Monday, January 16, 2006

Boardwalk and Park Place with Five Hotels

I recently bought the classic version of the board game “Monopoly,” hoping to teach my eight-year-old daughter some lessons in the lost art of old-fashioned capitalism. I was eight years old myself when I first discovered the game, and quickly became the robber baron of the family. My ruthlessness was only exceeded by my father, who didn’t play that often anyway, so my kid sister became my favorite victim.

Poor Sis was no match for a cold-blooded monopolist such as myself. While she blithely trotted her little dog around the game board, window shopping and chatting with imaginary proprietors, I was racing about town in my sports car buying up everything I could get my hands on.

Before long I had control of the railroads, the utilities and virtually every property in town (save for the Bailey Building and Loan, which I couldn’t seem to get my fingers on). Sis seemed content with bread and circuses, happy to win second prize in a beauty contest or other such cheap diversions.

Needless to say, she would inevitably be bankrupted by my aggressive tactics, which would have been OK if I had simply let her lose with dignity. But I insisted on loaning her just enough money to keep her in the game and spending her subsistence at the company store, as it were. My mother still has notebooks that I kept at the time of my sister’s chronic indebtedness: “Teri owes me $1000. Teri owes me $1500, etc.” This indentured servitude would probably have continued indefinitely had my mother not intervened. To her credit, she never attempted any sort of wealth redistribution or land reform, though she often insisted we start the game over on a “level playing field.”

My sister, embittered by the experience, eventually grew up to become a hard-core socialist, also known as a typical American voter. Actually, she’s a bit left of that description – call her a typical Portland, Oregon voter.

This Christmas, perhaps out of revenge for her childhood exploitation under my merciless rule, she sent me an “alternative” board game with the suspiciously cozy name “Our Town.” The game preaches a “friendly spirit” that stresses “Our” rather than “My” in creating “a healthy economy for all the citizens.” I smelled a rat of the collectivist variety. (One tip-off: the use of “the citizens” rather than just “citizens.” Only a commie body snatcher would talk that way.) But I figured I’d keep an open mind and play the game, secretly hoping I could beat the system and in the process teach my daughter how an economy really works.

But I soon realized the game was rigged. I would be minding my own business amassing wealth for my personal benefit until I landed on a Daily News space. Flipping the card brought tidings of woe such as “Crop Failures!” in which the player is penalized by losing a couple of tokens. Fair enough. Stuff happens. But here’s the catch. If your farm is “co-op owned,” then (vive la revolucion!) “organic, ecological practices are instituted.” These practices apparently make crops immune to failure, so the politically correct actually pick up a few new tokens while the greedy sole proprietors are left to pick up the pieces of their selfish designs.

Other Daily News cards present misfortunes such as weather-induced disaster for the bourgeoisie “Resorts and Sportsplexes,” while the “Ploughshares and Community Recreation” suffer no loss because “Government assistance relieves the weather problems for some aspects.” (Government controlled weather—scary.)

Of course, as Hayek taught us, centrally planned Utopias inevitably descend into dictatorship. The seeds of this inevitability are hinted at by the fact that the chief antagonist in “Our Town” is the dreaded “OBOC,” or OWNERS BEYOND OUR CONTROL. Here lies the not-so-hidden assumption that keeps hope springing eternal from socialist breasts even today: If only we can control all the owners, the Workers’ Paradise will finally be ours.

Not wanting to subject my daughter’s impressionable young mind to more of this collectivist nonsense, I drove to my neighborhood non-co-op Target store and bought a shiny new Monopoly game. Now I would show her how prosperity and freedom go hand in hand in a true liaise faire economy.

But I soon realized that Monopoly, at least as I used to play it, was rigged too. I know because I rigged it, though I’m sure I wasn’t the first one. At first it was innocent enough. Proceeds from “Luxury Tax” and other confiscated wealth were placed on “Free Parking,” where the next lucky fellow to land there picked up the windfall cash and recycled it back into the economy. This bit of pump-priming seemed innocuous at first, but it didn’t take long before additional fiscal stimulus seemed necessary and appropriate.

So, by common agreement, the banker would occasionally throw a few hundred dollars into Free Parking to sweeten the pot. But soon even this failed to produce the desired stimulus. So it wasn’t long before crisp orange $500 bills were tossed in with abandon, creating a colorful mixed salad of illusory wealth.

Interestingly, no one in the game, regardless of their financial status, was opposed to the injection of this funny money. Voting on the subject was always unanimous, save for the occasional fuddy duddy who grumbled about “playing by the rules” but, when pressed, couldn’t seem to come up with sufficiently compelling arguments for doing so.

Followers of the Austrian School of Economics can predict the disastrous outcome of these policies (though their predictions could be years or decades early). Prices went through the roof, property markets became overbuilt, and speculative fever ran rampant. But these were only the most visible effects. More insidious were the subtle changes in the game and its players.

For instance, passing Go soon became passé as an economic incentive. After all, who cares about your paltry $200 salary when the prospect of instant riches is right around the corner? Free Parking became the destination of choice, and landing on it became the ultimate object of the game. A New Monopoly was born. While winning the game was once a testament to discipline, planning and delayed gratification, success now came down to a roll of the dice…

As the liquidity bubble inflated, a corresponding deflation of values and principles strangely took hold. Prudence and frugality went out the window, which seemed to breed a general disrespect for rules, ethics and especially tradition.

For instance, the time-honored Monopoly rule of only one hotel per property was rejected as old-school, and soon rows of shiny red hotels were springing up on single, small-lot properties.

Eventually, there was a shortage of hotel building materials, and Lego blocks were brought in as substitutes, stacked up like high-rise condos along the New Monopoly skyline. Before long the bank ran out of $500 bills, so the now-worthless $1 notes were declared to be $1,000 bills by fiat. Eventually, in a stunning display of central banker irresponsibility, an imaginary zero was added to all currency notes, so people could afford to pay rent on Boardwalk and Park Place with five hotels.

Personal values and integrity continued to slide. Even going to jail was OK, because the jailhouse was only ten spaces away from Free Parking. Sure, the rules say you have to wait three turns before you can get out of jail, but that rule went by the wayside as well, as long as you paid your $500 fine into the Free Parking pot. The tyranny of democracy.

So how did the game end? To tell the truth, I don’t even remember. With unlimited liquidity, we all became too big to fail. At that point, I guess we got tired of passing the same paper notes between us and called the game a draw. In real life, things rarely end so simply, so one can’t draw parallels. (You weren’t drawing parallels, were you?)

I do remember one spectacular market crash. It was when my dog Tripper upended the temporarily unattended game board in a successful bid for an also-unattended pizza slice. Tripper had a keen instinct for inherent value. And even a dog knows you can’t eat money. Gee I miss that mutt.