Regular 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:
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: