Amid stiff, abrupt sentences I wandered; and, presently, I had no fault to charge against their abrupt tellings; for, better far than my own ambitious phrasing, is this mutilated story capable

August 21, 2013 § 1 Comment

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The official history of Monopoly, as told by Hasbro, which owns the brand, states that the board game was invented in 1933 by an unemployed steam-radiator repairman and part-time dog walker from Philadelphia named Charles Darrow. Darrow had dreamed up what he described as a real estate trading game whose property names were taken from Atlantic City, the resort town where he’d summered as a child. Patented in 1935 by Darrow and the corporate game maker Parker Brothers, Monopoly sold just over 2 million copies in its first two years of production, making Darrow a rich man and likely saving Parker Brothers from bankruptcy. It would go on to become the world’s best-selling proprietary board game. At least 1 billion people in 111 countries speaking forty-three languages have played it, with an estimated 6 billion little green houses manufactured to date. Monopoly boards have been created using the streets of almost every major American city; they’ve been branded around financiers (Berkshire Hathaway Monopoly), sports teams (Chicago Bears Monopoly), television shows (The Simpsons Monopoly), automobiles (Corvette Monopoly), and farm equipment (John Deere Monopoly).

The game’s true origins, however, go unmentioned in the official literature. Three decades before Darrow’s patent, in 1903, a Maryland actress named Lizzie Magie created a proto-Monopoly as a tool for teaching the philosophy of Henry George, a nineteenth-century writer who had popularized the notion that no single person could claim to “own” land. In his book Progress and Poverty (1879), George called private land ownership an “erroneous and destructive principle” and argued that land should be held in common, with members of society acting collectively as “the general landlord.”

Magie called her invention The Landlord’s Game, and when it was released in 1906 it looked remarkably similar to what we know today as Monopoly. It featured a continuous track along each side of a square board; the track was divided into blocks, each marked with the name of a property, its purchase price, and its rental value. The game was played with dice and scrip cash, and players moved pawns around the track. It had railroads and public utilities—the Soakum Lighting System, the Slambang Trolley—and a “luxury tax” of $75. It also had Chance cards with quotes attributed to Thomas Jefferson (“The earth belongs in usufruct to the living”), John Ruskin (“It begins to be asked on many sides how the possessors of the land became possessed of it”), and Andrew Carnegie (“The greatest astonishment of my life was the discovery that the man who does the work is not the man who gets rich”). The game’s most expensive properties to buy, and those most remunerative to own, were New York City’s Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and Wall Street. In place of Monopoly’s “Go!” was a box marked “Labor Upon Mother Earth Produces Wages.” The Landlord Game’s chief entertainment was the same as in Monopoly: competitors were to be saddled with debt and ultimately reduced to financial ruin, and only one person, the supermonopolist, would stand tall in the end. The players could, however, vote to do something not officially allowed in Monopoly: cooperate. Under this alternative rule set, they would pay land rent not to a property’s title holder but into a common pot—the rent effectively socialized so that, as Magie later wrote, “Prosperity is achieved.”

For close to thirty years after Magie fashioned her first board on an old piece of pressed wood, The Landlord’s Game was played in various forms and under different names—“Monopoly,” “Finance,” “Auction.” It was especially popular among Quaker communities in Atlantic City and Philadelphia, as well as among economics professors and university students who’d taken an interest in socialism. Shared freely as an invention in the public domain, as much a part of the cultural commons as chess or checkers, The Landlord’s Game was, in effect, the property of anyone who learned how to play it.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Yokonami Osamu

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Everything has already been said, just not by everyone

July 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

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The economic vocabulary shapes the semantics of how reality is perceived, and conversely, as Orwell noted, “the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes.” “Protecting savings” and “making savers whole” have become euphemisms for downsizing the economy and sacrificing new direct investment in order to preserve the fortunes of rentiers. While psychologists speak of well-adjusted individuals, economists may ask whether the economy’s debts should be adjusted to the ability to pay, or whether growth and living standards should be “adjusted” (that is, sacrificed) to preserve the value of creditor claims. One may ask similar questions regarding the terms “democracy,” “value,” and “efficiency,” and reality itself…

Addictive demand: Neoclassical price theory is based on the assumption of diminishing marginal utility: The more food, clothes or other consumption goods one has, the less pleasure each additional unit gives. But as the ancients knew, this principle is not true of wealth, especially of money. The more property one has, the more one wants. Wealth is addictive, sucking its possessors into a compulsive drive to accumulate. (See Hubris.)

Agio: Medieval Europe banned usury, but legalistic-minded Churchmen rationalized the practice of charging it in the form of a foreign-exchange fee. Money was borrowed in one country or currency, to be paid back in another at an exchange-rate which incorporated the usury charge in the guise of a money-changing fee (agio). The most egregious example was the “dry” exchange in which no goods actually were imported or exported. This agio loophole helped channel European banking along the lines of short-term trade financing and discounting bills of exchange.

Asset-price inflation: A policy in which the banking system recycles savings and extends new credit to finance the purchase of real estate, stocks and bonds so as to create windfall gains (euphemized as capital gains). The financial boom that resulted from steering pension-plan reserves into the stock market has inspired proposals to privatize Social Security’s wage withholding in a similar way (see Forced Saving, Labor Capitalism and Pension-Fund Capitalism). Meanwhile, property prices are inflated by steering mortgage credit into real estate, lowering interest rates so that higher mortgage debts can be carried, and loosening the terms of mortgage lending, reducing the down payments needed yet minimizing the repayment of principle by stretching out the loan maturity. Fiscal policy contributes to this phenomenon by shifting taxes off of finance and property onto labor (see Tax Shift).

Higher asset prices often are welcomed as increasing net worth (and hence the balance sheet of wealth), as long as the rise in market prices outpaces the growth of debt. But rising property prices increase living costs by panicking home buyers to buy now in order to avoid seeing the rise in property prices outstrip wage gains.

Asset-price inflation goes hand in hand with debt deflation and aggravates polarization as higher prices for homes oblige families to go further into debt. This diverts more income to the financial sector to channel into real estate, as well as into the stock and bond markets.

An inner contradiction of this process occurs as higher price/earnings ratios reduce the income yields on financial securities, while higher price/rent ratios for real estate reduces the ability of rental income to carry the interest and related financial charges. This leads to pressure to reduce property taxes in order to alleviate the financial squeeze.

Asset stripping:
Corporate raiders take over companies, cut back research and development spending and other lines of business that do not produce short-term returns, and downsize their labor force in order to make the remaining employees work harder to pick up the slack. This practice is euphemized as wealth creation when its effect is to improve reported earnings. This raises stock prices over the short term, but undercuts long-term growth in production and competitiveness. (See Free Market.)  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Deborah Paauwe

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