The original game espoused the opposite political views to the now world-famous version. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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Do not pass go: the tangled roots of Monopoly

The classic Great Depression rags-to-riches story of how the enduringly popular board game came to be invented isn’t quite as simple as it seems.

The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favourite Board Game
Mary Pilon
Bloomsbury USA, 313pp, $27/£20

My dad was born in 1924, five years before the great crash of 1929. One of the founding stories of my childhood was about his childhood: how, as a poor kid in New Haven, Connecticut, he really wanted a Monopoly set but couldn’t dream of affording one – and so he made his own. The board, the counters, the money, the whole nine yards. He was about ten or 11 at the time, at least that’s what I recall. But it was only after reading The Monopolists, Mary Pilon’s entertaining and revelatory account of the game’s origins, that I realised there’s one question I never asked him: which Monopoly set did he make?

Up until now I’d always bought the story that Parker Brothers (now part of Hasbro Inc) sold me: one day in 1934, Charles Darrow, an unemployed salesman from Germantown, Pennsylvania, came up with the idea for the game pretty much out of the blue, made the first sets by hand, and then made his fortune when Parker Brothers bought his invention the following year. It’s a classic Great Depression rags-to-riches story. The official version passed its 80th anniversary this March; over the years, more than 275 million copies of the game have been sold, in 47 languages. Hasbro prints $30bn of Monopoly money every year – $3trn since 1935.

Except, it turns out, the story of Monopoly isn’t that simple. How could my father have made a set when he was ten, a good year before Parker Brothers’ and Darrow’s game was released on the market? Easily: because Monopoly was a game that long pre-existed the version that now has, shall we say, a monopoly on our idea of what the game should be. Its first inventor wasn’t Darrow, but a remarkable, politically active woman called Lizzie Magie, and its political aims the very opposite of those the now-famous version espouses. Magie’s game – patented in 1904, 30 years before the Parker Brothers version appeared – was called The Landlord’s Game, and it was designed as a teaching tool to promote the economic theories of Henry George, whose progressive ideas on both taxation and women’s rights remained Magie’s lifelong passion. She called the game she’d created her “brain-child” and believed – when Parker Brothers bought the rights to it for $500 outright – that it would find a wide audience. But of course, it didn’t. Monopoly did.

The Monopolists is Pilon’s first book; she is an award-winning sports reporter for the New York Times, and her tale is a work of energetic, in-depth reportage. While Magie is a central, striking figure in this story, it is peopled with all sorts of colourful characters who keep it galloping along. For Lizzie Magie wasn’t the only inventor of Mono­poly; a version of it was played in Quaker circles. The Quaker community, perhaps surprisingly, had a big hand in building up the resort of Atlantic City, New ­Jersey and it is the streets and avenues of this city that provide the archetypal locales of the original game (I still find it strange whenever I see “Park Lane” instead of “Park Place”, or “Bond Street” instead of “Pennsylvania Avenue”.)

Pilon shows that even though Monopoly was not quite the generic game that poker or chess is, one legacy of the Gilded Age – in which families such as the Carnegies and the Rockefellers could almost wholly control the markets in which they operated, and when they amassed fortunes that are a source of wonder even by today’s oligarchical standards – was many versions of the game, which coexisted for quite a while. It wasn’t just my father making his own set: that was pretty standard practice, I learned. But Parker Brothers determined to eliminate the competition, and the twists and turns of this book catalogue some valiant ­attempts to fight back, not least by one Ralph Anspach, who created a game called Anti-Monopoly in the 1970s and incurred the wrath of Parker Brothers as a result.

Occasionally Pilon’s new-journalism style can be grating (“Ralph Anspach, professor of economics at San Francisco State University, slammed his car door shut. Finally he was home . . .”), but for the most part her intriguing discoveries carry the reader happily along.

Pilon takes the epigraph for one of her chapters from Voltaire: “All the ancient histories, as one of our wits says, are just fables that have been agreed upon.” Yet what she shows is that the fable of Monopoly’s creation was more than just a good story: it was an attempt to echo what the Parker Brothers game encourages its players to do: “The last player left in the game wins.”

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

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Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.

 

There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.

 

Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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