TCS Daily

Updating Tom Wolfe

By Arnold Kling - January 5, 2004 12:00 AM

"I call Las Vegas the Versailles of America, and for specific reasons. Las Vegas happened to be created after the war, with war money, by gangsters. Gangsters happened to be the first uneducated...but more to the point, unaristocratic, outside of the aristocratic tradition...the first uneducated prole-petty-burgher Americans to have enough money to build a monument to their style of life."
-- Tom Wolfe, The Kandy Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby, p. xvi-xvii (ellipses in the original)

Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, journalistic icons of the 1960's, each used Las Vegas as a jumping-off point for insightful commentary on America's culture and economic classes. Having just vacationed there myself, I also find it irresistible to contemplate what Las Vegas reflects about affluence in America. However, as an economist I make no pretense of trying to produce prose with the style of a Wolfe or a Thompson. Few sins in writing are more egregious than attempting to mimic the inimitable.

I am sorry that Tom Wolfe's early essays are not more widely read nowadays. David Brooks wrote Bobos in Paradise as if he were completely unaware that Wolfe had already zeroed in on the phenomenon and given it a more descriptive name: radical chic. And Virginia Postrel's analysis of The Substance of Style was anticipated by Wolfe's first book of essays, from which the quotation above was taken.

Chasing Bomb Threats?

Why did our family choose to vacation in Las Vegas this Christmas? We had booked our trip before Homeland Security issued its warnings that Sin City might be a terrorist target. Granted that last year at this time we went to Israel, but it is not our intention to chase bomb threats.

Nor did we go to Vegas for gambling and erotic entertainment. While I am enough of a libertarian to approve of those industries, I am also enough of a romantic to believe that sexual relationships and competitive card games are most enjoyable when money is not involved.

The major factors motivating our choice were handicapped accessibility for my mother-in-law and things to see and do for our teenage daughters. As it turned out, Las Vegas exceeded our expectations for the former but fell a bit short for the latter -- our girls are too old to be impressed by the pseudo-Disney kiddie attractions and too young to stand and watch the gaming tables without being rudely hustled away by the casino monitors.

Tom Wolfe Updated

In the nearly forty years since Tom Wolfe wrote his essay "Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can't hear you! Too noisy) Las Vegas!!!" for Esquire , the city's skyline has changed completely. One of the main riffs of his essay was the enormity of the neon signs relative to the buildings, which were only one or two stories in those days. From those casino seedlings, mighty hotels have sprouted to overtake the signs, but they certainly embody the spirit of defiant garishness Wolfe depicted.

Another major point that Wolfe makes is that the Strip behaves like a mind-altering drug, with noise where you would normally expect silence, colored lights where you would normally expect darkness, and open celebration of vices you would normally expect a city to hide in an underground fringe. Las Vegas still has its psychedelic effects. We soon found ourselves on Las Vegas time, which differs from our Eastern Standard Time existence by far more than the three-hour change in time zone. In Las Vegas, we felt wide awake at 2 AM. On the Strip, the most peace and quiet could be found between 7 and 9 AM, which would be the heart of morning rush hour back home on the Beltway.

Finally, Wolfe has this important observation:

"No one in Las Vegas will admit it -- it is not the modern, glamorous notion -- but Las Vegas is a resort for old people. In those last years, before the tissue deteriorates and the wires of the cerebral cortex hang in the skull like a clump of dried seaweed, they are seeking liberation."

This continues to be a challenge for Las Vegas. How do you maintain a sexy, glamorous feel when the tourists you attract are so old? Worse yet, healthy and active retirees tend to choose other vacation spots. Vegas is left competing for the seniors who are too fat and slow to play golf. They waddle into the hotel theaters, where comedians joke about the obesity epidemic.

Several years back, many hotels tried to fight the demographics by becoming "family friendly." The vestiges are still around (the pseudo-Disney stuff), but they have been scaled back and neglected. My guess is that the good news is that young families came to Vegas, but the bad news is that they ruined the revenue model -- you can't toss away your money in the casino and keep of track of young children on the same vacation. So "family friendly" is out and Sin City is back in.

Today, the only significant youthful presence in Las Vegas is foreign. Couples and groups from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East are the ones who hold down the average age of tourists.

Ostentatious Wealth

As Wolfe pointed out, the appeal of Las Vegas comes from the way in which it expresses many people's dreams about the American rich. To the typical tourist, every hotel bill, restaurant receipt, theater ticket, store price tag, and casino chit says: You can't really afford this. But other people can! And they have sex with young beauties any time they want!

The old folks waddling through Las Vegas look past one another to see an image of how they might live if they were young, rich, and thin. The foreigners with their cameras are busily documenting their fantasies of American wealth. Ironically, my guess is that for the most part, the real lifestyles of the rich tend to be more private and subdued than the fantasy lifestyle that Vegas promotes.

Tom Wolfe's view that Las Vegas embodies a populist idea of glamour remains accurate. Elitists would be appalled. I did not see anyone in Las Vegas who looked like a college professor. Academics would feel very uncomfortable among so many citizens who drink indiscriminately, smoke cigarettes, play slot machines, and probably would vote for Bush over Dean.

However, even for those who share an academic's disdain for Las Vegas, I think that the affluence that it represents is a good thing. As Thomas Sowell pointed out, both California and Iran were struck by earthquakes in December. Although the magnitude of the quakes was nearly equal, Californians did not die under the collapsed rubble of mud huts. Sowell writes, "Those who preen themselves on their 'compassion' for the poor, and who disdain wealth, are being inconsistent, if not hypocritical. Wealth is the only thing that can prevent poverty." (emphasis added)

Wolfe argued that newfound wealth invariably finds its way to ostentatious expression, to the despair of incumbent elites. In the past forty years, the spreading of wealth has increased, both within American society and beyond our borders. Reflecting this economic progress, Las Vegas is an order of magnitude more ostentatious today than it was when Wolfe composed his essay. Moreover, new forms of wealthy excess have emerged in other cities and other countries.

Osama bin Laden may believe that middle-class wealth should be obliterated. Instead, I believe that widespread affluence is like the hotels of Las Vegas -- a stunning achievement at which to marvel.


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