It’s a smart city when you factor in adaptation and the Imagination Quotient

So, we’re a bunch of idiots because we don’t all sport advanced degrees? Like a college degree guarantees smarts? Allow me to submit Exhibit A: George W. Bush, 43rd president of the United States, B.A. from Yale and MBA from Harvard. Need I say more? To be fair and balanced, though, I could make the same point using the blue team, too. Look no further than Larry Summers, Ph.D. from Harvard and the school’s former president (before he was forced to resign for saying something really, really dumb), and now an economic adviser—God help us all—to the Obama administration.

You don’t have to read Harper’s to know who caused the mess we’re in today. It’s these blockheads and their buddies on Wall Street, supposedly the smartest guys in the room, who’ve presided over the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. Smart? Who can tell? You want smart? Give me a Vegas pit boss any day, or a poker player. Give me a cocktail waitress or a cab driver from Russia or Nigeria looking for the main chance. Give me a kid just arrived from Guatemala with imagination and a dream and the gumption to put it all on the line for a shot at it. These guys will show you how to adapt and survive—in a hurry.

“Vegas has to be one of the smartest places in the world,” says Las Vegas’ own Dave Hickey, art and culture critic and a certified MacArthur “genius award” winner at that (and no Harvard MBA, either), “where your average basketball bettor can project a change in the point spread based on Manu Ginobili’s upper thigh sprain across a four-game road trip.”

In 1997, Jared Diamond published Guns, Germs and Steel (W.W. Norton & Co.) in which he proposed that the reason the peoples of the Eurasian landmass—that is, us—came to dominate the world technologically and economically had nothing to do with cultural or intellectual superiority. Rather, such dominance has been an accident of geography and climate. He even argues that the hunter-gatherers such as the New Guineans, among whom he lived for years, are in mental ability “probably genetically superior to Westerners.” And not a Harvard MBA among them, I’ll wager. They have to be smarter, Diamond says, because they have to make it in a tough environment where they’re not isolated from the consequences of their acts: Make an error of judgment in the jungles of New Guinea and you could end up being eaten by wild hogs, or worse.

Which is why Las Vegas—if we’re going to play this “dumbest/smartest city” game that The Daily Beast dreamed up—should be ranked the smartest in the nation: We’re the hunter-gathers of the industrialized world. Take your eye off the prize in Vegas for even a second and the figurative wild hogs will get you. Smarts in Vegas are measured real-time by the size of that stack of chips, a constant prodding to wise up, be sharp, pay attention, look for the opportunity. There are no taxpayer bailouts to cover those docking fees for your yacht and your country-club dues when you make a dumb play in Vegas.

And so it’s always been. Las Vegas was founded by folks who had to be pretty smart to create a vibrant city out of what is a blasted wasteland. True, there were a few natural springs in the Valley early on to ease the way, but the new settlers sucked those dry in short order and still they thrived! They just dreamed up new angles, like Fremont Street and then the Strip. In fact, more than smarts, what’s important is imagination, and imagination’s what we have here and in spades. “The learning process of seeing anew underlies innovation in business and arts as in science, and for that matter, the practice of democracy itself,” says Glenn Schaeffer, former president of Mandalay Bay Resorts who has, by the way, a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, not an MBA. “It’s the mind’s eye, the realm of imagination after all, that sees new things. And it is the drive of imagination that strikes advantage in business as much as the arts—our cultural advantage.”

So, you want to talk about IQ? How about an Imagination Quotient? We’re off the charts! But don’t fret. If you don’t have the brains or the imagination to make it in Vegas, there’s always that Harvard MBA.