The Rules of the Game and Economic Recovery


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The Rules of the Game and Economic Recovery

AMITY SHLAES is a syndicated columnist for Bloomberg and a senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is a graduate of Yale University and pursued postgraduate studies at the Free University in Berlin. She has served as a member of the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal and as a columnist for the Financial Times. In 2009 she was winner of the Hayek Prize, a book prize from the Thomas Smith Foundation of the Manhattan Institute. In 2003 she was the J.P. Morgan Fellow in Finance and Economics at the American Academy in Berlin. In 2002 she was co-winner of the Frederic Bastiat Prize, an international award for free-market journalism. She is the author of two national bestsellers, The Greedy Hand: A Profile of the Tax Code and The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. She is currently at work on a biography of Calvin Coolidge.

The following is adapted from a lecture given at Hillsdale College on February 2, 2010, during a conference on the New Deal co-sponsored by the Center for Constructive Alternatives and the Ludwig von Mises Lecture Series. A version of this lecture was delivered as the Hayek Prize lecture in 2009.

THE MONOPOLY BOARD GAME originated during the Great Depression. At first its inventor, Charles Darrow, could not interest manufacturers. Parker Brothers turned the game down, citing “52 design errors.” But Darrow produced his own copies of the game, and Parker Brothers finally bought Monopoly. By 1935, the New York Times was reporting that “leading all other board games … is the season’s craze, ‘Monopoly,’ the game of real estate.”

Most of us are familiar with the object of Monopoly: the accumulation of property on which one places houses and hotels, and from which one receives revenue. Many of us have a favorite token. Perennially popular is the top hat, which symbolizes the sort of wealth to which Americans who work hard can aspire. The top hat is a token that has remained in the game, even while others have changed over the decades.

One’s willingness to play Monopoly depends on a few conditions—for instance, a predictable number of “Pay Income Tax” cards. These cards are manageable when you know in advance the amount of money printed on them and how many of them are in the deck. It helps, too, that there are a limited and predictable number of “Go to Jail” cards. This is what Frank Knight of the University of Chicago would call a knowable risk, as opposed to an uncertainty. Likewise, there must be a limited and predictable number of “Chance” cards. In other words, there has to be some certainty that property rights are secure and that the risks to property are few in number and can be managed.

The bank must be dependable, too. There is a fixed supply of Monopoly money and the bank is supposed to follow the rules of the game, exercising little or no independent discretion. If players sit down at the Monopoly board only to discover a bank that overreaches or is too unpredictable or discretionary, we all know what happens. They will walk away from the board. There is no game.

Relevance to the 1930s

How is this game relevant to the Great Depression? We all know the traditional narrative of that event: The stock market crash generated an economic Katrina. One in four was unemployed in the first few years. It resulted from a combination of monetary, banking, credit, international, and consumer confidence factors. The terrible thing about it was the duration of a high level of unemployment, which averaged in the mid teens for the entire decade.

The second thing we usually learn is that the Depression was mysterious—a problem that only experts with doctorates could solve. That is why FDR’s floating advisory group—Felix Frankfurter, Frances Perkins, George Warren, Marriner Eccles and Adolf Berle, among others—was sometimes known as a Brain Trust. The mystery had something to do with a shortage of money, we are told, and in the end, only a Brain Trust’s tinkering with the money supply saved us. The corollary to this view is that the government knows more than American business does about economics.

Another common presumption is that cleaning up Wall Street and getting rid of white-collar criminals helped the nation recover. A second is that property rights may still have mattered during the 1930s, but that they mattered less than government-created jobs, shoring up home-owners, and getting the money supply right. A third is that American democracy was threatened by the rise of a potential plutocracy, and that the Wagner Act of 1935—which lent federal support to labor unions—was thus necessary and proper. Fourth and finally, the traditional view of the 1930s is that action by the government was good, whereas inaction would have been fatal. The economic crisis mandated any kind of action, no matter how far removed it might be from sound monetary policy. Along these lines the humorist Will Rogers wrote in 1933 that if Franklin Roosevelt had “burned down the capital, we would cheer and say, ‘Well at least we got a fire started, anyhow.’”

To put this official version of the 1930s in terms of the Monopoly board: The American economy was failing because there were too many top hats lording it about on the board, trying to establish a plutocracy, and because there was no bank to hand out money. Under FDR, the federal government became the bank and pulled America back to economic health.

When you go to research the 1930s, however, you find a different story.
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