It is a deal people enter, a set of givens agreed upon: More is better. Biggest is best.
To live in Las Vegas is to stake your future on this enterprise — for better or worse.
For the past 20 years, it has been for better. The unemployment rate was minuscule. Gleaming new casinos were built on "old" casinos like so many sandcastles on a beach. Hundreds of neat stucco houses promised a palm tree or a pool or both for nearly everyone with a paycheck.
In Las Vegas, average people are versed in the statistics that impress relatives from back East and testify to the success of this enterprise: 39 million visitors, almost 140,000 hotel rooms, 10 new schools a year. It was a place that not only believed its own hype, but depended on it.
And so, it has been a shock as, quietly and slowly, everything has changed.
Like many U.S. cities, Las Vegas is watching its economy reel. Home values have plummeted. Foreclosures have exploded. Unemployment is the highest it's been in at least 20 years.
For the first time in decades, the population has stopped growing. Casino projects are on hold. Planes full of free-spending tourists are landing with less frequency. Long the embodiment of American confidence, the city is now in limbo.
In Las Vegas, the economic mess is also an identity crisis.