Is your diagnosis of the American economy an over-reliance on consumption and a disturbing nonchalance toward risk and debt? That was Las Vegas in a nutshell. As Muro notes, Nevada lost a staggering 170,000 jobs in the recession, 120,000 of which were in real estate, construction, food and drink and tourism.
If you think responsibility -- personal, corporate and political -- went missing the past few decades, well, we made lack of accountability a slogan: "What happens here, stays here."
"Vegas was the rest of the country, but with its foot on the gas," says Robert Lang, director of Brookings Mountain West at UNLV.
When the crash came to Vegas, it came hard. And it became apparent that easy and fast money had acted as a mask of our deeper social problems, which were suddenly exposed in a very harsh light. Our schools and universities were foundering, held back by a regressive, inadequate and patched together tax system. Our health care was mediocre at best. We led the nation in suicide and divorce and addiction. And as a pop-up community, we didn't have the social capital of older communities that helped them rally together to solve common problems. With all that house-flipping, as well as poorly designed suburban neighborhoods that don't encourage interaction, Las Vegans often barely know their neighbors.
Again, like modern America, only more so.
THE NEW VEGAS
This being America though, even a broke, down-on-his-luck loser can catch a break, and Las Vegas might be coming back. There's a recognition among elites that the good old days aren't returning. (And that the champagne of the good times had castor beans in it anyway.)
Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican increasingly distinct from the national party's pre-New Deal orthodoxy, unveiled an economic plan earlier this year that leans heavily on education as a way to diversify the economy into potential growth sectors beyond tourism and gambling, including health care, information technology infrastructure, renewable energy, mining, transportation, and aerospace and defense. The governor's brain trust hopes the Nevada economy will look different in a couple decades, just as Denver and Dallas, the poster children of the excesses of the S&L debacle, have become innovative, prosperous and stable economies.
A little luck helps. And that's where Tony Hsieh comes in. Hsieh is the CEO of Zappos, the big online apparel company now owned by Amazon.
Zappos, which is famous for its customer-service-focused call center, struggled to find workers in the Bay Area who understood the customer service mission. So in 2004, the company moved to suburban Las Vegas, where it found cheap real estate and workers, schooled in casino culture, who were familiar with the customer service ethic and the 24 hour workday.
The company has thrived in Las Vegas, and now Hsieh has set his sights on a bigger mission. Hsieh is a passionate urbanist, given to handing out copies of Harvard economist Edward Glaeser's book, Triumph of the City, to anyone in shouting distance. Unlike his tech company brethren, who have tended to build massive, self-contained campuses on the edge of their tech city locales, Hsieh decided to move Zappos to downtown Las Vegas, into the old city hall.
Silicon Vegas? Don't laugh.
It was a bold move. Despite pockets of promise, downtown Las Vegas, which is home to the city's older and less glamorous hotels, has not witnessed the urban renaissance that has swept so many other cities across the country. (Imagine Hartford with casinos instead of insurance companies.) Hsieh also created an entity called the Downtown Project and gave it $350 million in seed money to start tech startups and community minded small businesses.