The Las Vegas Deadly Sin

When my high school economics teacher would tell us a “spicy story,” he would remind us, “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas.” 

Recently, I went to Las Vegas, and what I saw cannot stay there. I’m afraid we’ve been complacent and unimaginative when creating the largest American city founded in the 20th century [1]

I witnessed the greatest sin I’ve ever seen, and it wasn’t gambling, drugs, or prostitution. 

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.”

Whether or not you're religious, the 10th commandment serves to remind us that wanting what other people have or want will cause us to fall into the trap of competition, neglecting the pioneering American spirit. 

Las Vegas became the greatest copycat place in the world. The epicenter of globalization and a place where a copy-paste culture surged. 

I don’t think Las Vegas purposely tried to be like this, instead, it may have pushed the city to compete and copy others. They looked for answers by replicating other cities, instead of designing and creating a city no one can compete with. For instance, the mini Eiffel tower in Las Vegas is merely one of the 50 copies or iterations in the world. 

Let’s say the Entertainment Capital of the World was pushed to compete with others.

But who forced Las Vegas to be a city of forgery? A possible explanation could be the slowdown of economic growth (aka the stagnation of growth).

What I saw in Las Vegas[2] is correlated to the stagnation hypothesis. But what is this hypothesis about?

The stagnation hypothesis suggests a significant slowdown in scientific, technological, and economic progress since about the 1970s. 

And America has been no exception. 

The United States used to be the place where we created, developed, and invented technology. Then, we could afford to borrow it, sell it, or let others copy it. But then, we did what others used to do, copy. If we all copy each other, little or no progress is made. 

We need the type of countries and individuals who refuse to emulate others [2], build from scratch, and want to push the “innovation limits” forward. 

But the world doesn’t have to be stagnant and slow. We can fix this. 

The economist Tyler Cowen, one of the biggest proponents of the stagnation hypothesis, believes there’s an objectively right answer about what we should do or what we should not do to advance progress[3].Before the rate of American progress began to stagnate, some people knew this was coming, such as Derek J. de Solla Price, and Vannevar Bush. Bush wrote a report to the president called, “Science The Endless Frontier [4],” in which he attempted to keep science funding after WWII. He wanted the government to invest with no thought of return because by pumping money into science, it will trickle down to the economy. Bush’s main message was to give scientists the freedom to pursue their curiosity wherever it might lead, ultimately leading to growth, security, and prosperity. 

My friends, science seems to be our gateway to progress. Why? I’ll let Vannevar Bush reply,  “This essential, new knowledge can be obtained only through basic scientific research [5].” Then, he explained why we need scientific progress, “But without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world [6].”

A Copy of a Simulated Reality

When you go to Las Vegas, a million forces are getting your attention, this is no coincidence. This is part of the phases of transformation that Las Vegas has gone through, which also explains the homogeneity in its architecture. 

Stefan Johannes Al wrote The Strip: Las Vegas and the Symbolic Destruction of Spectacle [7], in which he explained how there lies a process of symbolic destruction behind four-building booms. These constant shifts in architecture and building booms create zero-sum games because each new resort devalues the older resorts even further. No wonder why the buildings in Las Vegas have little durations. 

He explains that in one of the shifts in architecture, resorts began copying others. Stefan writes, "There is a shift from architecture based on fantasy to architecture based on simulation; resorts became idealized replicas of other places." 

They didn’t become copycats for no reason, and Stefan explains:

Those resorts were replicas of other places; specifically, they evoked places of money, history, and culture, in order to appeal to an older and wealthier crowd, and they demoted the Disney model to cheap and childish. 

In short, the Strip moved from the 21 spectacle of fantasy to chic urbanity, from the spectacle of Disney-like fantasy to the spectacle of simulated reality.

Creating a new, unique building (or resort) takes more energy, creativity, and time for people to get used to and understand the new architecture. Instead, what’s easier is to copy other known places with existing spots in our memory and emotions. 

If using this model of mimicking others so it’s easier to get more customers. Why bother? Why even put the extra effort to create buildings like never before? Why? Why? Why? 

From an economic and short-term perspective, this makes no sense. But if we care about the long-term, we have to do what's hard. 

Because THEY ARE HARD

We went from creating original cities with unique and different architecture to creating fake copies of other places in the world. Even if the other cities in the U.S. weren’t completely original, they had a different spin, a new iteration. 

Las Vegas is an example of the current state and current economic growth of the U.S. But don’t you forget that the United States of America is the best country in the world. We cannot copy others. We copy, we lose our leadership. 

We need to get back to doing hard things with the attitude of actually wanting to win, and conquering new frontiers. JFK inspired us with this mentality to see and accomplish the impossible [8]. Let’s remind his speech:

But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

You can replace “the moon,” with any other incredibly hard ambitious goal such as curing cancer, living forever, flying cars, artificial general intelligence, and, of course, going to Mars.

This is the country where we go from nothing to something. This is the country that needs to stop copying and start creating, developing, and inventing. This is the country that needs to be the number one science advocate. This is the country of the land of opportunity. This is the country that values our freedom to pursue new, innovative ideas. This is the country where we do the hard things first. 

THIS IS THE AMERICA I WANT.

 

 

Notes

[1][This](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Las_Vegas#1970%E2%80%931988:_Explosive_growth:~:text=1970%E2%80%931988%3A%20Explosive%20growth%5Bedit%5D,abruptly%20in%20the%20late%202000s%20recession.%5B30%5D%5B31%5D) was very much surprising to me. 

[2]  Tyler Cowen suggested that “A lot of Las Vegas growth, of course, has come through increasing labor supply and attracting settlers, not progress in any scientific sense.”

This is key to keep in mind to understand the growth of Las Vegas, and its possible future. 

[3] Emulating others isn’t intrinsically bad. It becomes an issue when we don’t even consider thinking differently.

[4] Quote from an interview.

[5] Current and future administrations should be reading this report https://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/nsf50/vbush1945.htm#summary.

[6][*Science The Endless Frontier*](https://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/nsf50/vbush1945.htm#:~:text=This%20essential%2C%20new%20knowledge%20can%20be%20obtained%20only%20through%20basic%20scientific%20research.) by Vannevar Bush.

[7] Ibid.

[8][The Strip: Las Vegas and the Symbolic Destruction of Spectacle by Stefan Johannes](https://escholarship.org/uc/item/3jm6702w). 

[8] From JFK’s speech.

Thanks to Tyler Cowen for reading drafts of this essay.


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