We moved from Memphis, Tennessee to Birmingham, Alabama in 2012, and I had to go back to Memphis to take care of a few things earlier the week. I decided I would take my then almost-four-year-old son, Jacob, so we could spend some time indulging his greatest passion: riding elevators.
After a few minutes with Travelocity, I was a bit disappointed in the price of lodging in downtown Memphis, and I really didn’t want to stay in the suburbs. Then something came across the screen that piqued my interest.
I could get a very cheap room.
At Harrah’s Hotel and Casino.
In Tunica, Mississippi, a city I’ve never visited.
I’m not a gambler, but I’ve always loved the glitz, glamor, and sheer creative energy of Las Vegas. Having never been to Tunica, I figured this would be a fantastic opportunity to see a new and interesting place for far less than we would have paid to stay in Memphis for two nights (or even one night). And if there’s any set of structures virtually guaranteed to have interesting elevators, it’s a casino resort. We weren’t disappointed, and indeed we were very pleasantly surprised. Our room at the Terrace Hotel (which was one of the three hotels on the Harrah’s property) was $35/night.
I figured that for such a low price, we were virtually guaranteed a room in which someone was recently murdered. Not so: the room was very clean and very comfortable. Comparable comfort in downtown Memphis would have cost three or four times as much.
I have to write a few words about experiments in effective fatherhood and husbandship here, as well. First, it was an opportunity for my then-eight-months-pregnant wife to relax a bit as she was only responsible for one kid at the time (and honestly, our daughter is a little less demanding). Second, it was a chance to teach Jacob some basics of things like basic courtesy, politeness, and the like. This broke down from time to time, but generally, he was very good about waiting for others to get on and off buses and elevators or asking people which floor they were going to, holding doors for people, and so on.
It also illustrated an important point about personal finance. With any luck, you can probably find something your son or daughter really enjoys that doesn’t cost much — like riding elevators at hotels. Jacob and I had a fantastic time riding elevators on the cheap. I contrast this with our visit to Sesame Place near Philadelphia in Summer 2011. We were on our way home from a few weeks at the American Institute for Economic Research in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and we made plans to meet up with Doug Stuart and his family (Doug has been reading my stuff for a while, and we’ve become friends). Sesame Place was fun, but when all is said and done, we spent a lot of money on an underwhelming experience.
It could be that I’m just lucky: my son loves hotels and elevators. I’m sure, though, that your less-than-five-year-old doesn’t need big, splashy vacations that are almost inevitably more stressful for the parents than anything else. We didn’t learn this lesson and in summer 2013 went to Disney World. I remember that one of the highlights of our summer was that we got to travel with my Dad on business trips through Kentucky. I used to think the Holidome at the Holiday Inn in Bowling Green, Kentucky was the height of luxury, and I have fond memories of the Holiday Inn in Murray, Kentucky as well.
Visiting casino hotels in Mississippi (and a lot of other places) offer instruction in waste. First, as I understand the law the casino has to be on water in order to be legal. As you can imagine, this means that people spend a lot of time and energy designing and building structures that meet the legal requirements. In short, they design water to surround the casino and build bizarre structures that get around the legal requirements but that require considerable time, energy, and effort to do so. We could save a lot of time, talent, and treasure if we just got rid of these restrictions.
Taking a kid through a casino is also a bit of an experience. The casinos are very vigilant about making sure parents know their responsibilities for minors. Security was notified that I was escorting my son through the casino to the restaurants and elevators. After a few conversations with some of the security guards, it became clear that this was primarily about avoiding fines.
There’s a lesson here about the political economy of economic growth. Businesses are engaged in a very delicate balancing act with respect to the state; my impression is that this is especially true of businesses engaged in activities that are considered immoral. The economist Bruce Yandle coined the term “Bootleggers and Baptists“ to describe seemingly-unlikely political coalitions, and this framework is especially relevant to gambling. On one hand, cracking down on casinos or fighting gambling is a great way to curry favor with moral issues voters who, to be frank, don’t understand the effects of the policies they support. Voters are able to enjoy large psychological benefits and the costs are borne by others. By playing to this tendency, politicians are able to increase their vote counts.
Regulation will create bootleggers, though. Once a firm clears the regulatory hurdles in order to do business, they have a vested interest in making sure those hurdles remain for others. Governments create economic rents—returns in excess of opportunity costs—by restricting entry into the commercial environment. Even well-intentioned policies aimed at preventing the destructive tendencies of compulsive gamblers (say) will tend toward rent creation.
One morning at about 9:15, REM’s classic “Everybody Hurts“ was playing in the casino at Harrah’s. I found this hilarious, and I wonder if I could get data to see whether there is a spike in the house’s take during the song. “If you think you’ve had too much of this life,“ then bet it all on 00.
Charles Murray has an excellent quiz on your “bubble” that accompanies his 2012 book Coming Apart. I wonder what he would say about this: are you in touch with mainstream America if you’ve eaten at Paula Deen’s buffet at Harrah’s in Tunica? I would like to think he’d say you’re doing quite well.