Sunday, May 20, 2007

Weekend Reads

I'm sure many bloggers will be commenting on Saturday's NY Times story about a couple who are drowning in debt, so I won't add to the pile, other than to say that I think such articles are becoming extremely easy to characterize in broad strokes:

  • Mr. and Mrs. Debtor both work and their income is somewhere around the US household median.
  • They have, or have had, student loans, a period of being uninsured, a period where one of them was unemployed, a period of illness, and/or an adjustable rate mortgage that is about to kick up to a higher interest rate.
  • Their credit card debt totals $XX,XXX, and they have to make minimum payments of $XXX a month, including finance charges of $XXX.
  • They do not want to deprive themselves or their children of occasional treats like eating out, ballet lessons, going to the movies, having a big wedding or going on vacations.
  • The reporter will make sure to point out that they have recently spent a large amount of money on an oversized flat screen television, in wording that clearly says "I am being journalistically neutral but you know my voice would be somewhere between 'mildly remonstrative' and 'dripping with sarcasm' if I was saying this out loud."

Check, check, check, check and check. So, nuff said about that one!

What interested me more this weekend was an article in the latest New Yorker magazine about Milton Bradley and the Game of Life. It's funny, I remember that game from when I was a kid, and I think we had a set at my grandmother's house. But although that side of my family loved all sorts of games and constantly played them, we never played Life, and I have yet to ever play it. The games we played at my grandmother's house included cribbage, Scrabble, chinese checkers, parcheesi, Sorry, Boggle, Othello, chess, Taboo, Guesstures, charades, rummy, and a few wacky ones like "stadium checkers" and a board game based on an old TV show called Ramar of the Jungle-- that one was really fun: "Taken Prisoner by Man-Eating Pygmies, Lose Turn." The other game we never played, though I sometimes made my parents play with me at home, was Monopoly. I guess games about money just didn't cut it at Grandma's!
The Game of Life actually started out as a kind of morally instructive game that actually didn't have much to do with money at all-- you moved along the board and through a combination of luck and your own choices, you might end up at "Poverty," but the point was more to do virtuous things that get you to "Happy Old Age." As the author of the New Yorker article states, "by our board-game standards [it was] incredibly dull." So in 1960, for the game's 100th anniversary, they decided to revise it to be more in step with today's times: was reinvented as a lesson in Cold War consumerist conformity, a kind of two-dimensional Levittown, complete with paychecks and retirement homes and dental bills. Inside the game box are piles and piles of paper (Life is . . . paperwork!): fake automobile insurance, phony stock certificates, pretend promissory notes, and play money, seven and a half million dollars of it...
They have continued to revise the game ever since, or they've at least tried:
The game is so relentlessly amoral and cash-conscious that a nineteen-nineties redesign team, eager to make it less so, pretty much gave up.
They tried to add in features where players would get ahead by doing good deeds but the reward was still money. And apparently, the latest version of the game has gone electronic, with Visa-branded credit cards that you insert in a "Life Pod" to keep track of your points, or your money, or your credit, or something! And it turns out that this version has
...a rather forgiving attitude toward the highly leveraged player. "If you're bankrupt in Monopoly, you're watching," a Hasbro Games vice-president, George Burtch, says. "In this game, you can be hugely in debt, but you're still playing!"
If that's not a sign of the times, I don't know what is!
It was an interesting article, but it still sounds like a pretty boring game. I get enough of all that stuff in my real life.

And from the world of blogging, this post at 3 Things About Money is a must-read:
...if you can't take responsibility for killing your own meat, what does it mean that you would you pay someone else to do it for you? . . . And so the reality check began. I borrowed the gun...
Great stuff.


Rich Minx said...

We had the Game of Life when I was a kid but it was indeed boring and we rarely played it. It seemed overly complicated too, with all its paperwork, so I think we ignored about 80% of the rules and played it our own way. What a great metaphor!

Most alarmingly, I can still remember the jingle in the '80s commercial for it. "Be a winner at the Game of Life..."
If only my brain had fewer jingles and more business ideas.

mOOm said...

I got a Monopoly game for my 10th birthday. This was the British one with pounds and London addresses... When we got bored we added extra rules like inflation :)

SavingDiva said...

I loved the article. My favorite quote was, "And on the weekends the kids want our attention, and we want to spend time with them; we don’t want to spend time going through the bills.” Why not get rid of the TV and spend time going over your bills instead of watching $50/month cable on a $800 flat screen TV.

English Major said...

I play the Game of Life regularly with the fifth-grader I tutor, and I frankly do not get the point. So...the whole point is having more money than the other player? And you're marched through these compulsory Life Steps with the rigor of a military drill? And the whole thing is luck and not skill?

...this all strikes me as not such a great life lesson, but maybe it's because I always seem to lose.