By Skip Mendler
“You cannot change a game by winning it, you cannot change a game by losing it, you cannot even change it by refereeing it. … The thing we found out in the ’60s is that you can change the game by turning your back on it and going away and starting a new game, and if that is a more interesting game, then people come over to play it.”
– Stewart Brand, founder, New Games Foundation
One day, when I was about ten or so, I found myself playing a game of Monopoly with a kid I had just met, the son of one of my Dad’s Army buddies, whose family we were visiting in Gettysburg. Things were going along fine, until he started to add houses to Park Place even though he hadn’t acquired Boardwalk yet…
Now here, of course, let me stop for a moment and apologize to those of you for whom that last sentence might not make sense – but if you’re familiar with the rules of Monopoly, a game based on conducting real estate transactions in Atlantic City, you know that what my new acquaintance was doing was simply not kosher. I pointed this out to him, of course – but he settled the matter with a simple dictum:
“My game – my rules.”
Well. I certainly knew where I stood at that point. So, by the time I inevitably landed on Park Place, he had turned it into a veritable high-density multi-use luxury development, with several hotels and a neighborhood’s worth of houses, and the game was over.
At heart, any economic system is, simply speaking, a game – that is to say, it’s a set of arbitrary rules that serve to organize some kind of human activity. The rules of the game define goals, explain how the goals are to be reached, specify rewards for achieving the goals, and exact penalties for behaviors that contradict the rules.
The economic “game” is a little different, of course. Usually, we voluntarily choose whether or not to participate in a game, and we can leave the game if we’re not having any fun. (Or if the other kid cheats!) We either know the rules before we start, or they are clearly explained to us in fairly short order. The rules frequently have safeguards built in, to minimize (if not entirely prevent) injury, and to keep the game “fair.”
Photo courtesy of Creative Commons Flickr user John-Morgan.
But in the case of the economy, we usually find ourselves born into the middle of a game already in progress. We have to try to puzzle out many of the rules as we go along, and frequently we find that the rules can change on the fly. We do not, generally, have a realistic option of leaving – although it can certainly be done, if one doesn’t mind putting one’s health and well-being at considerable risk. And increasingly, the safeguards are disappearing.
For millions if not billions of people, there never has been much “fun” to be had in this now-global game; grinding poverty, exploitation of the vulnerable, and environmental despoliation have long been the norm. Those in the middle classes, even if they weren’t exactly “winning” at the game, could at least expect to enjoy some creature comforts – but in recent years, as wealth and power have become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, they’ve seen their expectations and assumptions begin to crumble.
So now, in keeping with the spirit of Stewart Brand’s quote above, there are new games being devised – despite the attempts of our dominant economic players to convince us all that theirs is the only game in town, or to use Baroness Thatcher’s immortal words, “There is no alternative.”
These developing institutions and methodologies turn existing economic models on their heads. Locally-focused, they run counter to the trend of increasing globalization. They aim not for more accumulation, but for better distribution. They are sustainable and restorative while the old systems are extractive and exploitative. They replace the ethics of competition and dominance with cooperation and mutual assistance.
From worker-owned cooperatives to CSAs, asset-sharing programs to “B” Corporations, these innovative ideas are frequently lumped under the heading of “the new economy” – a term, unfortunately, that says nothing at all. Indeed, the very term “new economy” is hardly new. It’s been used for years to describe various economic trends, from the shift away from manufacturing to the dot-com bubble, and is used now to describe the ways that high-tech companies, especially those in information services and biotechnology, do business.
“Sustainable economics,” “community-based economics,” “partnership economy,” “sharing economy,” “gift economy” – these are some of the other terms that have been bandied about to describe this process of economic transformation, but none of them have gained wide currency. (I like “syneconomy” myself, but unfortunately folks are likely to confuse it with “sin tax.” Ah, language!)
New games need new names. As we develop this new game together, I am sure one will eventually emerge – a brand, if you will, that we can stand behind and promote.
And it will be more fun than Monopoly.