It's a feat to get my wife, teenage daughter, and college-age son together for an evening of Monopoly, yet we managed to do it for five consecutive evenings this week. In the process, I learned a lot about human nature and capitalism. I hate to lose. I like to win.
I follow a simple strategy in the game. I always buy everything I land on, even if I have to mortgage other properties in order to do so. My goal is to secure all of one color and then build houses and hotels as soon as possible. If you play it safe and try and steward your cash, you'll end up with no property (and less than all of the same color) and no opportunity to make the big bucks. It doesn't always work out. This highly leveraged approach (something like that of the real estate speculators of the 90s real estate market) may make me a winner or bankrupt me early in the game. And some of it is luck a/k/a "being in the right place at the right time," a roll of the die, an early place in queue. In all this, I behave quite contrary to my real-life risk-adverse self. I am a lawyer, after all; it's my business to manage risk.
Take last night, for example,when my daughter, who the previous night had cleaned our clocks, and has no interest in business, went into the game vowing to "whup our butts," a cocky capitalist. When it didn't work out that way, when the bubble burst, you have never seen such a deflated investor. My son adopted my "always buy" strategy and soon ended up bankrupt. My wife read catalogs and was content with the modest (and that's an exxaggeration) rent off two properties she liked, steadily amassing cash, bit by bit, prizing liquidity rather than hard assets. We had to end the game early (school night), though I think I won. So it goes in the rough and tumble world of the real estate business.
The night before, however, when both my son and I were losing to my daughter, we considered the benefits of communism. We didn't enjoy being on the short end of the capitalist system, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It takes money to make money, they say, and there is truth to that, even in Monopoly. We lamented the injustice of the system, even considered staging our own "Occupy" movement. I did a little research today, and the irony is that an early version of the game, developed in 1903 by Lizzie Magie, had as its object showing that rents enriched property owners and impoverished tenants. Oh, those activists, hijacking a good game! But that night, my communism was worn lightly: I settled for a chocolate chip cookie instead., mollified and subdued.
I do like the simplified tax code. Add it up, take 10%, and pay it in or, if you don't want to crunch the numbers, just pay $200. Ten percent is good when you're only worth $18, as I was at one point, but when I was wealthy. . . well, it made my head hurt to think on it. I paid the $200. Chump change. Something like a flat tax. Were the game updated for 2012, we'd have a separate rule book for tax calculation along with a bevy of lawyers and accountants and a Keynesian-oriented government extra money to loan us. But I digress. . .
In the end, Monopoly has some great moral lessons. Like if you're gifted and talented and usually have things fall in your lap (not my problem), then you will lose at some point, and you just might develop an empathy for people whose lives are strung together by losses and can't seem to get ahead no matter what. Sometimes our lives are so insular that we don't see these people or aren't aware that behind their witty Facebook persona is someone struggling with being. . . yes. . . a loser. At least they think they are a loser. And then, Monopoly might just allow them to win sometime.
And then there's "pride goes before a fall." One day you're up, hotels on Broadway and Park Place, and the next game you're busted, holding ten mortgaged properties and $18 of cash. We're all just a step away from bankruptcy, financially and perhaps morally, and given the right set of circumstances, may find ourselves upside down in a world full of losers but in which no one wants to acknowledge that they are a loser. Sometimes, I relish going to jail, as I can breathe there, stay out of trouble, and wait for a better day. Winning is sheer grace in Monopoly and not so much a reflection of your skill.
But here's the best thing: At game end, no matter who wins or loses, we put the deeds and money away, fold up the board, look up, and are still loved by each other, no matter how cocky we were, how pitiful we were, what we said to each other in the heat of competition. The game is just a scaffold on which we drape our family life, rediscover what we love about each other and what really annoys us about each other, remind ourselves what it is to hold our name in common.
We get on with the important things in life.
Pass the cookies, will you?