Apr 11, 2014

The Politics of Monopoly

commentary by killre

Normally, I'd not bother you with the click-by-click account of how I stumbled upon the pixilated tidbit that fired the meat of this post.  In this case, though, I almost have to.  There is commentary to be found and be flung along the journey.  Besides, I should probably, you know, give credit where credit is due or something similarly noble.

I was casting about the cyber sea the other day, looking to satisfy my jones for a fresh and interesting discussion either of HBO's Game of Thrones or of the George R.R. Martin book series that inspired it, A Song of Ice and Fire.  The fact that I was doing so was a minor sacrifice in itself.  It spared you, dear reader, what would likely have been a two-page diatribe about the three instances in the show's season premiere --good as it was-- where the writers unnecessarily took a big steaming dump all over some very basic internal logic, and did so for the sake of two passingly clever quips and one ominous intoning.

In the course of my careening clicking, I landed on a site called The Nerdstream Era.  It is a blog written by a German professor named Stefan Sasse.  That's pronounced  SHTEFF-on SAH-say, and it's surely a sign of woeful immaturity on my part that the words "Kaiser Soze" run through my head whenever I hear it.  He is about 89% fluent in English, but that doesn't stop him from trying to write like he's 98% fluent.  You can imagine some of the idiomatic idiosyncrasies that ensue.  Lest that critique seem too biting, let me add that Sasse is clearly an intelligent homo sapiens whose substantive analysis is usually spot on.  It's just that his English-language prose would benefit from an editor who didn't graduate from the University of Everyone Gets a Trophy Just For Participating.

It was while perusing Nerdstream that I came across a link to a story about the common --but not necessarily popular-- board game Monopoly.  Sasse's caption for the link was this: "I still don't understand how someone can play Monopoly voluntarily".

The jump took me to an article written by Alison Griswold for Slate.  Hasbro, it seems, is planning to "update" Classic Monopoly --the version that was stocked on closet shelves for decades, before the relatively recent spate of not very limited edition cross-promoting mutations-- by officially codifying some of the best/most-popular unofficial rules that families have concocted in the privacy of their own homes for generations.  Some of the examples cited might be familiar if you've ever been snowed-in without power during the holidays...

- Jailed players cannot collect rent.

- Players receive $400 for passing Go.

- A player landing on Free Parking nets the current net of the Community Chest.

...and others.  Hasbro has apparently set up a website where those who are interested can debate the merits of the proposals.

Of course, the company isn't secure enough in its manhood to admit to caving to the will of the unwashed masses.  The excuses they do offer, though, point a big red arrow at the major reason the game gets started but seldom gets finished: it's a slow [expletive] game.  Staid, plodding, tedious, torturous and dull.  Monopoly may, in fact, have the dubious distinction of being the primary reason many Americans honestly believe board game is spelled b-o-r-e-d.

Hasbro wants to change that by putting more cash in players' hands.

This probably seems counter-intuitive to many.  After all, the object of Monopoly is to bankrupt one's opponents.  In fact, what most people don't know unless they've read the rules (because, really, how long can a blizzard/power outage last?) is that the ultimate goal is for one person to own everything on the board-- by bankrupting all their loved ones.  This end would seem (even) more difficult to reach if every player has mo' money.  (Income, it should be noted, is the only thing they propose to increase.)

Griswold quotes someone who has an answer to that.  His ready-for-fiction name is Jock O'Connell.  He is an international trade economist for a consulting firm called Beacon Economics, which also sounds made-up.  I'll not quote everything he says, but the gist of his argument is this: greater cash flow will lead to a quicker game because it will encourage players to take bigger risks more often.  Trades can happen more readily (because one party can sweeten the deal with liquidity), property blocs can be built more quickly, and improvements --houses and hotels-- can be made more rapidly.  Unspoken in all this is that some players will make personally disastrous deals earlier.

(O'Connell went on to say that these conditions would more accurately reflect the modern economy.  A reader with the screen name cchapman parried that thrust with the following comment: "Want to make Monopoly more realistic?  Make each player roll the dice at the beginning.  The highest roll gets 80% of all the money.  The lowest roll gets $20.  The middle players get $100.  Then see what happens.")

O'Connell's everybody-becomes-a-gambler argument sounds plausible... until you remember one thing: it only works if everybody thinks like a Wall Streeter.  Since most Monopoly matches are comprised of a grandmother, three children between the ages of 7 and 12 (one of whom is obstinate and won't let go of Pacific Avenue no matter what) and an indulgent aunt, uncle, or older cousin --none of whom have any experience in finance, commodities, macro real estate, nor any other wheely-dealy occupation-- hmm, yeah, not so much.

It was while ruminating on this that I glimpsed one of the basic truisms of American politics.  Those on the Left tend to preach what you should do, usually motivated by what they see as being for the benefit of all.  Those on the Right... well, except some on the Religious Right, who share the Left's affinity for preaching what you should do, albeit for different reasons... those on the Right like to tell you what you WILL do in a given circumstance...

usually because they assume you are a selfish [expletive], just like they are.

P.S.... Bud "I Tried To Learn Spanish, But All I Ever Retained
          Was How To Count To Forty, How To Order Beer,
          And How To Get My Face Slapped By Senoritas" Selig must go.

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