Playing Monopoly With Our Lives

In all likelihood, when you were little, you played America's best-selling board game, Monopoly. The colorful money, antique tokens, and cartoon old man let us pretend to be important, to feel successful, to realize the American Dream of prosperity. This childhood memory becomes something parents share with their children, growing into a cultural touchstone spanning generations.

Perhaps it is the warm memories of playing with siblings that obscures what the game's objectives are, how it is played, and the lessons it imparts. For one, there is the object of the game itself, plainly stated: The winner is the last player left in the game, having driven their opponents into bankruptcy.

Just recently, Bank of America agreed to the largest court settlement in history: $16 billion with the Department of Justice in a wide-ranging lawsuit over the bank's collateralized debt schemes. Do you think that the executives at Bank of America that engineered these schemes believed that robbing their customers was okay because it meant they were getting ahead by bankrupting others? You have to wonder what kind of monopoly mindset breeds such betrayal of the client.

And you also have to wonder why any of these bankers won't be held accountable, considering this was orchestrated by people who knew better. Yet, corporate personhood means that fingers can be pointed in countless directions, plausible deniability abounds, and the defense of "I was just following orders" seems to get everybody off the hook. Corporate personhood is the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card.

Even the very rules of Monopoly violate anti-trust legislation that has been in place for generations. These are the kind of laws that helped America grow and thrive, like preventing corporations from discriminatory pricing in railroad shipping. This is the same Interstate Commerce Act cited in the Supreme Court's ruling over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) as to whether or not the federal government can be involved in regulating state health insurance programs. Those who were mad that others' healthcare was not taken away are probably the same ones who prefer to own all the railroads and utilities in Monopoly, clucking at others' misfortunes.

The recent anniversary of Occupy Wall Street reminds us of the basic inequality that compelled so many to take to the streets spontaneously in protest. While "We are the 99%" became the rallying cry for demonstrators, the lop-sided distribution wherein 1 percent of the population owns over 40 percent of the wealth wasn't even the real outrage. More specifically, the target of ire were those among the top one percent that use their money to rig the system in their favor still more, generally through political spending. It's not so much about being against rich people as it is being against rich people buying government.

Yet we learned in Monopoly that not only is hoarding wealth the American Dream, but that the banker can take money as needed to keep the game going, much like the executives who gave themselves obscene bonuses from federal bailout money after crashing the American economy. What's more, in Monopoly, there are many unwritten rules known only by experts, like trading properties or bidding on open squares. For most Americans, not being clued in to insider rules is an unfair disadvantage, allowing trusting citizens to invest in worthless derivatives, presume a bank won't try to steal their house, or believe that their elected leaders actually care about their constituents instead of their contributors.

Because while corruption has long been born from candidates' need to fill their campaign coffers, the role money plays in politics today has reached crisis levels. The public's contempt for politicians has reached new heights, between their relentless fundraising and the negative ads they buy, with a bipartisan majority believing their representatives don't listen to them. The 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United allowed corporations to spend unlimited money in elections without having to disclose its origins, opening up a new era of Dark Money that fuels our elections with unknown motivations -- because if those motivations were known, they probably would not be popular.

But there's one motivation for dark money that you could probably guess, and it is reason enough to worry: a return on investment. Just like when you build houses and hotels on your squares in Monopoly to extort jacked-up rents from other players landing on your properties, pouring money into politics through lobbying and campaign donations pays back manifold. From deregulation of industry standards (also known as "decriminalization"), to tax breaks, to government contracts, to federal giveaways, the return on investment from political spending averages a whopping 22,000 percent, according to a study published in the Journal of Law & Politics. Is it really a capitalist market when the marketplace is rigged by those who paid more to change the rules in their favor? Is it really a democracy when people's votes matter less in elections than corporate spending?

No matter how much the Supreme Court may dilute the definition of corruption to a meaningless term, by insisting that no amount of money can corrupt a politician, the larger injustice doesn't seem to matter to these justices: Beyond the right of an individual to spend as much as they want in elections, what about those who cannot afford to max out contributions? What the court has said in Citizens United vs. FECand again this year in McCutcheon vs. FEC is that might makes right -- that our rules should be curtailed to benefit the very richest, that the biggest spender deserves the biggest latitude, and that the only voices that matter are those that can afford to dominate the discussion.

So how do we escape this real-life Monopoly? Well, for starters, it might interest you to know that the game of Monopoly as we know it is itself a corporate lie, an appropriation from the public domain that inverted lessons meant to teach the dangers of real estate monopolies. Realizing that we have grown up with a lie for our favorite childhood board game is symbolic of the larger questions we must ask ourselves about how much we let corporate hegemony control our society.

The official story of Monopoly's invention reads like Horatio Alger, a success story of man trying to feed his family during the Great Depression. In 1932, as the story goes, Charles M. Darrow conceived of a finance board game with intricate rules and colorful squares that let the gamers play mogul. After Parker Brothers first turned down the game, they saw that it was catching on in department stores as Darrow made copies himself, so in 1934 they acquired the rights to the game. The game got bigger and bigger, making Darrow and his descendants fabulously wealthy.

Since Darrow lived in Philadelphia, it might have seemed curious that the squares in this game were named after Atlantic City streets. While Darrow would maintain in his correspondence with Parker Brothers that he conceived of the game all by himself, Parker Brothers had been hearing that there was already another game from their sellers, and it was just like the Monopoly that Darrow claimed to create.

Flashback 30 years. In 1904, a patent was registered for a board game called The Landlord's Game, to a woman named Elizabeth Magie. The game featured squares of property, with different prices, going around a board, with the object being the accumulation of property. Players could buy, trade, and auction off properties as they managed their burgeoning real estate empires. There was a Park corner, a jail that players could be sent to, and cards that kept the game moving.

But The Landlord's Game was designed to teach. Lizzie Magie had been a follower of the Quaker economist Henry George, who strove for equitable distribution of wealth in society. Among George's lessons that Lizzie Magie wanted to impart: the idea that increasing the value of property creates a bubble because it offers no new wealth or commerce. The notion of a real estate bubble imploding is not so far-fetched today.

The Landlord's Game was so popular, it continued to spread for decades even when the game went out of print. Friends taught each other the game, even making their own board games from wood or oilcloths. The game was particularly popular among Quakers, who modified the rules to make playing more conducive to the Quaker lifestyle. From homes to schools to a Quaker orphanage, the little changes made to the Landlord's Game (also known as "finance," or "monopoly" with a lower-case "m") became integral to the eventual popularity of the game.

So when Charles Darrow was introduced to the game and then passed it off as his own, it would take corporate intervention to monopolize this property. Imagine what would be involved if you tried to claim inventing "cards" or "chess."

This background and the man who uncovered it, Ralph Anspach, appear in my new documentary PAY 2 PLAY, which looks at our modern system of pay-to-play politics like a game of monopoly. I wanted to tell his story in my film because I found that the original folklore had been reinforced so much by the makers or Monopoly that when I told people their childhood game was a corporate lie, no matter how jaded people were at politics and corruption and greed, their reaction was almost always shock: "Not Monopoly!" That outrage is the spark to action.

Because we need to get past our jadedness doubt that what we say or do has little or no impact. Our stories spread and grow because of the human connection between us. The hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets of New York for the Climate March are using their voices to make the call to action louder than ever. They obviously weren't there because of the corporate media.