Inequality: the Monopoly Analogy

MonopolyRegular reader and sometimes writer Mack brought my attention to a PBS documentary, Independent Lens Park Avenue: Money, Power & the American Dream. It is about the two ends of Park Avenue: the part in the Upper West Side and the part in Harlem. It is a way of looking at income inequality in a very concrete way. It is a nice addition to Winner-Take-All Politics—coauthor Jacob Hacker is even interviewed in it. (See my article on the book.)

What most struck me in the film was a study that social psychologist Paul Piff did with the game of Monopoly. Instead of giving players an equal start, he defined players as either rich or poor. The rich player received three times the usual starting cash. The poor player received half the usual starting cash, got half as much money for passing go, and had to roll one die instead of the usual two. Obviously, the poor player lost—and quickly. But what is interesting is that the designated rich players developed a sense of entitlement. They demanded their wages and seemed to feel large amounts of schadenfreude.

This is all very interesting, but I think the more important lesson we can learn from the game is something that Piff mentioned in the interview:

Let’s imagine that you’re invited to a game of Monopoly. And you arrive at this game to find out that all the property’s been divided up. All of the money has already been handed out. But you’re told, “Hey: go ahead and sit down. Play the game; we’re going to give you a chance to play just like everyone else.

Here’s the thing: you have, as the Republicans like to say, “Equality of opportunity.” You get to roll the dice. You are as likely to land on Chance as anyone else. You too get $200 when you pass go. What’s the problem?!

The problem is that you have no money and you would have no current opportunity to buy any property even if you had money. True equality would be if all the properties were unowned and everyone had the same amount of money—with the Monopoly economy or the real one. But check it out: you could still win. If you were ridiculously lucky—way more than “spade royal flush” lucky—you could win. And if enough people play enough games of Monopoly, eventually a poor player will win. Just like some small percentage of people in the real economy who grow up in poverty but go on to be hedge fund managers.

And that’s what’s so frustrating talking to conservatives who throw up the occasional exceptional success as proof that there really is “equality of opportunity.” I think this Monopoly example really clarifies the issue. And I plan to use it a lot in the future.

Otherwise, Park Avenue: Money, Power & the American Dream is a good documentary on income inequality. It’s well worth watching, even if you already know all about income inequality. And I’m going to make it easy on you. Here it is:

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

10 thoughts on “Inequality: the Monopoly Analogy

    • I don’t know why that was sold as a “family” game. It takes a zillion hours to play, and all it involves is waiting to see who lands on the rich properties first. Then the slow bleed begins as everyone else tries to stay alive. The box should say, “For Dysfunctional Families!”

      There’s all kinds of good games now you can play with kids that involve teammates working together and provoke lots of laughter. “Monopoly” is sick and twisted!

      It makes me think of the first networked computer lab I ever encountered, back in 1990. The college I was at had a computer lab, and that’s where students who couldn’t afford their own computers were supposed to go to write our papers.

      Did we write papers? You bet we didn’t!

      No, the lab stupidly linked all the computers together. so when one student uploaded “Risk” into the system, everyone had “Risk.” We would stay up until the cocks crowed playing “Risk” over and over. (The computer version of “Risk” was much better than the real version, because you didn’t have to keep diddling around with those tiresome plastic army counters.)

      I think “Risk” was also sold as a “family game.” What sociopath marketed these things as “family games”? “Life” was another awful one. Any game that doesn’t involve teams is a terrible family game. Although I do have a fun “Scrabble” story I’ll write about one of these days.

    • I’m curious about the cooperative Monopoly version. But overall, I don’t like Monopoly for the same reason I don’t like Risk. It tends to involve two players aligning to destroy the others. Then those papers compete in what seems to me to be a relatively straightforward game. I like chess because of its beauty. But most chess players treat it like it’s an IQ test, which it is not.

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