Boardwalk and Park Place With Five Hotels

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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.

January
17, 2006

Scott
Pettersen [send him mail]
is a freelance marketing writer for high-tech companies in the Silicon
Valley. A first-hand witness to the peak and crash of the Japanese
economy in 1990, Scott has since moved back to the U.S., where he
often experiences an eerie sense of déjà vu. You can
peruse Scott's blog.

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