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February 20th, 2019
The board game ‘Monopoly’ doesn’t work unless the players all begin with the implicit belief that the fake money has value within the context of the game. This implicit belief remains through out the whole game for every player, no matter how poorly things go.
Monopoly money does not actually have any real recognizable value outside of the game. And yet it’s remarkably similar to actual money. “Real” Paper money may be adorned with a much greater array of markings that help validate and secure the authenticity of such money, but at base it is still a fairly worthless inanimate piece of paper, plastic, or rubber composite that we ascribe an imagined value to.
This imagined value ultimately allows us to take part in a wide game of cooperation. It’s this context of cooperation that we’d do best to define wealth.
Those who are wealthy are those who others are more likely to cooperate with. Exchange is nothing other than an instance of cooperation. Any person who pays another for some service is invoking their cooperation in their plans. The money by which they pay such a person is generally proof that other people have found such a person worthwhile in cooperation.
Due to the lack of optimization in our system of money, there of course many ways that the system can be gamed for advantage, and such methods are not always in line with the essence of cooperation, making the above definition of wealth seem a bit idealized. Such machinations and loopholes are, however, always undertaken for the above reasons. Regardless of how it is begotten, wealth simply ensures that others will cooperate with our designs, whether that is a plan to take people to the moon that all parties involved generally agree with, or the movement of orange juice from a refrigerator into a glass with vodka down the steps of the hotel to the beach where someone thirsty waits. Both acts require some level of cooperation.
But instances of cooperation are essentially fleeting actions and therefore not easy to see or record in a way that is overt. Hence luxury brands. Such luxury goods are created for the sole purpose of communicating wealth. These signals of luxury themselves are often the product of unnecessarily complicated or wasteful expressions of cooperation. For example we can think of the difference between a mass produced sneaker that works just fine versus a handmade leather shoe which takes a single person many hours to produce.
Knock-off brands are created for the hoi poli to broadcast a signal that no one of greater wealth is actually better. Which begins to smell a bit like the original point that money is an imagined value. Knock-off brands are an indication of a greater imagined wealth.
Indeed creating the image of greater wealth through fake means has long been a tactic for generating actual wealth.
In Gone With the Wind Scarlet O’Hara makes a rich looking dress out of curtains in order to look wealthy for a beau who might actually give her money. The charm of the story comes from the fact that Rhett constantly sees through her machinations and appreciates her anyway.
A similar phenomenon can be seen occurring on Instagram where people use their inherent beauty or other rented mechanisms in order to broadcast a lifestyle of wealth. This is done in order to gain enough followers that can then be used to generate actual wealth.
Indeed Instagram itself is a service that has always been free which paradoxically made it’s creators extremely wealthy.
As John Steinbeck once noted, “A fake fortune [is] just as good as any and it is possible that all fortunes are a little fake.”
We might return to our game of monopoly and note an interesting way the game differs from our reality of money. All players start out with an equal amount of money.
This is somewhat socialist idea. People are not handed any money when they turn 18 and enter adulthood. Well perhaps some are handed money, but the vast majority are not.
We can reimagine Monopoly to be a little more accurate. Before the game is started, the starting pot of money might be divvied up into random amounts so that perhaps one person would get a hefty sum, others would get a little and others still would perhaps start with a debt. Then a roll of the dice would determine which player is allocated which sum.
Imagine trying to play that form of Monopoly. Starting with even just a little debt ensures that a person’s first roll onto the board is almost guaranteed to require more debt in order to continue.
How fun would that game be?
And yet this is more in line with how the population enters our game of “Real” money. This may have it’s benefits. And the drawbacks are perhaps clear with our reimagined game of Monopoly, but the underlying question has nothing to do with money real or imagined and everything to do with cooperation.
If money is the medium through which strangers cooperate, and if at the end of the day ‘Cooperation’ is truly humanity’s greatest superpower, we must wonder if our systems of money and price are well optimized for cooperation?