September 6, 2011

Monopoly: a child’s game with adult lessons in Income Disparity*

The premise is simple.

You start off with $1,500. You circle the board unchallenged once, and you receive an additional $200 for having completed this (rather unimpressive) task. Then you begin buying property. The rest of the game is comprised of you dealing/competing with other players to see who can amass the most wealth. The player with the greatest combined value of cash and assets wins.

Welcome to Monopoly—one of the most popular board games of all time, and a microcosm for socioeconomic class distinctions in a democratic, capitalist society.

As a child, I learned some essential tricks to success in the game of Monopoly. First, luck counts. You can’t control the roll of the dice, but when opportunity presents itself, be prepared. Landing on Boardwalk isn’t enough; if and when it happens, you have to be able to afford it.

Second, always make deals that are in favor of the other person, if that’s what you need to move forward. This rule of strategy eludes most, as even children can be Machiavellian in their negotiations. In a game where the guy with the most wins at the end, I always found giving people what they needed to succeed first was a fast track to my own success. Be overly generous, to the point of seeming absurdity, once. Anyone who refused my generosity a first time found me less so when they were in need.

Last and maybe most important, there’s a delicate balance between liquidity and assets. Some players just like having large amounts of cash on hand; unfortunately this doesn’t generate passive income. Others liked to accumulate properties, leaving themselves cash-strapped and thus, unable to make capital improvements, or worse, pay their creditors.

This three-tiered approach made me an absolute terror on the pale blue square. I got good; so good the family stopped wanting to play with me. I became so indomitable at Monopoly that nowadays, when the family sees fit to engage me, it’s never “every man for themselves.” It is “all of us against him, whatever it takes to keep him from winning, again.”

It never works. In the face of their combined forces, I win anyway, and then no one else feels like playing.


Developed and marketed during the Great American Depression, Monopoly creates the fantasy for players that, with a little luck and an easily developed skill-set, anyone can be a winner. Most successful businesspeople will endorse the value of my three tenets for winning at Monopoly: be prepared, know how to negotiate, and understand the dynamics of cash flow.

Unfortunately, mastering these basic skills rarely translates into success in the business world for the average person, as reality removes certain basic advantages that are built into the presumptions of the game. First, that you start the game with $1,500—or $1.5m adjusted for inflation. Second, that opportunities for creating passive income will present themselves simply by circumnavigating “the board.” Last, and maybe most important: you’ve been invited to play.

Those inherent advantages are significant, not easily overcome, and often taken for granted by those already in their possession.

This is not to say that everyone can or should have equal advantages. The (supposed) existence of equal rights does not preclude vast differences in natural individual abilities, available resources, or work ethics. The playing field never has been and never will be level. Even in a true egalitarian society, there will always be hierarchy.

Therein lies the problem: equal opportunities are rarely equal. Vast discrepancies in quality exist between public and private education. Social networks developed in institutions of higher learning form the basis of potential future business relationships. And no matter how finely tuned your negotiating skills are, lacking proper capitalization, the best ideas will never see fruition. Unless someone who’s already wealthy invites you to sit down at the table, the opportunity to play simply never materializes. Behind every “rich” person is a wealthy individual (or group of individuals) offering stewardship—usually in exchange for a percentage of the pie.

In other words, you can only get rich with the help of the wealthy. And frankly, they’re not particularly inclined to offer assistance.


Classism can be defined as the deliberate act of creating and maintaining income disparity. It’s sewn into the fabric of civilization, creating a frail balance upon which all (feigned) civility hinges. It’s instrumental to a stable society and simultaneously detrimental, as unsettling the delicate balance creates class warfare, and as any student of history—ancient or recent—knows, class warfare precedes actual warfare. Here’s why:

It’s well documented that in most “civilized” nations, a disproportionately small percentage of the population controls the majority of the wealth. The general populace willingly concedes the right of governance to the minority who controls the distribution of resources, based on two conditions:

A) that the basic needs of constituents are met, and

B) that no matter how minuscule, the possibility of leaving the “have-nots” and becoming a “have,” exists.

When those base conditions go unmet, the proletarian rise up. Systems get overturned, and governments get overthrown. Does anybody remember the French Revolution? No? How about the recent revolt in the streets of Egypt?

Economic imperialism inevitably collapses under the weight of it’s own greed. Profound economic inequality is the fuel for social unrest.

The truly interesting part is how important the investment in selling the dream of potential wealth to the poor is to maintaining the inequality. Entertainment flaunts the lifestyles of the wealthy. Lotteries generate huge revenues for the state. Books like “Think and Grow Rich” by inspirational visionary Napoleon Hill have sold in excess of 70 million copies worldwide; “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosaki sold over 26 million copies.

Where are all of those millionaires?


Wealth is no panacea. There’s no evidence supporting the idea that excesses of money alleviate problems in their entirety; rather it creates a different set of problems, one of them being the luxury of wondering about the problems of wealth. While it’s true that money might not buy happiness, it will certainly make your ennui very comfortable. Last year Mercedes experienced double-digit growthBMW doubled it’s quarterly profit, and first half profits at Porsche rose an astonishing 59%.

Meanwhile, 64% of Americans would be crushed under the weight of a $1,000 emergency.

This approach is the proverbial recipe for disaster. When the words of Mahatma Gandhi “Live simply, that others may simply live” are not only forgotten but rubbed in the faces of those trying to eke out a living, it’s only a matter of time before it stops being “every man for themselves,” and becomes “all of us against them, whatever it takes to keep them from winning, again.”

This game is doomed to failure. How much longer before the masses simply get tired of playing?

© j summers 2011

* This post originally appeared on The Good Men Project on 8.24.11

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