Postscript on Las Vegas

Las Vegas is the negative shadow of Wall Street; gambling is the negative shadow of market capitalism. If the market is a benevolent “invisible hand” that levels prices and matches supply and demand, Vegas is a bejeweled invisible fist that flies out and punches you or stuffs chips in your pocket with a predictably unfair distribution.

Vegas today shows this shadow even more strongly. Going up and down Las Vegas Blvd, at right angles to the Strip, you pass through downscaled, totemic versions of western world capitals, as though invoking the ghosts of the place that rationally deal with money to encourage you to spend it. And the real shadow economy of Vegas—the immigrant service workers, the enormous flow of underreported cash tips, the dancers, the exotic entertainers—is everywhere just out of sight, like the escort service fliers and business cards that turn up everywhere, even on the bollards surrounding the lake at the Bellagio.

If capitalism is our collective western religion, a demanding protestant religion that preaches a cult of abstemious rational consumption, Vegas is the Carnival, the Festival of the Flesh—not just in its general party atmosphere but in the explicitly irrational exuberance toward money that is encouraged in the visitors. For once, one is supposed to think, I can cast off the shackles of predictable income and loss and take a chance. I can get lucky.

Of course, the odds are in favor of the house. Even in this most exuberant place, there is cold business at the bottom.