Dead Souls: At least in Gogol’s telling, they were actually dead

There’s been a big casino licensing brouhaha in New York State this year, culminating in the grand announcement of permit recommendations for three Upstate sites last week. Television news reports out of Albany have shown city officials and business boosters in Schenectady creaming their pants en masse, with the equally gushing encouragement of their august governor, at the news that their city has received the lords’ favor in its quest for jobs; capitalize the L and move the apostrophe, or not, to taste. The other recommended sites were in Seneca County, known for the Finger Lakes and first-wave feminism, and Sullivan County, the eternally profitless ass end of the Catskills.

What makes this story interesting, in the sense meant by the ancient Chinese curse about interesting times, is the reaction in the losing jurisdictions. Officials in Orange County (New York’s is a lot more boring than the one where Legends walk the Pier) are pissy that the Gaming Facility Location Review Board didn’t consider their proximity to New York City. Officials in Rensselaer are butthurt that the Board overlooked their city’s train station, which is the terminus for most Amtrak runs out of Penn Station to points north and northwest. The poobahs of south Ulster County are whining because the Board didn’t approve the application made for the well-maintained ruins of the Nevele Grande, a disused but formerly major outpost on the Borscht Belt in Ellenville. Economic development bitchfestmeisters in the Southern Tier are upset that the Guvnah banned fracking statewide the same week that the gaming board approved the Seneca County site, which they found offensive because Seneca County is located in the central-central part of Western New York, not the south-central part of Western New York.

The entire casino site bidding process was a bum fight between three sets of local governments. The stated premise of the state government in this arrangement was that only one site could be approved in each region because otherwise the casinos would cannibalize their neighbors. Given that Sullivan County is a lightly populated, trailer-strewn shithole whose boosters jizzed their small clothes when they scored a Kohl’s warehouse for Wurtsboro, this is a reasonable premise.

The problem with spreading the wealth in such a region is that the schmear can become awfully thin. Ulster and Orange Counties already have more of it (and, not coincidentally, more arable land), so the reasoning behind approving the most remote site in the most suck-ass of the three counties was, well my God, why can’t we take some pity on the sorry bastards. It’s illogical in any strictly economic sense, but in terms of dumping white elephant projects on useless shitholes as a disingenuous form of government relief, it’s perfectly logical. One does not simply come out and say, good God, y’all are a sorry bunch, let’s see if we can’t just dump some more money into your local governments, unless one has balls of steel: steel that is not manufactured in Sullivan County because Sullivan County is a useless dump.

This is why it’s damn near impossible to find a washed-up old industrial town or hillbilly county in the land (Utah, ever under Deseret’s watchful eye, is a different sort of land) whose leaders aren’t braying to the heavens with the talismanic incantation about new jobs. They’re all about dem jerbs, ’bout dem jerbs, no welfare. Worse–much worse–most of them have absolutely no qualms about seeking these jobs from some combination of casinos and prisons. Tax break giveaways for factories and warehouses are popular, too, but warehouses subject an exceptionally large fraction of their employees to salary caps a dollar or two above the minimum wage, and factories often require specific skill bases that are expensive to develop through workforce training programs and closer to impossible to recruit into some god-awful Bumfuckville from out of town. Supply chains tend to be trickier and more expensive in remote locations, too. This is why the industrial base in and around Los Angeles is beyond the capacity of the Franchise Tax Board or any other arm of the California state government to destroy.

In a remote, rural county with a piss-poor natural resource base and spotty public infrastructure, like Sullivan County, it’s beyond the capacity of the state government to create a viable industrial economy. A major infrastructure build-out in the hope of attracting high-value private enterprises would be a white elephant. Nothing that Sullivan County does to bring its public infrastructure up to first-class urban standards would allow it to compete with Secaucus for industrial tenants; it doesn’t have a competitive labor pool or a deepwater port, and it never will.

Local governments like Sullivan County’s turn to state and federal governments for regulatory capture regimes benefiting their jurisdictions because doing so is the only way that they can compete with jurisdictions that have much better labor pools, resource bases, and infrastructure. In New York State, the most immoral result of this impulse is the trafficking of prisoners from New York City and its suburbs, where most of the state’s population and criminal convictions originate, to upstate prisons in villages as far away as Dannemora (an hour and a half drive from Montreal) and Attica (45 minutes from Buffalo).

If human trafficking is a thing, this is it. Remember, New York is the state that implemented the Rockefeller drug laws. It’s completely bogus to argue that this regime is more ethical than putting out-of-work country bumpkins on the dole. That’s exactly how floridly immoral and insane the political establishment is in many rural American counties, and, for that matter, in most American states.

Morality-whoring by corrupt local governments isn’t nearly as bad when its goal is to secure a casino as an economic backstop. Casinos don’t involve the horror of brute government force to confine and brutalize the vulnerable in order to justify indirect transfer payments from state governments to rural communities. There’s no element of compulsion. There is, however, a powerful element of sleaze and fraud. Gambling operations are naturally predatory and crooked. They can’t help but prey on people who are impulsive, desperate, gullible, addicted to risk-taking and crude sensory stimulation, or similarly disordered.

The very fact that the gambling industry now promotes itself as the “gaming” industry is damning. “Gambling” evokes spendthrift habits, greed, and pathological risk-taking. “Gaming,” a neologism derived from “game,” evokes things like bowling, chess, and pick-up basketball. It also signals the customer’s ability to turn the scam around on the house, e.g., to “game the system.” The purpose of this propaganda is to gaslight the marks into subconsciously thinking that dumping money into games of chance is a harmless, or even lucrative, pastime that one might enjoy with one’s pals, not the superstitious idiocy of a person with atrocious financial habits. It is, after all, objectively in the manifest interest of every gambling operation to keep its customers from cutting their losses. This interest only becomes stronger in jurisdictions where the regulators are openly worried about market saturation, as they are in New York State.

As public policy goes, promoting gambling is the road to hell, soft underfoot. There’s always more space in the pit, you know. This is a sort of Rod Serling thing to say, but it’s easy to dwell in the pit unawares. You think you know the lay of the land, but hell no, so to speak, you don’t. I describe American public policy: a first-in-class incarceration rate (the only country sparing us from total embarrassment being the Seychelles, a tinpot satrapy reporting to the CIA), feral police, a worst-in-class health insurance system, a mediocre education system, disintegrating infrastructure, local governments that meet internationally agreed-upon criteria for failed states. By any morally grounded, non-jingoistic standard, it’s a fucking nightmare.

Rampant gambling promoted by desperate or corrupt local governments fits into this nightmare by diverting the energies of the public into a masturbatory race to the bottom. Local governments and their constituents get lured by the promise of jobs, any jobs, in a bullshit sector, and customers get lured by the promise of easy money, a promise that is usually false. (If it weren’t, the house would lose, and a losing house is a bankrupt house. Why, yes, Mr. Trump, I’ll say it is.) Everybody who willingly submits to this regime loses sight of the fundamental economic transactions that are represented by the exchange of money, i.e., the exchange of some useful product or service. Many things are useful, as anyone who isn’t rolling in the deep with Mr. McFeely and King Friday will agree: farm produce, lumber, metal ores, milled lumber and metal, railroads, shipping, medical care, medical supplies, etc., etc. Even intangible services–lawyering, humanities research, music, storytelling, banking, prostitution–can be of great social value, albeit only in a secondary capacity, on top of a primary economic base that is grounded in the real world. That is, a society of musicians, lawyers, and whores who can’t step up to the plate and pick the damn crops is worth fuck-all if there isn’t enough to eat.

Gambling is a farther bridge into the Land of Make-Believe. Mr. Rogers’ trippy-ass trolley doesn’t go there, and the Port Authority only goes as far as Bethel Park. The nice thing about gambling is that there is no end of the line, at least not until everybody’s flat out of money and credit, and if warlords haven’t reduced your village to cannibalism, that’s probably beyond your event horizon. NB: By everybody, I mean everybody. If Boko Haram or al-Shabab were so inclined, they could successfully graft a supraeconomy of gambling wankery onto the real economies of the territories that they’ve seized from Africa’s duly constituted but hapless sovereign governments. Mere poverty isn’t enough to stop this if there’s the political will for it: take a look at the bad parts of Atlantic City or Reno sometime.

The core business of a casino, its raison d’être, is totally unmoored from the real economy. Many casinos sell products and services with genuine economic value–food, drinks, lodging, gasoline, spa treatments–but these are incidental to their core business of gambling. There’s a surprisingly easy test which proves that gambling, alone among the services offered by casinos, is pseudoeconomic bullshit to the very core. This test is to determine whether a product or service could be exchanged in a barter economy. That’s it. Any of a casino’s non-gambling services pass the test. Motor vehicle fuel is the only item on the list that would be inherently tricky to exchange through barter, on account of the amount of specialization and infrastructure needed to refine it from crude fuelstocks. Even so, in a high-trust environment, trading a tank full of gasoline or diesel for a box of fruit, a goat, a place to spend the night, a blow job, whatever, would theoretically be feasible.

What most economists are too stupid to really understand is that money is designed to facilitate exactly these sorts of exchanges. Its very purpose is to serve as a catalyst for genuine economic activity. The reason I accuse economists of such stupidity is that if they had any real interest in the genuine economic activity facilitated by money, they’d talk about the real economy instead of gushing forth with spergy lunatic stories about the value of money as money and the relative value of one kind of money or security to another.

The high-trust environment that I mentioned above is crucial. Money is fundamentally a claim on the future products and services provided by other people. There will naturally be fewer of these products and services if a society is dominated by people who are skittish and untrusting in the marketplace, rapacious, fraudulent, lazy, or unskilled than if it is dominated by plain dealers who generally trust others and have useful skills. As a rule of thumb, then, a plain-dealing society will have sounder money than a society of bullshitters. Its money will tend to hold its value in real terms precisely because those holding it aren’t too lazy, evasive, or chickenshit to engage in the economy fully and in good faith. Customers and vendors will more or less know what they’re getting. They’ll be out to do honest work, not to burn and get burned.

We’re really fucking stupid as a society to totally not get how gambling fits into this arrangement and how easily its proliferation can amount to throwing a wrench into the works. The reason that gambling cannot be bartered is that it is devoid of any genuine product or service. Money, even fiat money (#ENDTHEFED #RONPAUL #LIBERTARIANISM!!!!!!!11!) is not what utterly corrupts the exchange in a game of chance. Money is used overwhelmingly to facilitate the exchange of genuine products and services. The most marginal black market for hard drugs involves the exchange of real services or products for a real (if adulterated) product. “Hey man, I’ll give you cock for rock” is a fucked up offer in a distorted drug market (too much custom, not enough cooking), but it’s an exchange. Gambling, on the other hand, is not.

Say it again: gambling is not an actual economic exchange. It’s two counterparties trying to outscam each other in a rigged game. Casinos wouldn’t have so many private security creeps on staff if they and their customers didn’t have hearts full of larceny. The actual economic activity that allows gamblers and the house alike to have food, shelter, and the like has absolutely nothing to do with gambling. The food, water, alcohol, hotel buildings, HVAC systems, and plumbing that keep these people from starving and shivering in a ditch littered with their own shit and piss is all produced by people who are too busy doing real, productive work to run scams at the moment. The food service, front desk, housekeeping, and maintenance staff at a casino may be working in support of a huge con, but their jobs involve legitimate, productive work; management needs their productivity to sweeten the deal for customers and convince them that they’re getting something out of the house, not just dumping a wheelbarrow full of cash into a sinkhole in a Pavlovian response to bells, whistles, and flashing lights. A prostitute who’s cold-calling prospective clients on a casino floor can’t do much to aid the con; she’s too busy doing customer development, and her goal is to get some guy to spend his money on pussy, not poker, i.e., to draw him back into the real economy. It’s no wonder that casino security tries to give hookers the bum’s rush, or that bartenders take protection money from them in exchange for a heads-up when the Ocean’s 11-12-13-69 intelligence goons come onto the floor.

Hey, I just said “poker” and “come.”

This is what municipal and county governments in New York were fighting over until last week. They were fighting over a limited number of permission slips from the state government to skim off the top from both sides of a massive two-way scam. This is a bit like a warden arranging to have Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford reassigned to his prison so that he can take a ten percent cut from the cons that they’re running on each other using margin calls on various inmates’ commissary accounts. Only a fool would be surprised to discover that there isn’t really any money there and that other inmates who got duped by the two crooks have filed clawback claims against him for receiving funds that they stole. If there isn’t a real economy buttressing this wankery, like Madoff working in the laundry room or something, these claims on nonexistent resources foretell immediate societal collapse.

This is how unserious the contenders for these casino slots are in any meaningful sense. These people sincerely think, or at least compellingly pretend to think, that the proliferation of casino gambling in rural New York is genuine economic activity, not a baroque form of mutual parasitism whose half-life will hit an asymptotic low if it becomes a truly commonplace way of interacting with the economy. Governor Cuomo joined the poobah trust of Schenectady the other day for an excellent circle jerk about, I shit ye not, helping people “discover all the great things Schenectady has to offer.” It’s beyond parody. These people don’t realize that they sound absolutely fucking ridiculous to anyone who doesn’t get a four-hour erection at the utterance of that name. Actually, some of these “great things” are things that Schenectady will “have to offer” at some point in the future, after the casino has been built. We must restore to Chicago all the great things it never had, etc. This idealized, gambler-infested Schenectady will be full of revitalized restaurants and shit. Or something. Andrew Cuomo is a buffoon.

There’s a hidden economic history to this casino nonsense, of course. It doesn’t apply much to Sullivan County, which is the kind of place that turns a Dutchman into a Cracker, but it very much applies to Schenectady and to Seneca County. In brief, Schenectady is an old industrial city, mainly in the locomotive business, that went through brutal factory closures in the 1960’s, and Seneca County is a highly arable, heavily cultivated agricultural area. These are not unproductive places; they’re just “economically depressed” and in need of “revitalization.”

Make that more revitalization: according to Wikipedia, “In the 21st Century, Schenectady began revitalization.” Take note of the wording: municipal boosters totally had PR flacks edit that Wikipedia entry. This is the sort of inference that makes me wonder whether there isn’t a way to replicate the Cultural Revolution, minus the starvation and bloodshed, in American cultural conditions. Or maybe these low-rent propaganda mercenaries can be put to work on a factory floor. There’s an available site at the former American Locomotive Company factory, except that, oops, that’s where they’re putting the casino.

Not surprisingly for anyone who has been paying attention, “economically depressed” and “revitalized” don’t mean a thing as descriptions of a region’s actual contributions to the economy. They only sound like they mean something. Despite being something of a socioeconomic hot mess, the city of Schenectady is home to at least one active steel mill, a General Electric research facility, and the headquarters of Price Chopper, a major regional grocery chain. The GE and Alco plants weren’t closed because their employees got sick of working in a goddamn locomotive factory; they were closed because management lost the moxie to run a goddamn locomotive factory. In Soviet Capital District, job loses YOU! Seneca County, meanwhile, had 4,538 acres planted to grapes, berries, and tree fruits in 2007, and a quick look at satellite images shows that its land use remains overwhelmingly agrarian. I’ve picked blueberries and done vineyard maintenance for a living (although not as much of a living as I’d like), so I can attest that an aggregate acreage of this size can easily keep hundreds of people busy for months at a time, or dozens on the threshold of exhaustion. These jobs don’t become non-jobs just because Bougie assumes that they’re held exclusively by Mexicans, or because there are asshat growers who make a point of not paying the help. They’re still Wow Much Works. And that’s just the fruit crops; according to the same census, 82,534 acres were planted to corn, wheat, soybeans, and hay, and several thousand more head of livestock were raised than there are residents in the county.

These agricultural statistics aren’t even exhaustive, and the last one isn’t exactly a statistic, but it’s clear that Seneca County punches well above its weight in agricultural output. You might want to keep this in mind if you’ve eaten today. If Seneca County has a serious problem with poverty or unemployment, it’s because farm workers are paid shit for jobs that are rarely steady and the government doesn’t bridge the gap with adequate public services.

Oddly, the US Census Bureau shows a poverty rate for Seneca County well below the state average for New York, and Google shows an unemployment rate of only 5.0%. Are the county’s boosters bullshitting the rest of the state? Was there some kind of official corruption behind the approval of the Seneca County casino site? This really doesn’t look above board.

It happens, too, that Schenectady is a college town. Under the baroque educational hierarchy favored by high-hatters on the Eastern Seaboard, Union College really shouldn’t even be one of your safety schools. Actually, maybe it should, since it’s within walking distance of an Amtrak station with multiple daily runs to New York and Buffalo and, being less selective, it probably doesn’t attract as many social climbers and their wretched anxiety disorders. The hard knocks stories about the need for to “revitalize” Schenectady, however, sound like something out of the early post-Soviet Eastern Bloc, like, finally we can start cleaning up Timisoara now that someone in the army has found the balls to shoot Ceausescu.

As it happens, Schenectady has repeatedly been left hanging by governments and major businesses that absolutely should have done better by the city and its residents. There were the factory closures, then the hospital closures, and there have been some half-assed responses from entities that had the capacity to limit the bleeding. Americans deserve better than the pathetic public services, crooked policy, and deranged redevelopment schemes we so often get from our governments. We deserve better from our businesses and business lobbies. We even deserve better from many of our nonprofits. These outcomes are disgraceful.

Still, Schenectady’s redevelopment poobahs seem to be omitting a number of relevant matters from their narrative. The gaslight abides in the Electric City. Conditions are simultaneously worse than they actually are (like OMG no jobs!) and better than they actually are (as a tourist, you should totally spend your whole vacation here because this town is just bitchin’). Past failures of government, business, and charity leadership mean that Schenectady must rock down to Electric Avenue–correction: these past failures mean that Schenectady must express its abundant gratitude to have received special dispensation to establish a massive official wankery slush fund downtown, a dispensation announced with a personal anointment of the governor’s oily balm. Yes, make a joyful noise in the garden, and proclaim the good news that socioeconomic salvation has been conferred upon the fine city of Schenectady by the Honorable Andrew Cuomo.

If you believe that, Dagmar Midcap snuck into my bedroom last night and shagged me silly like the sweet, wholesome succubus that she is. I know, it’s crazy: she’s in San Diego and I’m in the Adirondacks, and I’m height-weight proportional if you change the proportion, but it totally happened, pursuant not to the time-space continuum but to #WINNING! Seriously, girl’s got moves like Santa Claus.

Don’t believe for a second that that’s as low as we’ll go tonight. Come out, Virginia, don’t make me wait for that airsickness bag, because it wasn’t San Diego’s most eligible spinster who was just publicly compared to Santa Claus at an unctuous news conference in Schenectady. Yes, Virginia, there is such a class of people. Just remember, if you take employment at a Wurtsboro whorehouse (#REVITALIZATION #JOBS) and don’t set your rates too high, these people probably go somewhere else for recreation. Spitzer didn’t spitz her in cracker-ass Sullivan County, after all. Or, if you ply the trade in Schenectady, remember that “we don’t hit home runs here. We want a single.” Yes, some fuckhead actually said that in public, too. That’s why the entire establishment in Schenectady just got done bugging the state government to approve a massive casino; that was the only way to get enough lube to slide into home.

Come to think of it, legalized brothels in Sullivan County wouldn’t be such a bad idea. That bit of country is already useless, kind of like Nevada, and they’re mountain girls, because strict agriculturalist chicks just aren’t crazy enough. If the government is going to meddle in prostitution and come up with crackpot rural redevelopment schemes, that’s the way to go about it. Instead, influential Upstate New Yorkers are venerating their filthy bad seed of a governor as their North Pole sugar daddy.

Class is dismissed. I’ma go barf now.

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