What that new Monopoly piece tells us about the economy

Monopoly is America’s defining board game. Battleship, no doubt, has its defenders, but it is too much a game of luck. Risk? Albania is way too important.

But Monopoly lays it bare. Where else will Grandma grind down the grandkids until they  land where she wants them to? Or a spouse read deep into the rules to ensure the tax treatment of mortgaged property? It is raw capitalism, in boardgame form.

So, maybe there’s something to learn about the evolution of the economy in the decision to cast out the iron from the collection of official game tokens and add a kitty cat.


A metaphor for capitalism, a metaphor for life! (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Doomsayers might feel we’ve lost our national nerve – eliminating a symbol of old-fashioned labor and core manufacturing for an animal that can’t even get on the field during the Puppy Bowl.

But here’s a more optimistic read: Despite the economic troubles of the last four years, despite the debt, despite the doubts about the future or the fear of China or whatever else, consider this a vote in favor of leisure time.

Corporate titans want us all to study math and become engineers. Yet we shunned the robot as a new token.

Voters in November rejected a presidential nominee tied to the “one percent,” and the proposed diamond ring token suffered the same.

The helicopter? Not in an era of defense cuts, sequestration and a drawdown from two wars.

The guitar was a nice idea, but that takes talent.

Consider the kitty cat’s victory as both an expression of what economics should really be about – supporting our ability to do what the heck we want with our time – and as a vote of confidence in our national need to relax a bit.

Whether the discussion involves income inequality or the burgeoning interest in using “happiness” as a measure of economic success, our relationship between work, time and income needs to be kept in mind. Maybe income is skewed not because the game is rigged, but because some (many?) people don’t want to work that much and would prefer to sacrifice upward mobility for more lateral motion – i.e., flop on the couch and call it a day.

Economists and psychologists who study happiness -- measured as a perceived satisfaction with life -- find that the marginal contribution of income peaks in the $40,000 range. Sure, you're happier if you earn more. But not by as much as you might think, and not necessarily by enough to justify the loss of time involved in making more money.

In fact, Federal Reserve studies from a few years ago documented a sharp jump in U.S. leisure time between the 1960s and the early 2000s – equivalent to nearly 10 percent of the country’s economic output as of 2003. At a time when the country is scraping for every percentage point of growth, that’s a pretty astounding finding -- that we frittered away a huge chunk of potential income in an era when rising productivity and strong employment enabled us to sit back a little more.

Isn’t that a definition of success, the ability to do a little frittering? Does it speak to possible job-sharing or other arrangements as a way to tackle unemployment? If you could be assured of a) a livable income and b) a livable retirement, would you c) be willing to earn less and work less so someone else could earn and work a bit more?

The victory here is not just for cat lovers, but for anyone who considers work a part of life, not the definition of it -- and not a patriotic obligation.

China's economy may be growing a lot faster and adding more jobs than in the United States. But ask yourself: Would employees at a plant in Guangzhou or Shanghai have any idea whether Boardwalk or Baltic Avenue is the better investment? Do you really want to work that hard?

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Brad Plumer | February 7, 2013