Casino economy

Greetings from the train. I am spending the Great Historical Moment traveling toward Philadelphia. No TV, no internet, only the guy in front of me to provide the news. (He’s having a lively Boston-accented talk on his mobile with “Bobby” about the day’s events and what it means for the nation.) I’m sure there will be a lot of big-picture grist for the blog-mill over the next week, but for now I’m going to address my last few days of travel. Zoom in before I zoom out. Of course, I’ll probably still manage to drag in the big picture.

It was really nice to get out of The City. Secretly, I am drained by the constant onslaught of strangers ignoring each other. It’s been a gorgeous cold snowy time in the woods and friendly small towns, and now there’s a thaw underway as I start to head south. New Orleans has been in the 60s and I have to admit that sounds pretty nice right about now, even if it does mean that Rollo (my suitcase, for those just joining the book tour adventure) will be heavier with all my winter gear packed up. At least I won’t have to navigate snowdrifts and lakes of slush, neither of which appeal to Rollo.

In just over a week I visited Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Washington, New York and Boston. Not surprisingly, the citizens of Greenfield, MA were quite amused to be next on that list, and to provide my change of scenery. This stop isn’t quite as odd as it might seem, as this area is a center of co-op ferment. It includes the Franklin Food Co-op, which recently opened a second store in response to a neighboring town’s losing its grocery; the Greenfield Farmers Cooperative Exchange, which is the largest farm supply store in this end of the state; Collective Copies, which drove Kinko’s out of town! Yeah!;  and one of the offices of Pioneer Valley Photovoltaics, which is also getting into other forms of renewable energy. 

I stayed in an even smaller town called Turners Falls, which was the site of an old mill and has surprising density. I guess back in the day there was a need for lots of workers, so they built the same sorts of three-story row houses that make up most of the residences in places like Brooklyn. It has a very different feel than the small farm and frontier towns out west, more like a mostly-Caucasian sliver of Bed-Stuy plunked down among the maples and snow. Unfortunately, the last two weeks have left my brain nearly full, and I can’t remember the name of nonprofit or land trust that is one of the main landlords in town.

The next night I stopped in Willimantic, Connecticut. This town with a very cool name is home to its own food co-op, the alternative community center where I spoke, and the Swift Water Artisans’ Co-op). It is a bit more spread out than Turners Falls, but still had a lot of big old brick buildings.

Like many small towns, Willimantic is struggling. Towns are hollowed out as investor-owned businesses continue to consolidate in fewer and larger centers. Old industries of resource extraction and manufacture are generally gone, and what’s left is mostly a service economy and some really quaint old abandoned factories of brick and stone, much more charming than the gangly steel carcasses of the Rust Belt, but still not quite signs of vigor.

The economic center of gravity has shifted to speculation. I’m not just talking about the high rollers of Wall Street – they live in western Conn – since that sort of gaming at least has some production behind it. I mean an economy that is literally based on gambling.

Everything else is secondary, and this shows up first in transportation: Even though the University of Connecticut is right near Willimantic, it is really difficult to get there or get away. I actually lost my temper a couple of times while trying to figure out how to get there from Hartford – in my usual mild-mannered way. Beware of transit in CT, which is pretty much the most confusing mess I have ever sampled in all my years as a transit connoisseur. That’s all I’m gonna say about that.

Special bulletin: They just announced that we are arriving in New Haven, and that we have a new president. Scattered applause ensued. Hooray. It’s show time.

Now back to your regular programming….

On the other hand, it is easy to reach the casinos. Even in Greenfield, they have ads for how you can get to the casinos. There are also special commuter routes, early morning routes, red-eye trips, and charters galore. They really want to make it easy for people to ride the bus to casinos. My hunch is that if you ride any bus long enough, it will eventually deliver you to the slots. But try to get somewhere else, and it’s another story.

On the second of two slow local buses back to the train I passed a sprawling set of buildings that were firmly marked “State Property, no trespassing.” I inquired of someone who was about to get off, and he shot me a toothless grin and merrily said “Mental hospital. I stayed there for a while. It was like prison.” Then he hopped off the bus and walked away through the snow. Several people chuckled at this exchange, and one guy said, “You should have asked me. I worked there 20 years.”  And so we got talking.

It turns out that the state hospital once housed 2000 patients and was a major employer in the area. But gambling is indeed the main economic engine these days, and there “wasn’t much going on” before it arrived. There are two main casinos, both with massive 30+ story hotels in the middle of nowhere. The height is amazing to me because I think that you can tell a lot about a society’s priorities and power structures by what buildings are tallest. Once it was pyramids, then churches, then government buildings then finally the gleaming high-rises of global capitalism..

These hotels are taller than the highest buildings in Sacramento, a city of two million people where a planned pair of high-rises will be a hole in the ground for the foreseeable future. This worries me, because I see it happening elsewhere too. “Indian gambling” is big in California, and although I have to acknowledge a certain poetic justice in this method of separating us newcomers from our money (and in some cases using that money to buy back stolen land), I’m not sure it is a good idea all around. If native communities do eventually become wealthy at the expense of their neighbors, I don’t think that scenario would end well. We should keep in mind that a significant chunk of gambling revenues go to non-native development and management companies that have sprung up to take advantage of native gambling laws. I just came across an article last night about how gambling has not been as helpful to California as its boosters predicted.

There are also some better models for how to build and preserve wealth: Alaska Native Corporations separate economic development from tribal leadership and often use quasi-cooperative forms, starting with the money they received from the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Arctic Co-operatives Ltd. brought Eskimo art to the outside world and has made a tremendous positive impact in dozens of villages while returning millions of dollars in profit to members. These people know how to build wealth for their communities.

I’m looking forward to whatever Obama has up his sleeve, but ultimately we’re in a deeper mess than can be solved through fluffing up demand through “economic stimulus.” As I have previously observed, stimulating the economy will have the effect of using resources faster, and will therefore hasten the day when we run out of those resources. I suspect we would be better off in the long run to adjust to a less-stimulated economy through better distribution of resources.

A key problem is that the US doesn’t really make anything anymore. We survive on financing and marketing and other essentially parasitic enterprises. We need a new wave of actual economic development, where we use our already extraordinary wealth to create more wealth and figure out ways to stop concentrating that wealth in ways that results in economic dead zones.

Even if stimulation is what we need, it will only work in the long run if we find ways to plug the holes in our economic bucket. If wealth is going to be flowing out of our communities, it needs to be part of a conscious effort to help people in less-developed parts of the world build their own economies to provide what we can’t make ourselves, and not to people who already have too much. As long as the capitalist system of wealth-concentration remains intact, we’ll be stuck with the dregs and our best option will be to gamble that we’ll win while others lose.

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