Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Game of Monopoly

I've often wondered if there wasn't just a little subversive anti-capitalism woven into the game of Monopoly. If you look at the history of it's origins, it sure looks like it was set up to teach the lesson of how capitalism sucks for most everyone except for the privileged few, enriched by the many.

Why, even the railroad names seem to be chosen to reflect the enemies of the proletarian struggle for equality, during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. These railroads, the Pennsylvania, the Reading, the B&O, all were some of the worst examples of corporate excess, graft, and the most vile labor practices that made the 1870s such a great time to be a working class hero.

The game of Monopoly repeatedly provides the lesson that initially equal agents, through a process of land owning and rent seeking, combined with chance, results in the concentration of wealth into the hands of the few. In fact, I'd say one would be hard pressed to design a simpler set of game rules to demonstrate this seeming near-physical-law of inevitable social and economic inequity.

Well, a few physical studies have suggested that most wealth exchange rules inevitably result in wealth concentration, but that not all wealth exchange rules necessarily result in this.

The authors of this study constructed a model borrowing statistical methods used in Boltzmann's studies of kinetic energy exchanges of gas molecules during collisions. This seems to me a model perfectly suited socioeconomic conditions.
"They found that over time, all the available wealth is concentrated among only a few agents. This is represented by a tail-shaped graph that confirms previous studies showing that wealth distribution follows a power law. As a result, the free market is stalled with no subsequent possible exchanges of wealth, even if wealth were distributed evenly from the start."
Sound familiar? As in inevitable slowdown of the economy once wealth is sequestered out of general circulation? Let me get back to this. The chance part, studies have found that:
"researchers simulated the performance of a large number of investors who started out with equal amounts of capital and who realized returns annually over a number of years. But wealth did not remain equal, because each year an entrepreneur's return was a random draw taken from a pool of possible return rates. Thus, a high return did not guarantee continuing high returns, nor did early low returns mean continuing bad luck. Even though all investors had an equal chance of success, the simulations consistently resulted in dramatic concentration of wealth over time. The reason: With compounding capital returns, some individuals will have a string of high returns and, given enough time, will accumulate an overwhelming share of the wealth".
In short, they got lucky, as in if you so rich, why ain't you smart. Or, as my Norse ancestors used to say "Better to be lucky than smart".

So, if it is pretty much the luck of the draw, and when you play the game, the rules (which, by the way, are artificially derived by society at large, or by some privileged portion thereof), need to be carefully chosen. The authors of the first study cited suggest:
"regulations for the rules of wealth exchange are necessary to avoid concentration of wealth and stalling of market exchange. For example, systems in which regulations and taxes give the poorest agent a probability of wealth gain of over 50 percent may prevent wealth concentration and decrease inequalities. Also, the possibility of gains exceeding their own capital is crucial to permit a recovery of the poorer agents and to circumvent market stagnancy."
Or maybe something more than Monopoly's flat tax, applied each turn? That would be an interesting game.

Then, of course, a similar game, Risk, the game of world conquest, operates along similar lines of simulation as Monopoly. Maybe a mashup is in order to get to the geopolitical consequences.

Because, with a hotel on Kamchatka, you'd be less likely to start a land war in Asia.

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