Sense-making through Monopoly
December 12, 2015, 10:45 pm
Filed under: Editorializing, Uncategorized

Our economic system is broken. And despite pleas from Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, among others, too many Americans remain more afraid of the cure of redistribution than of the disease itself.

The statistics of inequality are “shocking,” of course — that word we reserve for problems so overwhelming we needn’t waste time trying to solve them. They are also stubbornly impersonal and intellectual. It’s hard to establish a visceral connection to numbers, however dire.

It’s not that we can’t relate intimately to precarity. Too many of us are acquainted with the Sisyphean misery of trying to get ahead financially. But these stories may be too personal, concealed in a fog of optimism, amid a swamp teeming with psychological foibles. It’s inescapable — we all assume that others bring on their own troubles, and we just experience poor luck. Statistics describe the forest, and anecdotes reveal some trees, but all we really see in this image is a fuzzy shot of a yeti — fodder for conspiracy theories and cocktail conversation (and something to scare the kids), but nothing we’re inclined to act upon.
If only we had some shared experience that could illuminate the unsustainable imbalance in our economic system in a way that makes emotional, as well as intellectual, sense!
Ah, but wait! Who hasn’t ruined an evening or two (or a relationship or two) with The Game of Monopoly?
Not unlike The Wizard of Oz, Monopoly works so well as a metaphor for our economy because it was created as a metaphor for our economy. The winning strategy in Monopoly — buy everything, collect rent, hire someone else to take your turns, scarf popcorn as the paeans descend into bankruptcy — has served quite a few folks in real life as well.
But our current system is actually worse than Monopoly. At least in the game, every time you play, everyone starts out with the same amount of money and the same chance at winning. While the ancient Jews employed a similar concept with their jubilee years, modern life is much more like starting each game with some players already owning everything, and everyone else mired in debt and earning maybe $10 for passing GO!, if they’re lucky. Or playing with separate decks of Community Chest cards, the investment-bank-bonus-offshore-tax-haven-startup-acquired-by-Google deck and the student-loan-for-school-you-didn’t-finish-parole-fee-go-back-to-jail deck.
Try playing Monopoly that way. See how long it takes for someone to toss the board onto the ground, or at the very least start looking for ways to bend the rules to make the game interesting. Note: an interesting game is an uncertain one. No chance of winning = not fun. Incidentally, no chance of losing, regardless of what decisions you make, also = no fun to play.
To make matters worse, there’s another way in which our modern society is worse than even Monopoly: the only rules are “you can do whatever you can get away with.” That is, society resembles a video game, more than a board game. In board games, there are explicit rules, strengthened by rules negotiated with the people you’re playing with, like whether you’ll allow “two-letter words” like “za” in your game of Scrabble. In video games, you learn the rules by exploring and trying to break the rules, and anything the system lets you get away with is fair game. In a board game, you play with friends and family, people with names and faces and probably some relationship you wish to maintain. In video games, we often (though not always) play against strangers, devoid of names or faces or relationships. Our economy is headed in the video game direction, and with stakes the size of the global economy, the cost of trial-and-error is not cheap. Look for one example to investment banks — following the 2008 financial crash, multiple commentators lamented the changing culture of the institutions. Where investment banks formerly thrived on relationships and shared risk, recent years had rewarded the brash risk-taking culture of traders, playing to short-term profit (with other people’s money) over long-term stability.
With personal relationships weakened and the game setup assigning players to the role of losers before they begin playing, it’s no wonder our society and our economy don’t feel quite right. But here finally is a metaphor that everyone can relate to: who would want to play Monopoly if the board never reset from the previous game you (or your parents) lost? That’s a system that needs fixing. Importantly, that is not a system that requires much thought to comprehend. Suddenly, crime makes more sense, cheating the government makes more sense, and the yearning we feel for meaning in our work and hope in our finances makes more sense.
How do we fix this system? Redistribution could give everyone more of a chance — even if not quite an equal chance — of winning. And in this context it makes sense, too, that this redistribution benefits the loser bracket and the winning bracket as well. Introducing some uncertainty makes the game interesting, but more significantly still, it makes the game more likely to continue, rather than finding itself upturned on the floor, accompanied by angry wails and gnashing of teeth.
P.S. If you like this topic, you should watch THIS.

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