Friday, September 7, 2012

Monopoly & Capitalism

Several years ago, I had the occasion to meet Ralph Anspach, the inventor of Anti-Monopoly@. We were putting our house on the market, and Anspach and his wife ambled in one Sunday afternoon, more out of curiosity than any interest in buying. Our house was located in a notorious "slide zone" on a hillside, and it turned out that Anspach had also purchased a house, some years earlier, in a similar "zone" and was curious to learn how other homeowners might have dealt with their situation. Anspach was a creative tinkerer, and he'd invented a foundation adjustment system that allowed him to level his house periodically, which avoided the myriad problems associated with unequal settling (which causes havoc with the typical perimeter foundation construction paradigm). Anspach was a retired economics professor, and he'd developed his Anti-Monopoly@ game as a kind of protest against the brand of American entrepreneurial capitalism embodied in the original Monopoly. To make a long story short, we ended up not selling our house, but tearing it down and building a new house in its place, designed by Pattern Language (Oxford University Press, 1977) co-authors Murray Silverstein and Max Jacobson. But that happened about a decade later.

When I was growing up, in the 1950's, board games were very popular. In the pre-television age, families and friends tended to engage in common or social activities more. My stepfather Harry Faville became obsessed with the card-game Bridge, and spent most nights during my late childhood and adolescence (when he wasn't actually playing in tournaments) studying how to improve his game, dealing himself game hands and calculating moves and odds. He was more married to Bridge than he was to my mother, and less of a father to me as well. In consequence, I came to hate card games. I was never much interested in games of chance, anyway . . . that is until I discovered the Stock Market--but that's a different story, for another day and another blog. But as I say, board games were popular then, and we played a number of them: Chess, Checkers, Parcheesi, Chinese Checkers, etc. Puzzles were popular too. We spent many weekend afternoons sitting around the kitchen table, absorbed in these diversions. I'm not sure people do that much anymore. Television and the internet are probably the sedentary distractions of choice. Kids don't seem to exercise much anymore, either, judging by all the fatties you see. I think, on balance, I spent at least 30% of every waking hour as a boy playing sports or running around. I played so much I was too skinny, no matter how much I ate (and food wasn't of much interest to me, either, until I was well into late middle-age).

But Monopoly was almost universally familiar to Americans in the post-WWII era. Everyone played it, or had played it, and some people became obsessed with it. There are accounts of serious students of the game who poured as much energy and thought into it as others did into Chess, or High Stakes Poker. Me?--I wasn't nearly so excited by it, but like everyone else who played hard enough to compete, I could tell the rules and the situation the game portrayed were an expression of the economic real-world that prevailed outside the confines of our modest lower-middle class neighborhood--or at least the world as it may have existed before World War II.

The history of the development of the game we commonly know as Monopoly is an interesting one. And the struggles over copyright are a symptom of how popular (and profitable as a marketable commodity) the game became over the last half of the 20th Century. The game itself, in other words, became as much an expression of the value of marketing and product development, as the game was an exercise in the development of real estate and/or financial investment instruments.

Monopoly was marketed as a game to be played for about an hour at a time, but of course very serious players may extend a match to several hours or days, depending upon how many strategic kinds of loans and leveraged transactions are used to keep insolvency from the door.

What are the implications of a game designed to mimic various kinds of capitalistic investment schemes, compared to the real world of land development and concentration of power?

Monopoly is a combination of chance and opportunity. Serious players rarely pass up a chance to acquire a property, since the possibility of monopolizing a string of properties on the same block, with the option to build, or at the least (as with the classic Tic-Tac-Toe) the intention of blocking someone else from achieving a monopoly on that street (color), is irresistible. Since the dice don't behave according to any skill or strategy on the part of a player, the element of chance prevents the game from becoming a pure matching of skill and/or aggressive determination (as with Chess). No matter how good a player you may get to be, the dice may still advantage an opponent and thwart your best-laid plans. This indeterminacy is like a metaphor for the unpredictability and the undercurrent of shifting opportunities which occurs in the real world. In the real world of real estate deals and changing situations, no one can have complete control over the odds, though the greater your financial weight (or influence), the better your chances will be. Money can make its own kind of luck.

Each game of Monopoly typically ends in the capitulation of a bankrupt player, which occurs when one player "lands" on a highly developed property, and, overburdened with the consequent debt, runs out of money. The kinds of stopgap escapes possible to a canny competitor are not unlimited, but may be used to stave off total collapse, as long as other players will permit the use of increasingly elegant financial instruments. "Creative finance" may involve "landlords" lending to "tenants" (or debtors), for instance, but the vast majority of played games don't get into those complexities. Highly leveraged finance is like a too-sophisticated refinement of what is basically a straightforward process meant to achieve a state of monopolistic climax within a fairly fixed number of iterations (or moves). Some players, as with Chess, will play a series of games rapidly, both as a challenge to their ingenuity, and as a way of settling outcomes (as in a best of five, or a best of seven games). For any ordinary player, one game is probably more than enough trading to satisfy their urge.

What are the implications of comparing a capitalistic enterprise game with the real world of competing capital entities? Monopoly is designed to "end" after a reasonably short period of time (a single game); but in the real world, people can't cash out their imaginary winnings (or losses) and retire to a safer world. When Monopoly was first invented, it was certainly much easier for enterprising capitalists to manipulate and wheel and deal properties right and left, to maximize opportunities. To a large extent, real estate isn't nearly the sphere of easy fortunes it once was. Small fry can buy up distressed blocks of housing or commercially zoned properties, but there are a lot of regulations and ordinances and tax laws nowadays, which makes "efficient" development more difficult. You need good lawyers and accountants on retainer, just to keep your rear end safe. Smart money today is going overseas, where corruption and graft and "favors" still govern how deals are made.

Monopoly's attractions (for me) have always included its wonderful visual simplicity, the toy-like representations of railroads, utilities, the cartoon illustrations on the Chance and Community Chest cards. The fat little capitalist with the big white mustache is conjured right out of the Wall Street of the 1920's, that carefree era that ended in disaster. In what sense, come to think of it, is a stock market crash--or, more relevantly, the real estate collapse which we're still in the midst of--rather like the climax of a Monopoly game? Mr. Ponzi, who invented the scheme which bears his name, would probably have seen the real estate monopoly model as very close to financial investment schemes. The problem with real estate is that it has a physical reality which is difficult to hide. But of course there are many ways to hide one's control or ownership of something, that's probably the least of a crook's challenges.

There's something touching about the small amounts of cash represented in the classic Monopoly game. What would the mortgage value be on even a modestly sized casino on a major street on the Jersey shore today? Probably in the millions. Perhaps the easiest way to re-conceive that difference is to multiply every value in the game by a thousand, or perhaps even by five thousand. That would get us closer to the real numbers of our comparatively "inflated" times today.

You can still find promoters and front-men today offering to turn your modest retirement account(s) into fortunes. Mostly, though, what they'll offer is a weekend seminar at a third-rate hotel conference center, where they will teach you the "secrets" of making it big in the real estate market. Then there's always someone telling you that gold is about to take off.

On our block, during the real estate boom, several properties changed hands over and over again, until the last one got caught holding the bag (so to speak). A bag-full of money, perhaps, that was now worth only a fraction of what it had been before the currency bounced. They're still nice houses, of course, but they're "under water." For the losers, there's always the risk of that sinking feeling. The next throw of the dice may put you in dutch. I'm rounding the third turn and heading for home, but my opponent has two hotels on Boardwalk.


Ed Baker said...

Money Money Money Money
Money Money Money
Money-money !

too much sex even for me !

Charles Shere said...

A Pattern Language, eh? Our house was also influenced heavily by that book…