When I was a kid, my parents and I liked to play Monopoly on the weekends. Usually my mother would win. Toward the middle of the game, rather than forcing other players to mortgage properties to pay exorbitant rent on houses or hotels, she would generously offer to accept a property of theirs as payment instead. That’s how she inevitably came to own the whole board. Even though we rarely play as a family anymore, my dad and I still sometimes call her “Miss Moneybags”, because her strategy of buying everything always seemed to work out for her in the end.
As anyone who has played it knows, Monopoly is the popular board game that models how capitalism works. It does a pretty good job of that, too. If you can’t pay a fine, you’ll probably end up going to jail. And if you finish the game with the most property, you win. But if you look more closely at the game, you’ll notice that Monopoly is substantially fairer than the capitalism we have in the United States today. That’s part of what makes it fun to play.
For starters, if Monopoly were trying to be more like *real* capitalism, players would have to start out with vastly different sums of money. Rather than everyone starting with the same $1500, let’s try to simulate the randomness of the socioeconomic class you’re born into. Roll the dice four times, add them up, and multiply that number by $100. That’s how much money you get to start with, anywhere from $400 to $2400. Most people will probably fall somewhere in the middle, but if you don’t, you’ll have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you degenerate freeloader.
If you end up on the low end starting out – under $700, say – you might be able to buy Baltic Avenue or Ventnor Avenue, but the really good properties that might let you win the game are will be out of reach. Even if you manage to collect both utilities or all four railroads, most of the other properties you can afford are only bringing in a few bucks when someone lands on them. Good luck affording houses or hotels. Your friends who started out with more won’t have that problem, especially after you land on one of their properties and must fork over a third or even half the money you do have.
I was just kidding about buying Baltic or Ventnor, by the way. Poor people can’t get a home loan, and they don’t have the cash to buy land outright either. In Real World Monopoly, you can’t even buy a property unless you have at least $1000 in cash assets. How do you get there, you might ask, if you started with only $300 or $400? Beats me. Maybe you get really lucky with a Chance or Community Chest card – you win the lottery or something. But at least you have a 50/50 chance of starting with enough money to buy something, right?
In a word, no. Subtract $100 for your health insurance, $50 for your electric bill, $50 for your phone bill, and another $200 for rent on whatever apartment you’re living in when the game begins. Another $100 gets you enough groceries to live for a week or two of game turns. (I’m ignoring taxes, since the game already includes some.) If you don’t have enough money to cover those things when the game begins, you’re disqualified from playing. Nobody can afford investment property if they’re struggling to cover basic necessities. You’ll just have to sit the game out.
But let’s imagine you did have enough money to play. You want a car? That will be another $500 of your starting cash. Otherwise you only get to roll one die when you move, instead of both of them. Sorry… walking or riding a bike or taking the bus can be slow. That isn’t anybody’s fault. Maybe you should try working harder.
So let’s recap. You need $500 at the start of the game just to avoid being disqualified. You need another $1000 on top of that if you want to be able to buy properties. And yet another $500 if you want to be able to roll both dice to move. Which means anyone without at least $1500 can’t buy properties at all. You’ll need $2000 if you’d rather not choose between a house and a car. That means rolling at least 20 out of a possible 24, before the game has even started. Talk about a lucky break…
Oh, and if you happen to be Black or Latino and end up going to jail, you have to stay twice as long as the other players. Why? Because screw you, that’s why. Thanks for playing. Better luck next time.
There. *Now* Monopoly models American capitalism pretty accurately. Who in their right mind would want to play such a wretched, demoralizing, blatantly rigged game, if they were given the choice? Certainly not me. That’s why I automate my payments through my bank as much as I can: I don’t enjoy resource management much, and never really have. I suspect many people feel the same way.
Money, or “capitalist fun points” as I call it to highlight how paperless usually is for me lately, is a made-up commodity we exchange for goods and services. Ever since we went off the gold standard, the value of currency is backed solely by people’s faith in what it’s worth. When confidence in the dollar falls simultaneously for millions or billions of people, for whatever reason, the value of the dollar drops. And then when that confidence rises, so does the value. Economics is just a specific computational way of looking at mass psychological trends, hence the popularity of Freakonomics .
So what is the solution here? I’m not going to pretend I know all the specifics of what it might look like. Universal healthcare would be a good start. So might universal basic income, currently in trials all over the world, and the $15 minimum wage. Perhaps we might consider building tiny homes for homeless people before creating new tax breaks for billionaires or starting more wars overseas. Or requiring stores to donate unsold food, instead of letting it sit and rot in a landfill. I would like to see parking tickets, car registrations, passports, and bail fees based on the person’s net income, rather than set at a flat rate many people can’t afford. And we should end the practice of keeping people locked up if they can’t afford to pay, along with the drug war itself. At least, we should if we want to keep pretending this is the land of opportunity.
But ultimately I’m less concerned with specifics than with making sure our currency is used to provide for everyone’s basic needs, rather than to create scarcity artificially. All it takes is a quick look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to see how being stuck in poverty might prevent a person from devoting mental / emotional resources to anything above survival and safety. Societal messages claiming poor people are lazy, or don’t deserve even what they do have, only deplete these mental and emotional resources even further. What better way to keep the masses docile and compliant than not only allowing them to remain in poverty, but convincing them it’s all their fault?
Capitalism is not just a game for those living hand-to-mouth. It’s something more like a deadly predator, practicing a prolonged form of psychological torture before finally consuming its prey utterly. It is long past time we chained up that beast in a cage, filed down its fangs, and trained it to serve the workers instead of the other way around. Then humanity might finally be free to pursue whatever work makes us feel most alive, makes our souls burn with passion, and makes existence truly meaningful. Yes, even if that means playing video games all day or getting laid as often as possible. That certainly beats 40 hours a week bored to tears, sitting in a cubicle or standing behind a fryer. Most of us should be so lucky.
We are finally at a point in history where automation and artificial intelligence have put the possibility of an end to human busywork within reach. Until the inevitable robot uprising, of course. But even strong AI wants to be loved and to have friends. There will be no shortage of people to be robot cuddlers and robot activists and even robosexuals, full time if they like, once we are all freed from playing Real World Monopoly to survive.
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