Sustainable Greediness

I had to look twice to make sure it was really him drinking alone at the end of the airport bar. Given that the only thing I knew three things about Perry Kenwauld:

1) Perry Kenwauld was the most respected economist in the world according to the people most people thought of as the most respected economists in the world.

2) According to the very few available accounts, his appearance matched that of the little man sitting at the bar, from his off-center bald spot to his impish half-grin on the left side of his face, to his tiny hands, too small even for a man I'd guess was no more than five foot two wearing the pair of unscuffed roughout western boots he was sporting.

3) As far as I knew before today, Perry Kenwauld didn't actually exist.

So I just stared blankly for who knows how long until he got tired of pretending not to notice and waved me over to join him. 

"Not many folks recognize me, pard'ner!" I couldn't tell you where Kenwauld was from, but I could say with great surety that it wasn't Texas. Not that he wasn't trying to give that impression: He was turned out in pressed Wranglers, a floral-motif western shirt tucked in above an oversized silver buckle depicting a bucking bronco, and sitting on the bar next to him was a broad, unpressed Stetson that wouldn't couldn't possibly come close to fitting Kenwauld's head. And yet, somehow, his accent was even less convincing than his outfit. "Quit yer gawkin' and set yerself down next to me here." So I did.

"Can I buy you a drink?" I asked, not quite sure how to start a conversation. This tickled him tremendously. I still couldn't stop staring. He looked somewhere between twenty and two hundred years old, depending on how the light hit him.

"You buy me a drink? Son, that's about the funniest damn thing I heard all day. But since you asked, I'm drinking scotch. The best they got ain't worth a damn, but it'll have to do." He waved at the bartender and held up two fingers, and the bartender nodded and brought our drinks over. Apparently, Perry Kenwauld had been here a while.

"So...I 'spect you're in the industry. Can't figure how you'd a made me otherwise." 

"Yes. Yes sir. I'm just getting started, but I read a lot. Some of the stories don't make any sense, so I read more, and then, when I get to the part that reads more like fiction, that's when your name shows up. I'm Don, by the way. Don Richmond," I said, extending my hand.

"Heh...howdy Don. 'Spose you know my name. You like my get-up? I figure, I ain't real anyway, might as well be anyone I wanna be. What brings ya to RIC?"

"On my way out to a conference, actually. Another crack at trying to figure out why things are the way they are, and how to fix them."

"Fix them? Son, what makes you think it's broke'd? Hell, I can tell you why things are the way they are." He gave me a quick smile, more mischievous than conspiratorial, and picked up his previously-unnoticed briefcase and set it in his lap. He cracked it open and revealed...

...a Monopoly set. 

"You're funny," I said, making sure to emphasize it in a way that suggested I didn't mean it at all.

"No shit I am. But if you think this ain't the real deal, then listen up. You know this history of this here game, right?"

"Of course. The Charles Darrow myth, and the true story. The woman, Elizabeth somthing."

"Magie was her name. 'Course, that's not the whole story." I raised an eyebrow in question, but he didn't need the encouragement. "Elizabeth Magie. Hell of an economist, that woman. Taught at the facility. You prob'ly never heard of it. Called the University of Charlestons."

"Charles-tons? Plural?"

"Little joke of ours. Center of the real Bermuda triangle. Midpoint of Charleston, South Carolina, Charleston, Rhode Island, and Bermuda. Shoulda been a Charleston, Bermuda, too. Anyway, big ol' barge we kept out there, where we did, where we do most of the real economic work."

"The real Bermuda triangle?" I wasn't nearly drunk enough for this despite a second Laphroig magically appearing in front of me.

"Sure. Little misdirection. Word got out about sumthin' in the middle of 'the Bermuda triangle,' had to make sure people looked in the wrong place. Anywho, we'd been using the game y'all call Monopoly since Adam Smith invented it."

"That stupid game?"

"Well sure, it's stupid the way it's played now. But it's still one the best simulators out there."

"How so?"

"Well, all you gotta do is jimmy with the rules a little and you can make it do damn near anything. The original version, the one Smith started with, was a Libertarian model. No money for passing go, no Chance or Community Chest cards, and you bank. You borrowed money from other players and negotiated the rates."

"Huh," was all I could say. I was starting to feel like my leg was being pulled.

"'Course, it was a lousy game. You knew two or three turns in who was gonna win, but at least it was over with quickly." He paused, took another shot of whiskey, and struggled to focus his eyes. I started to wonder just how long he'd been here. "So, anyway, Magie, the woman, she decided she'd had enough of, hell, who knows what? Women, right? She took a copy of the simulator, stole a boat, and headed back to the states. Soon as we figured out what she was doing, giving out the simulator, calling it 'The Landlord Game,' we hadda do something. We invented that Darrow fellow and published the game with the current rules. Everyone just thought it was a game, ya know?"

"Yeah, I do. Still not really buying the 'simulator' part though."

"Lookit it this way. You wanna do a real simulation? You have one fella start with half the property. You make half the people immune to jail. You base the money they get for passing Go on how much property they have. That's how it really works. Works like a charm, too. Just like real life."

"Why didn't you make those rules THE rules?"

"Oh hell, just coz' it's realistic don't make it fun. People, and we test with people, abduct 'em to the Bermuda triangle..." He paused to giggle. It was not a nice giggle. "...and made 'em play the game. They hated that version. We had honest-to-God bloodshed sometimes, when the fellow who started with all the property finally won. No sirree, that's not way to unleash this thing on the public. Gotta make it random, but random in a way that makes people think it's about skill."

"What about a socialist model?"

"Shit, that was easy. Lot more money for passing Go. People think of the money from passing Go as a salary, but it's meant to be a government stipend. So, make that a lot bigger, increase the cost of property development, lower the got yerself a socialist paradise!"

"What was the problem with that one?"

"No one ever 'won.' The folks payin' my salary, everyone's salary, really hated that one. Besides, the players got bored."

I stared at my drink, then at Kenwauld, and then at my drink again. A question was trying to get itself asked, and I kept trying to answer it for myself, but didn't much care for where it was going. Finally, I spoke up:

"So, why are the rules the way they are?"

Kenwauld chuckled, reminding me of a guy who was just waiting for the other fellow to knuckle under.  He leaned in and whispered to me: "Right question at last. Alrighty, here's the secret: Winning ain't winning, at least not how my bosses see it."

"Huh?" Not a great response, but very sincere.

"OK, you know what happens when you win at Monopoly, right? Winning fella has all the money, all the property, right?"


"Hell no, he doesn't. Think, son. Sometimes, you win without all the property gettin' bought. And there's all that money in the bank, too. The problem with winning is you don't get no more after that. It's over. The game stops."

"That's the point, isn't it? I mean, it's a game..."

"It ain't a game, it's a simulation. I told you already. You don't want it to end. The trick...the trick is to come up with a set of rules that keep it goin' for ever and ever." I suddenly felt sick to my stomach, and it wasn't just the iodine-y scotch. He went on, "Monopoly's got an inflationary economy. More money comin' in than going out. You don't want it to stop, you want it to keep going but for all the money comin' in to go to the right fella, you know what I'm saying?"

I was afraid I did.

"The other fellas, they're just working for you only they think they're still in the game. Like those green folks like to say, 'sustainable.' " He found so funny he started laughing, then coughing, then almost crying. "It's called 'irony' son. 'Sustainable greed.' Funny as hell."

"It's not funny."

"Sure it is! You just don't get it coz' you're just starting out. It's always worked like that. The job, your job, even if you don't like it, is to keep everything moving, keep everyone in the game, and make sure the right folks win. Everything else is just for show." He stopped wheezing long enough to steady himself and take a long look at me. "You don't have the guts for it, do ya? You thought you wanted to be an economist, but you thought you'd change things. Fuck you. You're not changing shit."

I closed our tab and left him to his now thoroughly sour mood. He didn't even look at me as I walked out of the bar, stumbling a little towards my gate. I do not normally drink straight whiskey, unlike, apparently, Kenwauld. Lost in my thoughts, but not thinking completely straight, I got on the plane and thought about Monopoly, and rules, and how the hell I could fix those rules and make Kenwauld and his people shut the hell up and how to give everyone a real shot at winning. 

And hangovers. I thought about hangovers a lot.