The psychology of money

Describes the author's observations during a visit to Las Vegas, Nevada, in which he analyzes the psychology of gambling. How Las Vegas reveals how Americans view money; How our puritanical impulses collide with our conquistador fantasies; The psychological cost we pay for the dominance of money in our society; How the American Dream has come to mean an ideal of prosperity, not of liberty; Casino culture.

By Michael Ventura, published on March 1, 1995 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015

Site Visit to Las Vegas

CASINOS MAY BE PROLIFERATING ACROSS AMERICA, BUT LAS VEGAS HAS
SOMETHING SPECIAL--IT'S A NEON-TINTED TEXTBOOK ON THE WAY WE SEE MONEY.
WRITER MICHAEL VENTURA SPENT (NOTHING BUT) TIME AT OUR NATIONAL SHRINE TO
THE DOLLAR AND CAME IMPRESSED WITH HOW PURITANICAL IMPULSES CRASH HEAD-ON
THERE WITH OUR CONQUISTADOR FANTASIES.

What's going on?

What are they doing here? And why are they letting themselves lose
all that money? Money means a lot to them back home. Why doesn't money
mean anything to them in Las Vegas? They can't all have personality
disorders (or can they?).

They look normal enough--"normal" as defined not psychologically
but statistically: middle class, mostly white, many of them overweight
(no matter their age), and wearing the sort of clothes you see in
supermarkets and malls. Demographics say that roughly half their
marriages end in divorce; that the fathers spend less than 10 minutes a
week in conversation with their children; and that 20 percent of their
teenagers haven't talked to either parent for more than 10 minutes in the
last month. If they are couples, it's statistically likely that both work
and that on weekdays they spend an average of only 20 minutes "alone
together" as the old song put it. They work that hard--and hence spend so
little time together as families--because they feel they don't have
enough money. The vast majority of them share the same attitude toward
money: a pervasive, potent mix of acquisitiveness and insecurity. Few, no
matter what their financial standing, feel they have enough, and most
feel they have nowhere near enough. They are people for whom job security
is a thing of the past, and, if they are under 50, they have good reason
to fear that Social Security will be drying up by the time they
retire.

To them, taxes (even for their children's schools) are anathema,
and most want the government to balance its budget. They want to slash
federal programs, especially welfare (though it's only three percent of
federal spending), because, they tell pollsters, they hate people getting
something for nothing. Yet ostensibly that's why they come to Vegas: on
the chance that they can win a lot of money and get something for
nothing. Still, gambling is at best a puzzling behavior for people with
fundamental insecurities about money.

But even if we accept occasional gambling as a form of
"entertainment," there are casinos and lotteries all over the country
now. If money is their most prominent personal as well as political
concern, why make an expensive trip to stay in a pricey hotel that
(despite the pools and shows) is really a gambling den, where the odds
are decidedly with the house, and where there's little to do but gamble,
drink, eat, and see scantily clad people sing and dance? We know that,
next to money, they're worried about crime--so why come to a city where
homicides are 56 percent higher than the national average, and rapes and
robberies 17 percent higher? Something unusual, even bizarre, is going on
in Las Vegas.

These people check in at the Luxor, a black pyramid with Nile River
gondola rides, depictions of ancient deities, and a surreal mix of
Egyptian and Manhattan decor . . . or the Excalibur, a cinder block and
fiberglass monstrosity supposedly suggestive of castles, with dime-store
mannequins dressed cartoonishly like knights and ladies fair . . . or the
MGM, where you walk in through the open mouth of a giant lion and the
cast of The Wizard of Oz greets you at the door . . . or the Mirage, with
live tigers through one entrance and sharks swimming in a huge tank
behind the check-in desk . . . or the new version of Bugsy Siegal's old
Flamingo, with its great pink flashing neon . . . or Circus Circus, where
trapeze acts soar over your head. They check in, these demographically
normal people, leave their gear in rooms that (except for the most
expensive) are basic Holiday Inn-type quarters, and take the nearest
elevator down to the casino. They'll spend most of their time in the
casino, losing money. No matter what the decor, these casinos are very
much the same. Hundreds and hundreds of slot and video poker machines
fill every available space, ringing, buzzing, flashing. Mazes of them
surround what are called "the tables"--tables used mostly for blackjack,
with a few for roulette wheels and craps. In a corner, usually roped off,
there's a section for poker and baccarat. Most of the casinos also have a
"sports room," where you may bet on any game being played
anywhere.

The vast majority of these demographically average visitors (who
would never call themselves gamblers) prefer the slots and video poker.
They plant themselves at these machines, and spend most of their time
pouring money in--to the tune of billions a year. Twenty-two million
people have to lose only $45.46 each to equal one billion, give or take a
few pennies, and it's not uncommon to lose that much in an hour or less.
At home these same people--it cannot be overemphasized--would drive many
miles to save that much money shopping.

They do not look like they're having a good time--especially for
people who've come so far to, ostensibly, and what you see, with few
exceptions, is actually a single face: a set expression, rather grim,
focused in what is almost a stare, as they mechanically, rhythmically
drop coins into the machines. At the roulette tables the expression is
almost the same, with the grimness soured almost to glumness as the wheel
rejects their numbers again and again. (It's hard not to take that
personally.) The blackjack tables are just slightly more animated. Only
at craps do people seem to get excited, yell, cheer, moan, applaud--but
craps is intimidating, and few play. Most remain at the slots.

They take breaks to eat, many queuing up on lines for a half hour
and longer to save money at a $5 buffet. This behavior is difficult to
understand, since before and after eating they're willing to lose those
same five dollars in minutes or even seconds at the games. Or they'll go
to a show. Or lie in the sun by the pool (not so pleasant in place that
is often more than 100 degrees in the sun). Or they'll stand around to
see the artificial volcano erupt in front of the Mirage, or the
full-scale pirate ships (complete with actors) battle in front of
Treasure Island. And, especially after dark, they'll walk up and down Las
Vegas Boulevard, known as the Strip, with the same set expression that
they have at the slots, staring, staring, staring, at each other, at the
neon, at the shadows of the desert mountains, and walking in and out of
the casinos, where they lose more money.

Since there are slot and video poker machines in virtually every
drugstore, liquor store, supermarket, restaurant, bar, and souvenir
shop--even at the airport--they lose money everywhere they turn. It is as
though they are on automatic pilot, programmed to lose that which they
most want.

But it is not enough to note their passivity, for nothing could be
less surprising than the passivity of a people who, statistically, spend
nearly half their leisure hours watching TV. It would be surprising if
they weren't passive. And it's not enough to say--as these people mill
together on a sidewalk waiting for an artificial volcanic eruption, or
take photos in front of larger-than-life scenes from The Wizard of
Oz--that they are subservient to spectacle. Most people, in most
societies, have been equally subservient to their respective spectacles,
gawking at any distraction no matter how little sense it made. Nor are
their grim faces, ever-so-slightly frightened and just a hint angry, very
unusual; you can see the same expression on people walking the average
city street. Even what can only be called their tastelessness isn't
unusual; after all, whatever else you can say about American culture,
elegant it's not. (What we lack in elegance we usually make up for in
energy.)

What is fascinating and unusual about these people, when compared
to how they spend their time elsewhere, is their complete abandon to the
act of throwing away money--money that in Las Vegas brings little in
return except the act of throwing it away. For most of them, it is not a
wild or pleasurable abandon. If anything, it seems a determined and often
even a cranky abandon. But it is abandon. They know what they're doing,
and they do it with an almost frenetic (though also somehow glum) energy,
and they've come a long way and planned a long time to do it. There is
little evidence of the passion that (for me, at least) makes abandon
worthwhile, but there is every evidence of the quality without which
abandon cannot exist: fatalism.

There are few things more un-American in style than fatalism.
People came to America to create "a city on the hill," based on a
religious faith in progress. American politics, industry, and culture are
fueled by this optimism. The GNP must increase, and life must get better
and better. No other culture feels this as passionately as ours; no other
bases its sense of well-being on such optimism. In America, to be
fatalistic is to be seen as dour, depressed.

In our culture fatalism is reserved for quirky "noir" films, or for
our great solitary novelists like Melville, Faulkner, Hemingway--but
these are often suspect in the eyes of the people at large. Though we
seem to have less and less to be optimistic about, people who question
the national optimism are seen as a threat. So for average Americans to
come a far distance to indulge, albeit not very consciously, in fatalism,
particularly fatalism about money, is a phenomenon found on a mass scale
nowhere but Las Vegas.

For it's not as though these people don't, on some level, know what
they're doing. They're not stupid, after all. People who routinely
operate the most complex technological culture in history cannot be
considered stupid. They know the odds are with the house. They know that
losing here is far more common than winning. And most of them have been
here before. Las Vegas couldn't be profitable if people came only once;
our population isn't large enough yet for that. It might be fair to say
that for so many to come so often is a terrible comment on the dullness
of their daily lives, but this doesn't begin to explain the fatalism of
regularly visiting Las Vegas. They work terribly hard for their money,
they know they are almost certainly going to lose some of that money in
Las Vegas, and they come anyway.

The questions, then, are: What does money mean to them, what
doesn't it mean, and what do they want it to mean? Of course, they come
hoping to win money, a lot of money. A small percentage do win, and an
even smaller number win big. They hope to win but, since they are not
stupid, they expect to lose. It's clear that the slim chance that they'll
win is the psychological mechanism by which they give themselves
permission to lose, letting themselves lose without feeling like utter
fools. In other words, the slim hope of winning is their door into the
fatalism of losing.

For isn't what they're really doing a rebellion against money? In
these United States money is our common denominator. It is the absolute
standard of access and status--the "bottom line," as we say these days.
Not only commerce but education, justice, art, the environment, health
care, and often liberty itself must meet the standards and bow to the
demands of money. There is precious little among us that isn't rationed,
administered, and ultimately valued, in terms of money. The Constitution
aside, most Americans consider themselves free insofar as they have
access to money.

The "American dream" has come to mean an ideal not of liberty but
of prosperity. Our unconscious or half-conscious definition of liberty
has become "prosperity." Contemporary politics is based on this equation.
Most of our lives revolve around making money (as opposed to the human,
communal value of our work, which was the standard for many eras), and
most of us judge ourselves according to what we can show for our money.
In America money is, if not quite omnipotent, at least
omnipresent.

Money plays covert, even insidious, roles in our most intimate
relationships. Divorcees who vie viciously for each other's money are
only bringing to light what lived in their love from the beginning: the
need to be valued--a need that tends to turn ferociously concrete when
things go bad. Our secrecy about our salaries is a secrecy about how we
are valued. Among men especially, the contest of who will pick up the
check is a contest of dominance, and this is only one of the gentler ways
men make money felt in their friendships.

It is no wonder that these people are grim as they not so much lose
but leave their money in Vegas. Every dollar they sacrifice to the
"games" is sticky with the pain of so much that is unadmitted and
oppressive in their lives.

Thus losing money in Las Vegas is more a ritual than it is anything
else. For when we sacrifice something important and painful, even when it
is against our practical interests to do so, and sacrifice in such a
specific, even organized, manner, then we are in the realm of
ritual.

If this ritual were conscious, if it were a choice, it might bring
release, relief, and even happiness. But though these people make a
choice to come here, and they know they'll likely lose, the ritualistic
aspect of their behavior is hidden beneath countless layers of habit,
denial, and a kind of conditioned blindness. (Psychotherapy wouldn't
exist if people didn't hide their major motives from themselves most of
the time.) Since the ritual itself, as with so much about money, is
unadmitted--repetitive, compulsive, and enacted in a setting that
advertises itself as fun--there is a terrible tension in it, as there is
in any action the wellsprings of which cannot be acknowledged, or any
rebellion that is doomed to fail.

They come to Las Vegas to rebel against the oppression of money and
to escape how they've surrendered their spirits so completely to money's
laws and demands. That is the real "vacation" they seek. But they seek it
in a veritable maze of money, a city that exists to do nothing but suck
money from them and that gives virtually nothing back in return.

Their rebellion against money plays into others' lust for money.
They sense this, and thus the futility of their rebellion is total. They
are, in Las Vegas lingo, "suckers." And there is no way to be proud of
being a sucker, or to feel when being suckered that one is somehow also
being released. To be compelled to come here, and to submit so completely
(though not very consciously) to being a sucker, is to take a vacation
into defeat. It is the final victory of the daily grind over the seeking
spirit, an unacknowledged submission to all the ways that money causes
pain. Thus it is a ritual that defeats and trivializes itself precisely
because it is so unconscious.

So for all its glitter, neon, and supposed gaiety, a depression
hangs in the desert air over Las Vegas. You don't need to know the
statistic that Vegas has one of the highest suicide rates in the world to
feel death in the air. You don't need to remember that this city lies in
the midst of the Mojave Desert, susceptible to earthquakes on the San
Andreas Fault not 150 miles away--a city with lax building codes and thus
more vulnerable to quakes than Los Angeles. (A major earthquake's
disruption of power, water, and transportation in the 100-plus-degree
heat would leave its million-plus inhabitants and visitors dead in
days.)

You don't have to think of the sexual desperation in a place where
prostitutes are listed in the Yellow Pages (as "escorts") and where naked
women and "boylesque" shows are advertised everywhere. You don't have to
listen to stars who croon love songs in the midst of all this
lovelessness. You don't have to attend the massively hyped boxing matches
where men pound at each other to satisfy the frenzy of bettors. You don't
have to think much, don't have to analyze. You have only to look at these
faces.

In them you'll see the appalling cost we pay for the dominance of
money--how it has seeped into our spirits, our psyches, so much so that
we come to Las Vegas to both wallow in and exorcise its power. These
things cannot be done at the same time, so it is a helpless attempt. And
that, finally, is what these faces broadcast: helplessness--the
expression of people who don't really know what they're doing but feel
compelled to do it anyway.

If this sounds extreme--well, that too fits Las Vegas. It is hard
to imagine a city more extreme, more overt, more in the grip of
compulsions. It is hard to imagine a place exposing its psychology more
nakedly, under the garish tints of its neon. It used to be that Vegas
made a kind ofWorld War II it was a tiny desert gamblingtown that few
knew of about. Here, in 1946, Bugsy Siegal and oth-ers invented the
mod-ern casino. For nearly gangsters held sway, population and fame.
Gangsters, almost by definition, have contempt for society, for normal
life. Their very existence is an expression of that contempt, and they
built this city in their own image. Its garishness, its sexuality, and
especially its "play," the games not of chance but of odds that sucked
money from all who came here, reflected their temperament, their values,
and above all their secret. That secret, the core of their contempt for
society, was simply this: that they could not exist, and certainly could
not profit, unless supposedly normal people desired what they
offered--desired to escape from a moral code they could not live without
but could not entirely live within.

The town made a kind of sense because it seemed aware of its
purpose, its secret; and it was small and private and, in its way, rather
sophisticated. No one walked into a casino casually. Men wore suits and
ties, women wore evening clothes. Their fashions and manners suggested
that they had come to do something special: transgress. The ritual was
almost conscious.

By the mid-1970s the place had grown too big, and was too much in
the public eye, to be run overtly by gangsters. Corporations began to
take over the casinos. Gradually they've come to call their hotels
"resorts," not casinos; and they refer to what goes on there as "gaming,"
not gambling. The gangster casinos used to be dimly lit; the corporate
casinos tend to be bright. The gangster casinos were openly, even
proudly, sexy and sly in atmosphere; the corporate casinos hide behind
The Wizard of Oz, circuses, knights.

People used to enter a casino formally; now they wear the same
outfits they wear to their hometown malls. The corporations are in effect
saying, "It's all right to do this, it's good clean fun, nothing to feel
shady about." The gangsters' Las Vegas liked feeling shady--relished it,
in fact. The corporate Las Vegas denies shadiness in their decor while
offering it in their services. The city is as up-front as it ever was,
for it can deny neither its purpose nor its psychology; but the people it
draws are less up-front, pretending they're doing something quite in
keeping with the way they normally live while doing things, especially
with monty, that they would never normally do. The toll this takes is
seen in their pleasureless faces.

A gangster's rebellion is evident, and their casinos invited
license and rebellion. A solid citizen's unconscious rebellion is
torture. The solid citizens have come to Las Vegas to defile the very
thing that, in their own eyes, makes them solid: money. As in the old Las
Vegas, they do here what they can't do elsewhere; but unlike the old Las
Vegas, they do it furtively, rarely looking at each other, each alone in
front of their machine, pretending to attempt to win what they are almost
certain to lose: the money that defines and confines them, the money they
slave for and that gives them the small freedoms that excuse their
slavery.

Every nickel, every dollar, is alive with pain here. Here the
American dreamer is the American sucker. Here, in the last truly
wide-open and wild town of the Wild West, everything we've paid so dearly
for is stripped bare, our dark side gleams in a neon glow, and we leave
finally exhausted by our own helplessness--trying to put the best face on
it, telling each other we've had a good time--and usually broke. We go
back home, and settle back into the grind of making the money that we've
just lost--back to spending 20 minutes a day with our spouses, talking 10
minutes a week with our kids, and accumulating enough money to vacation
again in Las Vegas.