Understanding Privilege and Income Inequality by Playing Monopoly
Privilege and income inequality are two topics that people don’t like to talk about. Hell, in certain spaces, if you even mention privilege or income inequality, you are labeled as a “bloody liberal” (or even worse). So I’m just going to stay it: privilege isn’t a bad thing. Making a lot of money isn’t a bad thing. They just aren’t, there isn’t anything inherently bad with either one.
However, I will say that both privilege and income inequality can dampen your senses, and lead to a situation where it is difficult to understand the plights that less privileged and lower income folks go through. And I’ll wager that many people reading this started off at less privileged, and started off as low income.
What I want to do is bring the conversation back to the forefront, but do so in a relatable manner that all of us — rich or poor — can understand. And what better way to do that, then with a simple game of Monopoly.
Understanding the Game
I’m guessing that we’ve all played Monopoly at some point. It’s that annoying, stressful board game that tends to tear friends and families apart. The game rarely ends, but when it does, there is one person with a huge grin on their face, and everyone else is kind of “meh,” and wants to go take a nap or binge Netflix.
The rules and flow of the game are simple. Each person starts out with some money. Then you take turns by rolling a dice, and move your character around the board. As you move, you are presented with opportunities to buy properties (which you can later charge people rent for), earn income, pay fines, even go to jail!
I’ll admit this isn’t the best “game of life” simulator, but it’s good enough to show how both privilege and income inequality can have a massive impact on your success, regardless of how hard that you try. That’s right, regardless of how hard you work or how good your strategy is, the odds are often stacked high against you.
*I was going to write a quick Python program to simulate playing Monopoly, but ultimately decided against it. I think talking through the scenarios is move valuable than writing code that most people won’t understand, and can’t relate to.
Introducing the Players
We’re going to step through a fake game of Monopoly, so we may as well introduce a few players to keep things consistent. All of our players have just graduated college, and are the same age. They’re also hard workers, just in different ways.
Alice is 23 years old. She grew up in an alright neighborhood, but her parents were rarely around because they worked extra jobs to make ends meet. When she got home from school, she had to look after her younger brother, and wasn’t exposed to extracurricular activities — she worked to clean the house and make dinner. She ended up going to a local community college, and now earns a modest salary of $30,000 per year.
Bob is also 23 years old. He grew up in a solid middle class neighborhood. His parents worked long hours, but were able to make time to go to his football and baseball games. He always had a home cooked meal for dinner, and was also part of several clubs in high school. With all of his extracurricular activities, he ended up getting a scholarship to a top-tier state school, and his parents took out loans for his room and board. He now earns a strong salary of $50,000 per year.
Claire is also 23 years old. She grew up in an upper class neighborhood. Her mom worked a high-stress banking job, and her father stayed home to raise her. She went to the top high school in her state, had $4,000 SAT review courses, and her parents even gave her $10,000 to practice investing in the stock market (she lost it all, day trading can be an expensive lesson). With her grades and resume, she got into the Wharton School of Business. After graduating, she got a job working for one of her mom’s friends, with generous compensation of $200,000 per year.
Monopoly Scenario 1: Income Inequality
First, let’s look at how income inequality affects their performance in our hypothetical game of Monopoly. For this game, we’ll assume that each player uses the same exact strategy. The only modification to the game that we’ll make is what happens when you pass GO. Typically, when you pass GO, you get $200 in Monopoly money. We’ll change these values to represent their different income levels.
Alice collects $200 when she passes Go.
Bob collects $333 when he passes Go.
Claire collects $1,333 when she passes Go.
Given this scenario, what happens? Alice, Bob, and Claire are all using the same strategy. In a normal game (where everyone collects $200 when they pass Go), this would mean that the luckiest player wins. Whichever player happens to start building houses first probably wins, because they will start collecting a significant amount of rent. In addition, they can start using the scarcity strategy, build up as many houses as possible, so many that other players can’t build them anymore.
We can see that, in this scenario, regardless of how hard each of our players work, Claire will “win” the game of Monopoly more than the other players. The reason is that she collects so much more money than her competitors, she can survive longer when other players control more property, and she can “catch up” to other players if she gets behind.
If she starts off ahead, she’ll invariably be able to buy any property when she lands on it, and start collecting rents.
So, what’s the point of this scenario? The point is that, regardless of how hard you work, if you earn more money, life gets easier. If you earn a large salary, you can simply solve problems with money. In our Monopoly game, if Claire happens to land on Bob’s hotel and owes a lot of money, she can statistically afford to pay it more often than Alice, because she earns more when she passes Go. If Alice were to land on Bob’s hotel, she might need to mortgage another property just to stay afloat.
If this sounds similar to what low income folks deal with on a daily basis, that was the point. All too often, people think that poor people are that way because they are lazy, make bad decisions, etc. In reality, their social and economic status is a function of their income. And I’d wager that you can completely remote how “hard” they work or how “good” their decisions are, and still build a fairly strong model that predicts social status based on income.
Scenario 2: Privilege
This second scenario will examine what happens when you examine the privilege of our 3 hypothetical players. There are many aspects to privilege, too many for us to go over. To keep things simple, we will represent privilege by changing each player’s strategy. We do this because people who grow up in more privileged environments tend to have more experiences that help them succeed in life.
Bob has a pretty good strategy. He was on his school’s math team and took an economics course in college. Every time he lands on a property, he buys it, assuming that he can afford it. He stops buying properties when his asset allocation goes beyond 10% cash 90% real estate, and works to rebuild his cash position before buying more property.
Claire knows the optimal strategy. Not only does she have experience investing, but she also knows how to look for value, effectively use leverage, and understands the scarcity of resources. Her strategy is to build as many houses on the cheap properties as possible. At some point, there will be no more houses, locking the other players out of building more income earning properties.
Given this scenario, what happens? This one is pretty deterministic. In shorter games, luck can have a large impact on the results. However, with a longer game, the impact of luck becomes negligible, so we’ll ignore it.
At this point, the best strategy wins the game the majority of the time. Given that Claire has the best strategy, she’ll win. In fact, I’d put money on it. Her strategy is almost cheating the system, because she blocks other players from building houses. Even if she can build hotels on her properties, she consciously decides not to, to lock people out of the opportunity.
What’s interesting is that Claire’s strategy can be directly used in real life. If you want to build up a profitable real estate empire, you can start buying up property in the same neighborhood. As you improve the property, home values will rise, and your assets will appreciate. If new real estate investors want to enter the market, they’ve got to buy your now inflated properties, netting you a nice profit.
In addition, the differences in their Monopoly strategies is analogous to their upbringing. In this hypothetical game, each player worked as hard as possible, using all the resources available to them. Each player’s situation molded their individual strategies. Alice saw what not having a lot of cash meant to her family, so she prioritized having enough cash “just in case.” Bob understood the value of investing, but didn’t have the experience to become a dominating factor. Claire had both the knowledge and experience to execute the optimal strategy, making success very likely.
This scenario shows that our upbringing, something that we can’t control, has a significant impact on how well we do. You can’t go and blame Alice or Bob for their upbringing, they didn’t get to choose their parents. Yet, Claire will almost always succeed more than either of them, because of everything she was exposed to while growing up. Even if Alice, Bob and Claire all work just as hard, Claire is still statistically more likely to succeed.
Enough About Monopoly, What can I do?
Here is where I think most of the outrage comes from: when most people hear talk of “privilege,” they feel personally attacked. They think that, for whatever reason, it is their fault.
If you come from a position of privilege, you don’t need to feel bad. There is nothing wrong with having a good upbringing in a home with 2.1 children, a white picket fence, and a Golden Retriever. Seriously, there is nothing wrong with that, you shouldn’t feel ashamed, and this fact isn’t hurting anyone.
What we need to do is instead show compassion. We need to understand where people are coming from. It’s easy to say “90% of people are poor because they want to be. Maybe even 95%.”
Do you want to know what’s hard?
Understanding that a person’s situation is largely dictated by all aspects of their upbringing, not overly simple characteristics that we often attribute to them (e.g. they’re lazy or stupid).
Do you want to know what’s even harder?
Recognizing that these less privileged people care about their families as much as you care about yours, and want to succeed as badly as you do. They aren’t stupid, they aren’t lazy. They have different experiences, largely out of their own control, that impacted where they are today.
So with all of that said, what can you do? Donate more, volunteer more, and don’t reduce a large segment of our population to a few negative adjectives. Those people deserve far better.