Wagemark Resources and News

Holiday spending, racial wealth gaps, and the truth about Monopoly

All of a sudden the holidays are here in earnest, greeting us with all the subtlety of a Whack-a-Mole mallet to the funny bone. In this consumer-driven season, the dynamics of income inequality are brought sharply to the fore from the moment Americans begin lining up for Black Friday sales—an annual ritual chided by many as a tacky celebration of conspicuous consumption, but which others rightly point out is a one-off opportunity for low income individuals to experience the purchasing power of the middle and upper classes.

Maybe during this final week of frenzied pre-Christmas shopping, some intrepid holiday gift-buyers will be purchasing board games for those of their loved ones whose attention spans have not yet been eviscerated by the onslaught of open Internet browser tabs and iPad apps. What both buyer and recipient might not realize is that arguably the most famous of these, Monopoly, is itself designed to deliver a lesson in income inequality.

The author Mary Pilon gives a short synopsis of her new book, The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game in Smithsonian Magazine’s January issue. Her research showed that while the game was released during the Great Depression by “a down-on-his-luck family man named Charles Darrow,” its origins date earlier—to an early-20th century aritist-writer-feminist named Lizzie Magie, who wanted to teach people about the evils of haves lording wealth over have-nots. Pilon writes that Magie told a reporter in 1906: “In a short time, I hope a very short time, men and women will discover that they are poor because Carnegie and Rockefeller, maybe, have more than they know what to do with.”

Then again, the year’s best-selling business book list suggests that maybe we’re beyond the point of requiring board games to school us on the wrongs of vastly unequal wealth distribution. As NPR reporter Marilyn Geewax points out, the business books that tend to sell the most copies are usually some variation on the get-rich-quick how-to guide. This year, however, marked a departure: Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, and Flash Boys by Michael Lewis were all business blockbusters that challenge readers to think critically about the role of Wall Street.

It bears mentioning that inequality begets inequality. In light of the US’s highest reported concentration of racial tension since the death of Rodney King, the New York Times reports on President Barack Obama’s recent statements on the nature of income and wealth gaps between blacks and whites—or, more to the point, that despite improved race relations in the US since he took office, these gaps have persisted. And before we in Canada or the UK get too smug about our own standings, it’s worth noting that our respective societies are hardly immune to the phenomenon, either.

The good news—if one takes an aggressively glass-half-full approach, which probably offers least a couple of psychological advantages during these short, dark days—is that Google Trends data suggests people are more likely to pay attention to the dynamics of income inequality during the non-summer months. Or, as Slate puts it: “Nobody, it seems, cares much about income distribution in the summer.” Slow clap, Slate.

Comments are closed.