Why Life Really Is Like A Twisted Monopoly Game: Part 1

What’s the link between Brexit and the price of a tin of Baked Beans? The short answer is money. That seemingly simple thing that the rich have lots of and the poor not so much, which actually turns out to be kinda confusing. For starters, take the Brexit vote. It happens and then the pound sterling loses value. Suddenly Britain’s currency is worth less in the world and it gets pricier to import goods, so businesses put their prices up to recoup the loss and the consumers end up having to pay more on everyday goods. Meanwhile, the Bank of England recently edged a little closer to raising interest rates, which would make it more expensive to borrow money, again making it harder for everyday folk to take out loans. But what does all this financial malark mean? Well, here’s an over-extended metaphor involving Monopoly to try to explain it.

You’ve got your typical game of monopoly with plenty of players, lots of streets to buy and a bank dishing out money. So far, so simple, but now imagine that the board gets bigger. As the game progresses so new streets are built and one player, Mr Top Hat, wants to build an epic new street full of shops, houses and hotels. Mr Top Hat doesn’t have enough cash under his mattress so he approaches the bank to take out a loan. Mr Bank is pretty excited by this new development and decides to issue the loan. Hurrah, Mr T-H has the money (the credit) but is also in debt to the bank because he’ll have to pay it back with interest. Mr T-H builds the street and it’s epic. Other players buy houses and hotels on the street and Mr T-H makes a bunch of money. He pays the bank back with interest and pockets a tidy profit. Now, the other players are so impressed by Mr T-H’s success that they start doing it too and take out loans to build streets with cool amenities on them. Mr Bank sets a favourable interest rate (i.e. making it easy to take out money) and things start booming. However, because the board is growing the money supply needs to grow as well and Mr Bank creates some more cash (just like that!). More money in the economy gets Mrs Supermarket excited and she puts her prices up meaning goods become more expensive. So Mx Average Jo suddenly has to spend more money on a tin of baked beans. This whole process of rising prices and falling purchasing power is called inflation.

The players keep nipping around the board and the board keeps growing in size, as does the amount of money in the game, so inflation keeps going up too. However, too much inflation is not a good thing so Mr Bank decides to increase interest rates to make it harder to borrow money. The point of doing this is to keep inflation rising at a steady and manageable rate. Of course, it’s alright for Mr Top Hot, who is very rich, but not so good for Mx Average Jo who will have to wait for another burst of growth to inspire a drop in interest rates. But the irony of this all is that whatever Mr Bank does inflation is always increasing and whether Mrs Supermarket puts her prices up if there’s more money in the economy or Mr Bank puts interest rates up because there’s too much money in the economy, the one who loses out is always Mx Average Jo. Economic growth and inflation are two sides of the same coin. Now, what about Brexit, fluctuating currencies and economic recessions? That’s Part 2 and involves an important new player, Mr Speculator.

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Why Life Is Like Monopoly (And Not A Box Of Chocolates)

So, you’ve got £200 in your pocket and you’re ready to Go. London unfolds before you – its Victorian terraces, towering skyscrapers, penthouse apartments, silver dogs and prisons. All that saving and you might finally be able to get a foot on the property ladder, it’s what you’ve always dreamed of. Yup, just a typical game of Monopoly, except this time I’m going to bend the rules a little to show the parallels between the board game and the game of life.

https://i2.wp.com/pic.lifetmt.com/2014/07/logo-monopoly2.jpgLet’s say there are 6 players and everyone is ready to get going. You, player 1, full of hope and aspirations start the game with £200. Next to go is Archibald, player 2, who already has £2,000,000. Why does he have such a high amount? He inherited it from a previous player. Whereas you’ll have to work hard to earn your cash Archibald will barely have to lift a finger. Unfair? Yup. That’s life. So, you keep trundling round the board just waiting to be able to buy your first little piece of land. However, it turns out Hugo, player number 3, is a member of one of the few land owning families in the country and it just so happens that his family already own a whole load of London. This means you won’t actually be able to buy the land you’ll just be able to rent it off Hugo’s family. Furthermore, because Hugo’s family have been hoarding land for so long it has become an increasingly scarce resource, meaning it’s very, very expensive because so many people want it. Better get moving round that board.

Fortunately, Hector, player number 4, is the banker and he’s there for you. He gives you £200 every time you pass Go to help you get your first foot on the property ladder. Of course, it’s not free money, it’s actually a loan and because the system isn’t that well-regulated Hector’s happy to keep loaning you money, he’ll even give you a mortgage, even though it’s unlikely you’ll be able to repay it. He also turns people’s dodgy mortgages into investment opportunities for rich people who want to get richer. Multiply this process by millions of people and when they start failing to pay off their mortgages the whole system comes crumbling down and lots of people get in debt, including you player number 1. Fortunately, Hector knows Bertie, player number 5, who is a politician, and rather than get Hector fired or even put in jail for corrupt behaviour he actually bails the bank out with public money – that’s right, he takes some cash from your hard-earned stash and gives it to Hector.

So, strapped for cash, in debt and struggling to get by you decide to make a stand. You wave a placard, you shout a slogan or two, you appeal to the better angels of people’s nature in the hope to make the system fairer. Enter Bobby, player number 6, he’s a policeman and he’s got no time for the likes of you. In fact, Bobby likes to uphold the rules of the game and he’ll lose his job if he doesn’t. So it’s off to prison with you for being a troublemaker. That’s what you get if you challenge the establishment and try to change the system. And let’s not forget some of the other players who haven’t been mentioned including Eric, the accountant and consultant who advises Archibald and his rich friends on how to avoid paying taxes; Rupert, who runs the newspapers and happily prints articles on how terrible and greedy poor people are whilst lavishing praise on the rich; and even quiet and unassuming Peter who actually works at MI5 and enjoys spying on groups of ‘subversives’ who think climate change and capitalism are somewhat problematic. He’ll happily team up with Rupert, Bobby, Bertie and the rest in order to keep the establishment in place and the masses at bay.

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Life, like a game of monopoly, seems to begin and end with money. People endlessly trudge around the board of life trying to make a decent living but there’s nothing decent about money, the system is rigged from the outset. It could take someone many lifetimes to earn what some people inherit at birth. Money is not fair – it is a scarce resource that is unevenly distributed and yet it’s the item we use to access key resources including houses, land and food. Thus, objects that could be in abundance (there’s enough food on the planet to feed everyone for instance) are forced into a system of imposed scarcity making it doubly hard to get by – first you’ve got to work to get a living just so you can get the money to buy the actual things you need. Perhaps you’re thinking what I’m thinking? That it’s time to change the rules of the game…

Money Makes The World Go Round

In my previous blog You Don’t Own Me I cited the work of anthropologist David Graeber and his very big book Debt: The First 5000 Years. It’s not quite 5000 pages long but in his tome he explores the origins of money in debt, war and slavery. He suggests that debt existed before money and human societies have been divided between debtors and creditors for a long time. Debt peonage is when someone has to pay off their debts by working for someone else (i.e. if they can’t afford to pay off their debt with cash). It’s also known as debt slavery and people have been doing it throughout history – the priests of Sumerian temples would make peasants work the land and pay with produce in return for being able to live on the land and the Romans would often enslave those they captured and make them work in their houses. Slavery is the ultimate form of ‘ownership’ whereby someone has complete power over someone else’s life (the slave ‘owes’ their life to the their master). However, slavery wasn’t the only way to increase one’s power, money was also a good mechanism.

Let’s say the Roman Empire is expanding and they’ve just conquered Britain, the Roman Emperor won’t want to kill all the Britons because not only will many of them make good house slaves but they can also be used to ensure the British economy keeps going. Of course, that’s a British economy that now serves Rome. What the Emperor does is issue all his soldiers with Roman coins which he can let them spend in Britain. The soldiers will be expected to pay tax and they have to do that with Roman coins, so coinage in this regards is a good way of ensuring the soldier’s money goes back into the Roman Empire’s economy. Meanwhile, the Britons that haven’t been enslaved will want to attract the custom of the soldiers so they’ll get busy making and selling stuff for the soldiers, which will be paid for with Roman coins. Furthermore, the Emperor might also wish to impose a debt on Britain – the war machine costs a lot of money and invading Britain proved quite expensive, so he’ll make them pay it back. Yup, the conqueror is enforcing a debt on the people he just conquered. He can do this because he’s the winner and he’s got all the power in terms of brute military strength (the soldiers) and economically (in terms of all the Roman coins). So this is how you grow an Empire – conquer people, expand your currency and force your conquests into debt. It adds a twist to the famous phrase “man is born free but everywhere he is in chains”…or in debt perhaps.

And so on and so on for thousands of years argues Graeber. Even now we still live in a time of debt – whether it’s the banks offering giant loans to help people buy houses or it’s the World Bank loaning money to developing nations to help them get on their feet whilst ensuring they’ll be in debt for years. However, things are different now because the value of a currency is no longer defined in terms of some underlying precious material (i.e. gold) for which it could be exchanged. It’s not as if for every £5 we have there’s a £5 amount of gold hidden in a vault somewhere. We don’t have real money anymore, instead we have virtual money that exists as numbers on a screen. Sure, we still use coins and notes but those things themselves are worthless, it’s what they stand for that counts. However, as money is virtual it theoretically means there is no limit to how much money we can have – numbers on a screen are limitless after all. So we can keep spending more and more and getting in bigger and bigger amounts of debt for longer and longer, hurrah!

But why this brief history of money? Because money has been and continues to be a big deal – it makes the world go round, or so Liza Minelli sings in Cabaret. Currently, the US dollar is the most powerful currency in the world and the States put a lot of effort into ensuring it remains so (read that as military force, foreign policy and diplomatic effort). Money is one of the most important numbers we’ve got – it’s how we value almost everything, from the price of a lemon through to the price of an hour of someone’s labour. And because money has been such a big part of our societies for so long its effects have reached far beyond the economic realm into the political and personal realms as well. To be continued…

You Don’t Own Me

Grace, the Australian singer, recently covered Lesley Gore’s ace 1963 single You Don’t Own Me and it sure gets the feminist feet stomping. Each inspiring verse is interspersed with some sexist thoughts from rapper G-Eazy (Sl-Eazy more like it) as he tries to assert his male dominance over the woman he “would love to flaunt” as she’s not one of your average “basic bitches”. Indeed, she’s the “baddest ever…Never borrow, she ain’t ever loan, That’s when she told me she ain’t ever ever ever gonna be owned.” Then Grace blasts back with a booming chorus and puts Mr Misogynist back in his place. But all this singing of possession makes me wonder exactly what ownership actually is?

Why is it that Grace needs to assert that someone else does not own her? How could the scenario even have arisen in which people come to think that they actually own others? Part of the answer (and I reckon quite a big part) is, unsurprisingly, to do with money. As a brief scan of anthropologist David Graeber’s 500+ page book called Debt reveals, money has played an integral part of human society for hundreds of years. Economists tend to tell us that money came into being when barter systems got too confusing – if I give you ten oranges, three pigeons and a mug in return for a pair of shoes, two bananas and a kitten…but instead of all that faffing about with oranges and bananas a different system of exchange was introduced whereby something came to act as a store of value. It could be a coin, a rod of iron or a piece of paper, as long as everyone agreed that the values remained consistent and commensurate over time.

But, argues Graeber, that fictional land of peaceful and friendly barter didn’t exist, as least not on a large-scale. Instead, he argues that money grew out of debt. Take the Roman Empire for example – when they invaded a new territory they would often turn their captives into slaves. Slavery is the ultimate form of ownership as it rips someone from their social context and ties them to someone else. The alternative to being enslaved was basically death or slowly, slowly buying back one’s freedom by working long and hard enough. A slave owed their life to their master but only because the master had the power. Money itself is also debt. On a £10 note it says: “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the some of ten pounds.” The actual piece of paper is worthless but it’s what it stands for – i.e. that these items or services are all worth £10. Money is one giant system of IOUs. However, it’s clearly not an arbitrary system because there’s a whole system of banking, policing and law-making  to ensure that people pay their debts.

So, concludes Graeber, behind money is debt and behind debt is power, and the history accords with this – the economic power of the Roman Empire depended on its military strength because it had to have a way of enforcing its debts, having a giant army helped with this. And something similar is true today, only those with power can call in their debts and this power usually involves violence or the threat of it. G-Eazy says that Grace is an independent woman “All because she got her own dough, Boss bossed if you don’t know, She could never ever be a broke ho”. And that certainly is one way of getting out of slavery, by making lots of money, but humans existed long before money and whilst we do put a price on freedom and maintain that price with force it’s still just a system of belief, albeit a very powerful and tragic one. But maybe there’s a different way. More ideas to come, in the meantime here’s the original, without G-Eazy offering us his sexist thoughts in between the good bits.