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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Who won has long been forgotten, but it was one of the greatest games of Monopoly ever played because we got to change the rules.

Monopoly, Milton Friedman’s Way

When Hasbro showed a new version of Monopoly last week at the Toy Fair, people were aghast that an infrared tower in the center of the board would squawk instructions, track players’ money and make sure that everyone abided by the rules.
Julia Sonmi Heglund
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Related in Opinion

Julia Sonmi Heglund
A generation of children may never learn to make change. They may never learn to argue about rules and change them. And they may never, as I and a group of Monopoly fanatics in college did in a great all-night game, learn important economic lessons. “There might not be the attention span for that anymore,” said Mike Zelenty, one of the players.
Monopoly was taken seriously in Shorey House at the University of Chicago in the late 1970s. A room was set aside as “The Monopoly Room.” But in that post-Vietnam, pre-Reagan era, all assumptions were questioned and a game our parents played was no exception. Rules were meant to be altered. The house even convened a “constitution convention” to change the official rules of the game to allow a person to build a hotel on a property without first having to own four houses. Mr. Zelenty, now a corporate lawyer in his native New Jersey, remembers holding a sign that said, “New Jersey Espouses / Hotels Without Houses.”
The other thing taken as seriously in that dorm was free-market economics or, more precisely, Milton Friedman, the University of Chicago economics professor. This was a house that frequently invited Professor Friedman and his wife, Rose, to sherry hours. House members ran a snack bar in the basement of the dormitory called Tanstafl, an abbreviation of a saying favored by Mr. Friedman, that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”
Mr. Zelenty owned the greatest of treasures any of us could imagine because it combined those two passions. He had asked Mr. Friedman to sign his Monopoly board at one of those sherry hours. The Nobel laureate did so, writing, “Down with” above the game’s name. We didn’t play on that board. No one ever played on that board. (Mr. Zelenty said he still has it and wants to donate the relic to the university one day. “It’s in a place of safety more than a place of honor,” he said.)
The precise details of our classic game are blurred by the alcohol consumed that night and the years that have passed since then, but this much is recalled. We decided that Monopoly was hostile to a free market because it restricted the number of houses or hotels one could buy. We voted that a player could buy as many hotels as a property could physically bear and rents would be raised proportionally.
But the bank soon began to run out of money. So we did what any government would do. We began printing more of it, by scribbling $500 on scraps of paper. We printed a lot of money.
Prices shot up, which we all knew, even in that inebriated state, was the consequence of expanding the money supply. (After all, the great economist told us, “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.”)
The inflation became so extreme that we eventually voted to alter the rules again: we’d cut the money supply. Any money we printed that came back to the bank would be taken out of circulation.
A severe depression kicked in, of course. Prices plummeted and it was a race to liquidate assets. One by one the players quickly went bankrupt, and sometime around 4 that morning the game was over.
Who won has long been forgotten, but it was one of the greatest games of Monopoly ever played because we got to change the rules.

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