Viva Rhode Island?

I’ve traveled all around the world, but one of the places I’d never been was Las Vegas. Until last week, that is. With the current recession, Las Vegas is offering several deals to get bodies into the casinos. With my wife and I looking for an economical getaway to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary, Vegas seemed to fit the bill.
However, while flights and accommodations may be cheap, the prices “on the ground” ain’t like the old days (at least from what I’ve heard). There are no $5 all-you-can-eat buffets around every corner–everything costs about the same or more as every other tourist destination elsewhere in the country and shows (even at half price) are expensive for penny-pinching Yankees like us (especially if you have no burning desire to see boomer acts like Donny and Marie or one of the 6 Cirque de Soleil shows offered at different spots). There is still plenty to do with multiple, themed casinos up and down the strip and the throwback “Fremont Street Experience” (aka “Glitter Gulch”) in downtown Vegas.
But there were some annoyances. Nearly all of the casinos had people stationed at entrances trying to reel you in with “deals” that usually involve hearing a pitch about timeshares. Then there were the street hawkers, including groups of people lined up on the sidewalk trying to hand you little cards with naked pics of ladies and phone numbers for anyone looking for some “company.”
These so-called pornslappers (here’s a good description and a picture) didn’t care if you were man, woman or together..they still stuck them in front of you. And if you looked down at the sidewalk, you’d be able to see discarded cards all over the place. Then there was the “stripper bus” where strippers were driven up and down the strip in a plexi-glass bus advertising their wares by dancing around a pole. As I’ve said, I’ve been all around the world as a merchant mariner, and Vegas’ overt hawking of sex is nearly unrivaled–even when compared to the seamier sections of port cities in 3rd world countries! So, suffice to say–despite recent attempts to advertise otherwise–Vegas still ain’t no place for families. That being said, it is still a neat place to see, if nothing else than to watch people and take in hedonism at its “finest”!
Justin recently offered a qualified point about preferring table games over slots. I agree. If gambling on table games is like cocaine, video slots are like crack. Seat after seat filled with people, staring vacantly at monitors and pushing buttons. There is a serious disconnect going on there. While you can lose as much or more money at a table game, at least there is actual interaction with real people.
Casinos are designed to keep you amongst the slots and tables, spending your money:

Bill Friedman has made a career of analyzing casino design and profit, and consulting on casinos internationally, including Las Vegas’ Mirage. His thirteen design principles include: “1: A physically segmented casino beats an open barn” and “8: Low ceilings beat high ceilings” to create a more intimate space for the gambler and “11: Pathways emphasizing the gambling-equipment beat the yellow brick road” which discourages creating obvious passageways that lead people past the gambling areas without stopping.
Professor Norman Klein describes a successful casino floor as a “Happy Imprisonment,” a mousetrap for consumers. “You have infinite choice, but seemingly no way out. Casino spaces are scripted particularly as ergonomic labyrinths. Entrances and exits remain askew. The atmosphere is immersive. Finding your way back from the bathroom can be difficult.” Walls of slot machines send you towards … more slot machines.

Believe me, they do. Harrah’s has low ceilings, while places like the Bellagio and Venetian have higher. (I preferred higher ceilings because they seemed to deal with the cigarette/cigar smoke better). I’m sure similar measures to keep ’em gambling have been taken in Twin River and the Connecticut casinos. Do Rhode Islanders really want their state government involved in a revenue generating operation that relies on “mousetraps” and “labyrinths” to keep working Rhode Islanders spending their money? Although it may be too late to stop the train in RI, after fully immersing myself in the casino culture for a week, I find I’m even more opposed to the idea of a state-run casino, for both aesthetic and economic reasons, than I was before.
This is especially because the core problem of having state revenue dependent on gambling exists in Nevada, too. Casino revenue continues to go down, with gambling returns decreasing for 23 straight months. With so much else going wrong with Nevada’s economy, which joined Rhode Island as one of the 10 states in deepest trouble, the state is looking now more than ever towards gambling–30% of state revenues according to a local news report I saw while out there–as a savior. But it’s not coming through for them now, though there is a hope that as the economy improves and tourist traffic increases, so will gambling revenue.
That outside gambling revenue from tourists, as Froma Harrop recently explained, is what makes Vegas “work” for funding government. That isn’t really the case in other places, like Rhode Island, where the gambling infrastructure is more akin to Connecticut than Nevada. In Connecticut, revenues are also going down, so the Nutmeg state casinos banded together to market against Atlantic City. But the state’s take is still going down. The problem is that competition for the Northeast gambler is intense already and the importance of proximity seems to trump anything else. Rhode Island is fooling itself if it thinks it will attract from farther and wider with a bigger and better operation.
Make no mistake, I’d expect a full-fledged casino (ie; with table games) to be able to pull in more revenue. Yet, despite all the glitz and lights, one can sense that there is a seamier underbelly to any casino operation. Now, I certainly don’t think that some of the “sinful” things I saw in Vegas would translate to sleepy little Lincoln or elsewhere in the state, but there can be little doubt that as a gambling operation grows there will be a commensurate increase in the problems–and the infrastructure (police, fire) required to mitigate those problems– associated with the “casino culture.”
Finally, my main concern is with gambling addiction: the sort acquired by a state government that, over the last decade–and partly fueled by increasing gambling revenue–oversaw an increase in the state budget that far outpaced inflation. Doubling down pays off when you’re rolling 7’s. But, as the last few years in the gambling capital of Las Vegas has shown, even high rollers eventually you crap out.

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