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 one of the main reasons it’s fun to play. So while I don’t recommend playing the game with the revised rules below, I’d love to know how long it takes your friends to rage quit if you do decide to try them.
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. To simulate property inherited from family, each time you roll a 6 on one of the dice, choose a free bonus starting property. Then add up the numbers on all four dice, and multiply that sum 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.
Now let’s look at starting expenses. 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’ll just have to sit the game out. Nobody can afford investment property if they’re struggling to cover basic necessities. Or if you prefer, you can start the game in jail for stealing.
Let’s assume that you do have enough money to play, and you aren’t starting in jail. 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 time-consuming. That isn’t anybody’s fault. Maybe you should try working harder.
If you end up on the low end after all this – under $700, say – you might be able to afford 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 getting any houses or hotels. Your friends who started out with more won’t have that problem, of course, especially after you land on one of their properties and must fork over a third or even half the money you do have. Too bad for you.
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 buy a new property unless you have at least $1000 in cash or existing properties. How do you get there, you might ask, if you started with only $400 or $500? Beats me. Maybe you get really lucky with a Chance or Community Chest card – you win the lottery or inherit some money from a random uncle. Or maybe property goes on auction when someone lands on it and doesn’t want to buy it, so you can get it for just a few bucks. Otherwise, you’re stuck moving around the board, paying rent, and hoping for a big break.
So let’s recap. You need $500 at the start of the game just to avoid being disqualified or starting in jail. You need another $1000 in cash or existing properties on top of that if you want to be able to buy your first property. 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, one successful die roll or Get Out of Jail Free card isn’t enough. You need two, or one of each. Buying your way out costs twice as much also. 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 sometimes call it, 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 . (Note: I am not an economist, so this explanation of how economics works is likely to be incomplete.)
So what is the solution here? I’m not going to pretend I know all the specifics of what it might look like, but a few existing proposals have caught my eye. 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 Capitalist Fun Points are used to provide for everyone’s basic needs, rather than to create artificial scarcity and allow rich people to hoard as much wealth as they like. 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. But first, we must free ourselves from playing obligatory Real World Monopoly to survive.
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