The One Weird Lesson of Monopoly

I hated Monopoly as a kid.

Maybe it was too much like real life. The never-ending rat race, trying to stay out of jail. Maybe it was because I couldn’t really get excited about trying to bankrupt my friends and family. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In Monopoly, (in case you’ve never played it) everyone starts with a certain amount of money. You move your pieces around the board and get $200 every time you complete one rotation. You buy spaces (“properties”) and if your opponents land on them you charge them “rent”. You win by becoming the richest player and your opponents literally cannot afford to pay you when they land on your properties anymore.

It’s this weird microcosm of capitalism. There’s buying & selling. “Work” in the form of traveling around the board. “Jail”, which is easily avoided by the rich.

But in the end it doesn’t work. One person inevitably acquires massive wealth and the whole system breaks down. Their opponents can’t afford “to go to work” anymore (that is, travel around the board) because the winner has acquired all the property and made it too expensive (sound familiar, San Francisco?).

Capitalism results in inequality. Inequality breaks capitalism. Game, set, match.

“Well obviously you’re wrong because there’s massive inequality and capitalism chugs along anyway.”

Hmm, what’s that? You’re still here? Dang ok.

Well travel with me on a little thought experiment. Imagine you and I play Monopoly, heads-up. One-on-one. Mano a mano. TO THE DEATH!!

We start out even, naturally. The gameplay rages on at the extremely dull pace for which Monopoly is famous.

Eventually I dominate (because of my sweet capitalist skills? No because of luck, like most rich idiots). You land on my property and owe me $200 but you have $0.

“Game over,” you say. “You win I guess.”

“Aww don’t be like that!” I laugh. “Look, I’ll give you a loan. Take $500. Very reasonable rates.”

You take my money. At first you’re relieved. Maybe you can figure this thing out after all. But soon you realize something. “Wait it’s gonna cost me a theoretical minimum of $500 just to make it around the board once and then I’ll be broke again. Actually worse — $300 in the hole!”

“Hmmm you’re right. Looks like you’re gonna need to stop being so lazy and get a job. I’ll give you $1,000 a day to cook me breakfast, lunch & dinner. If you concentrate and work hard, you can one day join me at the top of this here Monopoly game.”

You’re not ready to admit defeat. So you take my job offer and you get to work. However it doesn’t matter how much I pay you, you simply pay it all back to me every trip around the board. You work harder and harder, as I drill into you “just good old fashioned hard work” but meanwhile I sit around doing nothing and reap literally 100% of the benefits of your hard work. You cook & clean for me. You do my errands & laundry. I pay you more but every time around that board I take it all back.

Capitalism at work.

Find this intriguing? Want to ruminate on the economy and capitalism with me some more? Prepare to get excited because this is only the first in a series of forthcoming posts I’ve been ruminating on for a while now.

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