Loathing (and loving) Las Vegas
» We already have gambling in Hawaii, so why not let a lottery pay some of our bills?
Vegas, baby! It's a place you love or loathe. Or both, as in my case.
For some gambling is an addiction that can ruin lives. But I'll wager that most of you have placed legal or illegal bets on something, whether it's an office Super Bowl pool or playing the commodities market, and you didn't wind up in the poor house.
However, after my latest trip to the city of Lost Wages, I have mixed feelings about the pervasiveness of legalized gambling (see sidebar). When a vice becomes a mainstream "recreational" activity, does that vice lose some of its allure? I say yes, which might be why Las Vegas has evolved into a shopping and entertainment mecca.
The Strip embodies the best and worst of American culture, ranging from the sublime (Cirque du Soleil shows) to the ridiculous (Hooters casino and hotel?). Those sprawling mega-resorts are like an LSD flashback through time and space: Egypt, Rome, Venice, the Eiffel Tower, the surreal skyline of New York City. Very trippy.
But for my wife and me, the elaborate facades also are reminders of real places we've been able to visit since I quit drinking and smoking. Years ago, I actually calculated how much money I was saving, and realized it was enough to pay for a trip to Europe or Vegas each year.
I was a little nervous about going to Sin City when I first got sober. Cocktail waitresses everywhere hawking free drinks. An anything-goes atmosphere. The giddy highs and lows of winning or losing. Temptation doesn't get any better than this. So it was a test, in the same way going into a restaurant that has a bar or walking down a supermarket aisle stocked with wine and beer is a test for any recovering alcoholic.
I also wondered if I might be substituting one compulsion for another. But it turns out I have no stomach for losing money. In the movie "Two For the Money," the Al Pacino character tells a Gamblers Anonymous group that gambling isn't their real problem. He says they have a defect that causes them to subconsciously "want to lose" because it makes them feel alive.
To an alcoholic like me, that makes perfect sense. Whether the cause is genetic or psychological, many addicts become "numb" to everyday life, and lack empathy for others because we're focused on our own immediate needs. So then we punish ourselves because deep inside, we think we deserve it. For a compulsive gambler, losing makes them feel "something" -- pain -- which is better than feeling nothing at all. Pain means you're still alive.
Why normal people enjoy gambling is one of the mysteries of human nature, given the odds. The genius of Las Vegas is that it makes losing money fun! For three or four days you're living in an alternate reality. No talk of the war or housing bubbles bursting. No clocks or windows in the casinos. Even those $25 chips you're putting on the blackjack table, or paper "tickets" you feed into slot machines now, don't seem like real money. And when you hit a bad streak, there's entertainment galore to take your mind off how much you've lost.
That's what keeps people coming back. On our last visit, Isabel and I saw the newest Cirque du Soleil show, "Love," which features remixed mash-ups of classic Beatles tunes. Simply amazing stuff you won't find anywhere else. Likewise, the buffets at Bellagio and Paris are fantastic affairs, and cost less than a single entree at a lot of mediocre Honolulu restaurants.
Yet one could say the buffets and heavy-handed merchandising of the Beatles "art" also represents the worst of Vegas: gluttony, greed and vanity. To quote the Fab Four, it's all too much.
What irked me most was watching humongous people riding around on those electric scooters, going from buffet to buffet. Many were relatively young. And there they were, riding around with drinks and cigarettes in hand, oblivious to the notion that jackpots are meaningless if you drop dead.
Another disturbing sight was the number of young parents we saw who had children with them. Some looked like they were just scraping by. Perhaps they were hoping to achieve the American Dream by pulling on a Megabucks slot handle. Can't they see they're gambling away their children's future?
Then it hit me: I was being as judgmental as anti-gambling folks. It sounds awfully paternalistic to say certain people (like my wife and I) can be responsible gamblers and buffet bingers, while others shouldn't do what they want with their own bodies or money.
As with all vices, it becomes an emotional argument based on moral judgments and social concerns, versus personal freedom and pragmatism. But as any gambler can tell you, our choices and beliefs often don't make sense, do they?
Rich Figel is a screenwriter who lives in Kailua. He has been clean and sober for 18 years. His column appears periodically in the Insight section.
We already have gambling in Hawaii, so why not let a lottery pay some of our bills?
From Chinatown bookies to bingo and online poker games, there's already plenty of gambling going on in Hawaii.
But should we continue to hold out against a state lottery or shipboard gaming? At a time when citizens balk at paying higher taxes for anything, many states are using gambling-related revenue to fund education and other government services.
According to a recent Parade article, Americans will gamble away $90 billion this year. The magazine piece noted that a hundred years ago the vice was almost "universally outlawed." In the 1970s, the only legal gambling in the United States was in Nevada and Atlantic City. Today, there are casinos in 32 states. The only states that don't have some form of legal betting are Hawaii and Utah.
Ironically, Las Vegas owes its start to Mormons. In the mid-1800s they built the first settlement there while establishing a route from Utah to California. But the Mormons didn't have much luck in converting Native Americans in that region, so they moved on. And the mob moved in, using profits from selling illegal booze during the Prohibition era to build casinos in the desert.
Closer to home, two weeks ago a local man was convicted on racketeering charges related to illegal "casino-style" operations in Honolulu. The federal prosecutor was quoted as saying, "There is organized crime in Hawaii." How organized or widespread, I have no idea. But I doubt they can compete with legal operations -- hotels and travel agencies that cater to the Vegas travelers -- in terms of moving money off island to Nevada destinations.
Opponents of legalized gambling say lotteries bleed the poor, and contend that cities with casinos have higher rates of crime, bankruptcy and suicide. That's probably true. But could it be that some poor people got that way by making bad decisions to begin with, and will continue to do so whether there is a lottery or not?
Moreover, places such as Las Vegas and Atlantic City attract people who are having trouble finding work elsewhere, and probably are already in debt. I'm sure many of them had substance abuse problems, too. But at least they have a better chance of getting decent-paying jobs and finding affordable housing than in the cities they left.
Although I understand the sentiment that gambling takes advantage of the poor, I also think that attitude is somewhat condescending. Are we saying lower-income people lack the intelligence or common sense to control their spending? And shouldn't they be allowed to hope they can hit the big jackpot, even if that's unrealistic?
We don't put restrictions on underdogs who try to make it in sports, music or the movie business, despite overwhelming odds against success. They may be wasting time and money pursuing a pipe dream, but our society lets us make that choice for ourselves.
Putting aside moral arguments, Hawaii needs to acknowledge that as competition gets tougher in the travel industry, we may be losing visitor revenue to places that offer gaming.
That said, I wouldn't want to see a casino in Waikiki. Yet I'd go to a horse-racing track on the Big Island or somewhere once in awhile. I'm not a fan of docked riverboat casinos either. Still, I don't see why interisland cruise ships should be prohibited from having the same type of casino gaming you can enjoy a few miles out to sea. And if we had a lottery, I would probably buy a ticket or two each week at most.
None of those things would turn Hawaii into another Las Vegas, or be likely to cause thousands of residents to blow all their savings. However, a lottery might provide additional money to fix our roads and sewage system -- or even pay for mass transit.
Would legalized gambling in Hawaii be a bad bet? I'm on the fence, but I think it's worth discussing. In the meantime, millions of dollars will continue to flow out of the islands to help build more casinos in the desert. No wonder they love us in Vegas.
-- Rich Figel