Monopoly, and how to play it
Consumers | Corporate dominance | UK trading laws | Small business
When I was a kid, there was this time when I was laid up with some kind of weird foot infection that kept me bedridden for the best part of six weeks—which is a long time in the life of an average eleven year old space pilot.
Girls hadn’t yet been discovered (although there was a queue of them beginning to form around the corner of my dirty little mind), so I spent my recovery time murdering toy soldiers on the battlefield of my bedspread, or reading Superman comics, or ancient Greek mythological tales, or Conan-Doyle novels (Holmes and Challenger), and playing a lot of board games.
One of those games was Monopoly, and I was pretty good too—but not so good as some of the competition that played dirty and cooked up all kinds of sly deals with each other.
Of course, there were and are rules governing those kinds of anti-trust shenanigans. But there were, and are, always ways around the rules. Nods and winks. Subtle shakings of the head. A kick under the table. Or bed. Monopoly money in a brown envelope.
It took me a long time to realise that Monopoly is actually a pretty rotten game. Essentially, it was invented in 1903 by Elizabeth Magie Phillips (correct spelling of "Magie") and was intended as an educational tool warning against the dangers of private monopolies. She called it: The Landlord’s Game.
A few decades later, Parker Brothers parlayed that into Monopoly, and what started as a cautionary social diversion morphed into a “good, wholesome property adventure for all the family”, with lots of profit for the Parkers.
Hardly. The objective, after all, isn’t simply to win in vague king-of-the-castle, dirty-rascal terms. The objective is to bankrupt the opposition and put him or her in the poor house. And if I’d understood that more fully way back then, I might be a richer man than I am today.
Because, decades on I’m still playing Monopoly, albeit of a different kind. That’s because I’ve got a few private business interests that are constantly struggling against huge trading blocs that dominate the commercial landscape.
I’m referring to the likes of Tesco, Iceland, McDonalds, Marriott Hotels, Walmart, Maplin, Machine Mart, B&Q, The Body Shop, Laura Ashley, Mothercare, Halfords, Sainsburys and (of course) Google and Amazon.
And not necessarily in that order.
Now, I’m not saying that any or all of these guys are crooks (my legal advisers won’t let me), but I am saying that some or all of these players must have spent a lot of hours in bed with foot infections when they were aged around eleven, because they’ve certainly got a firm grip on the board game of British commerce.
Commercial monopolies and conspiracies aren’t new. There are records dating back thousands of years detailing the methods used by merchants to rig the game and load the dice so that the little people have two choices: either lose slowly and agonisingly, or capitulate quickly and go and work for the competition at minimum wage, or on zero hours contracts.
Historically, there have been numerous acts, laws, devices and ruses aimed at introducing wage controls or initiating trading practice that favour one group over another. Edward the Confessor, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Charles I, David Cameron I. They’ve all done their bit one way or another to control the price of grain or gunpowder or oil. But the Monopoly players are sharp bastards.
"This is partly why the motorcycle trade is struggling. Sure, the day-to-day internet chancers play a part. But the big operations, led by the likes of Amazon and Google, have created virtual and actual monopolies for themselves. It’s a stranglehold choking variety and crushing independence."
Highly regarded Scottish economic philosopher Adam Smith famously said, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public…”
The current UK trading paradigm is analogous to a forest. Once upon a time, the forest was virgin. It was green and lush and everything was in balance. Can’t imagine exactly when that was, because there have always been crooks, rogues, thieves, whores, squatters and plotters. But for argument sake, let’s say there was once a better time.
But bit by bit, inch by inch, some plants grew a little faster than others. They started to block the light, and sap the mineral and water resources and began to compete not with the forest as a whole, but only with each other.
Eventually, what formed was huge canopy of commercial foliage. Gravity and various botanical laws prevented the big plants from getting any taller, so they just sat there overhead winning a little here, and losing a little there, merging, forming alliances, becoming intertwined, but always way above the bugs and bacteria and simple plant life on the forest floor.
Simple plant life.
And that’s yours truly too, down there in the dirt.
This is partly why, for instance, the motorcycle trade is struggling at present. Sure, the day-to-day internet chancers play a part. But the big operations, led by the likes of Amazon and Google, have created virtual and actual monopolies for themselves. It’s a stranglehold choking variety and crushing independence.
It isn’t just that the big players have eaten into the consumables that were once competitively sold in bike shops (oils, plugs, HT leads, puncture repair kits, locks, tyres, helmets and suchlike). No, the big players have—by racing everyone to the price bottom—sucked up the disposable incomes once enjoyed by an army of common, and largely self-determining men running smaller enterprises of their own.
More recently we’ve seen flickers of socialism trying to break through and rebalance the unsustainable forest. The UK general public want to see the energy firm share their profits (shock, horror). The general public has also shifted from amused acceptance of tax evasion to full-on demonisation of legitimate tax avoiders. The general public is, in a haphazard, disorganised way, increasingly looking for ways and means to fell the big trees and start some serious new growth.
Moreover, in November 2014, the European Parliament finally voted to break up Google’s outrageously dominant, self-serving, monopolistic activities in Europe. There are no teeth yet to this resolution. But the intention is there, and the tide could be turning.
There’s a general election coming up in May 2015 [now past, and the Tories won]. This is a warning and a timely opportunity to urgently lobby your MP and sue for radical change. The big questions, arguably, are not what the government is going to do about the struggling health service, or the reduction in policing numbers, or the housing shortfall, or global warming, or religious extremism.
The big question is when the government is going to get into that forest mob-handed and mercilessly chop down every company beyond a certain size and let British Small & Medium Enterprises (SMEs) have a real shot at growth. Get that right, and plenty of other problems in the UK will sort themselves out.
Sure, it will hurt like hell when consumer prices rise as they inevitably would, but prices need to rise—and with this new-age monopoly purge, so will wages rise. Never mind 600 ASDA stores in the UK. Never mind 1200 McDonalds restaurants. Never mind 350 B&Q outlets. Let’s see new limits. Sixty, for instance. Or less. Per company.
I’ve never been much of a lefty, by the way. But I’ll give it a go for a while if you will, at least until things are rebalanced.
Just remember that nothing is political until you make it political. Ask the Suffragettes.
Tip: Get political.
— Danny DeFazio
Written for British Dealer News, 2012
Copyright Sump Publishing 2014