy is spectacular. The exterior architecture of (the) Paris, New York-New York and (the) Venetian Hotels are impressive recreations of their subject matter. (Like Liberace, Midori, Kennedy and The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, Las Vegas Hotels have dropped the "The" in their names for theatrical reasons).
Internally, these three hotels and a few others are equally impressive fantasy creations.
The Venetian has nine employees working full time, using Hollywood set design techniques to maintain the facades of the internal surfaces.
What did I learn from two days and nights in the world's first island of true industrial commerce?
(Aside: I make a distinction between Las Vegas and Singapore or Hong Kong because Singapore and Hong Kong thrive largely on trade with little industry. Las Vegas is pure industry; it is a series of industrial structures that do nothing other than room, feed and entertain tourists.)
1) Industrial commerce has an abhorrence of civil society. Other thinkers have noted this abhorrence in regard to shopping malls. The exclusion of civil society is carried to such an extreme in the Las Vegas Industrial Island that it is overwhelming to one who looks. No fliers are handed out (except for call girl services, which I will mention later), no real bills or posters can be found anywhere, even in facades of bills and posters, there is no trade in the form of street vendors or newspaper kiosks (you never see newspapers displayed in hotels with the headline visible), no homeless or beggars, no fire or police alarm boxes; bus signs are very small and bus shelters are occasional. Public clocks are non-existent. Some of the issues of our day don't exist: anti-smoking, stranger abduction of children, or environmentalism.
Most significantly, religion is banished. Totally banished from this Industrial Paradise Island. Marriage chapels exist, but they are secular. There is not a meditation room, real chapel or any sign of a crucifix or Star of David.
Politics of every sort is banned. There is one fantasy restaurant called Red Square. The issue of politics, in the restaurant, is handled by having the statue of Lenin without his head. A reminder that the Cold War is history, like the Egyptian Pyramids and King Arthur.
Industrial commerce in Las Vegas is very egalitarian. Commerce has always had this attribute. Business people have always sold guns and liquor to the Indians and supplies to social outcasts. The clientele of Las Vegas comes from every race, ethnicity, nationality (about 5% are foreign visitors) and social class. Everyone is treated well. There is genuine camaraderie on buses, on the streets and in anonymous crowds. The employment practices reflect the same egalitarianism. Not for reasons of politics or good will, simply because of the labor market and the nearby Mexican border.
One of the consequences of excluding civil society is that transportation is unbalanced. Transportation favors the individualistic: totally automobile-, taxi- and limo-oriented. Most of the hotels have large set backs from the main boulevard with grand entry plazas. There is no pedestrian street life. The promenading of large numbers of people is virtually ignored (except for the erratic Volcano, Pirate enactment and the Bellagio water shows at night). Excellent bus service, shuttles, or monorails for the entire strip would benefit everyone. But they don't exist. Bus service in Las Vegas is worse than San Francisco under Willie Brown and comparable to Los Angeles. Competition between industrial captains does not permit "benefit everyone" to become a meaningful value.
As mentioned above, there are no street merchants or small retailers at all. I am surprised, but the implication is clear: Industrial commerce is hostile to trade commerce. (For those who haven't read my writings, trade focuses on profiting from each and every sale, one at a time; industry focuses on cost reduction and pseudo-monopoly conditions.)
Industry appears to be comfortable with clientric commerce (focus on customers for life). High rollers in Las Vegas get personal treatment with long term attention.
2) The amorality of industrial commerce is fascinating. I love one part of this. I was able to smoke cigars everywhere, anytime. Cigarette girls walk around selling cigarettes and cigars. People walk the streets carrying open bottles of alcohol. Call girls are available from the security service in the hotels, and flyers with call girl room service phone numbers are distributed on the streets (by Mexicans in locations away from the hotels, near bleak, empty spaces). As mentioned above, religion is banished completely.
The conundrum I can't solve is why this amoral world seems to have no marijuana. One out of five customers probably use it on a regular basis, nearly two out of five have tried it. It would loosen the wallet as effectively as alcohol.
I am open to suggestions for this strange omission. It is possible that federal antagonism isn't worth the added revenue, that some foreign countries might restrict travel (Taiwan?), that marijuana is big on the West Coast and is abhorred elsewhere? I don't know.
I spent a week in Havana smoking 13 of the top Havana cigars in order to choose the best. The best was a Punch. Now that I'm home I'll compare it to my favorite Honduran. Everyday, Sonie and I walked many miles around Havana, stopping for excellent coffee, people watching and listening to a small trio. Plenty of good music. Havana is beautifully sited on the Atlantic, with a great bay and tens of thousands of colonial buildings, nearly all in a state of zero maintenance. Many on tourist streets are getting new facades for the growing tourist industry. Having seen much of the third world, I've concluded that zero maintenance, dark rooms and dirty hallways are the esthetic of choice among rural people who move to the city.
Fidel was lucky and so are we. He had the first two years after his coupe (that is ALL it was) to consolidate his power and create a government before he announced his "Communist Revolution". The coupe and the Communism together would not have survived in close proximity to the U.S.
WE are also lucky because we would have had dozens of successful communist countries today if they had done what Fidel did next. He let hundreds of thousands leave. Nearly all the entrepreneurial and managerial talent left, including 90% of the 15,000 Jews. Fidel kill a few thousand to make sure everyone got the message. The only people left were the sheep. They are still there, seemingly content. Each generation Fidel appears to let the entrepreneurs and managers leave. Fidel has, over the years, allowed bright clothes, music and good ice cream. I've been to a few other communist dictatorships and after they originally took power they killed as many of the entrepreneurs and managers as they could, which left only sheep but resentful sheep. They created colorless, musicless joyless countries. For no good reason. Sheep have a way of being passive aggressive, if they are too badly treated.
Personally I love sheep and love them even more when they are happy.
Fidel gets his entrepreneurs and management by importing it to build and run the tourist hotels. Our hotel was built and managed by the Spanish, and he gets the Israeli's to run his citrus industry. In spite of his aggressive support of Arafat.
The Embargo is bizarre. You can buy Marlboro's and Lucky Strikes everywhere, and Pringles. Cuba gets great buses, new cars and electronics of every sort from around the world. But there are virtually no aspirin or other over-the-counter medicines available. I think it is because Fidel is a health food nut. He tried to create a soy milk market for health reasons, but the Cubans thought it was one more of his tricks and won't touch the stuff.