“Let’s play Monopoly!” It’s that moment. It’s Christmas, you’ve all had too much to eat (and drink) and someone shouts this out. If you’re daft enough to admit you’ve got the game in the house, the next two hours are taken up with someone accruing more and more at the expense of the others and people landing periodically in jail. There are tears and occasionally fisticuffs. Having been reminded of why we don’t play it that often, it goes back on the shelf for another year, until we forget and play it again. If Monopoly teaches us anything it’s that owning the land and the houses on it is the only way to make money, when you mortgage something you’ve already lost, and the bank always wins.
Monopoly was originally called ‘The Landlord’s Game’ (devised by feminist writer and game designer Lizzie Magie in 1903), to explain the economic principles of Henry George, who advocated that instead of taxing income, governments should instead create a universal land tax based on the value of the land. The principle of Georgism holds that the economic value of land, and any natural monopoly, should be spread through the whole of society. In modern capitalism wealth flows up from the workers to the owners; Georgism is an attempt to level the playing field.
Over a century later and no government in any nation has done anything except fiddle with the dials of a broken system. The UK Government needs people to go back to work in offices because the landlords need to be paid. Having stripped out the manufacturing capability of our economy, the pursuit of wealth can only be extracted and not produced. Each cup of coffee bought between the train station and office, each lunch bought at midday and each snack grabbed on the way home serves as a magic window into the service economy. It is not the office workers being serviced. It is the landlords.
If coffee shops, boutiques, gyms, health spas and so on cannot quickly recover lost sales, they will not be able to pay their rent. If they can’t pay, the landlords will kick them out and get in someone else who can. If the landlords cannot meet their debt commitments the ownership reverts to the banks and the game begins again.
The hedge fund owners and pension funds, who often invest in the buildings themselves, are going to have to mark down the value that can be paid out to those in receipt of pensions, because they can’t lose out, only the people collecting the pensions. The same Conservative voters who helped give Boris Johnson such a comfortable majority will be the ones who do not pass go and can’t collect their £200.
The small and medium sized businesses in city centres are in danger, but those who own the land, and own the buildings on it, will always win in the end. If you’re working from home you shop from home or shop locally in part, your efforts are in part enforcing the redistribution of wealth. Many small businesses that previously struggled as potential customers left for big cities each day are now enjoying an uplift in sales. As a society we’re enjoying a better work-life balance, traffic and pollution are reduced and the increase in deliveries has generated a modest uplift in employment that isn’t easily obliterated by increased automation.
In the ashes of the destruction of the value of retail property and its rentable value, we can find the seeds of a better economy, where the true value of our work is more equitably spread about.
Perhaps the solution to the cost of housing, residential letting and land ownership in general also lies in ‘Monopoly’ the game and its precursor. Perhaps it’s time to look again at the economic theory of Georgism.