If there are two cultural artifacts that showcase the distinctives between Americans and Canadians, it is surely these two board games: Monopoly and Poleconomy. What the devil is Poleconomy, you ask? Obscurity is, of course, parcel to many a Canuck inheritance.
Not long ago I was enjoying an evening meal with the monks at St. Gregory’s in Three Rivers, Michigan, and the text being read for the evening was a cultural history of the Cold War as told through Monopoly. Over their spartan supper, I learned that Monopoly has become one of the most powerful, influential games in the world. The concomitant rise of its narrative, competitive capitalism, has mirrored American cultural and political ascent. It is a game predicated on the fictions of level playing fields, impartial chance, limited intervention, and the ingenuity of market competition. Victory in Monopoly also spells disaster for capitalism, an ironic tension that now seems to be eternally nestled in the American psyche.
Imperfect and reductionist as it might be, the American century was also Monopoly‘s century.
We had Monopoly at home in rural Ottawa, but it was a distant second to Kiwi-inspired Poleconomy, a game that introduced everything from bond markets, to inflation, to major Canadian companies and advertising agencies. Far from the fictions of free markets its very name is the merger of “politics” and “economy.” People get elected as Prime Minister, those people control the inflation rate, the tax rate and so forth. Inflation and taxes are not unlucky Chance cards players try to avoid, but central to the game play.
And here’s the real kicker: Canada’s game of capitalism, undoubtedly a pinko-interventionist corruption of Monopoly, was introduced not by radical statists but, in fact, by Canada’s free market, virtually libertarian think tank, the Fraser Institute.
In Fraser’s 25-year retrospective, it attributes the sale of Poleconomy to a Canadian market as one of two development ideas which saved the finances of the organization in 1980s. Michael Walker took a leave of absence from Fraser in order to sell both the corporate squares on the board, and to market the game itself. Poleconomy‘s sales not only stabilized Fraser’s finances, but eventually scaled to form an endowment.
The differences between Monopoly and Poleconomy are instructive, especially with Canada’s federal budget fast approaching. Canadians expect government to intervene, to take action in the economy. We have a high view of our politics, far more than setting the rules of the game. We expect a government that is monitoring, tweaking, and intervening in productive ways. And we hold our governments to account for the performance of the market, as prudent managers. A flagging economy is a failure of a governing party in Canada in the way that it never will be in America, if only because American market sentiment is more mystical, more decentralized, more individual.
Yet while Canadians may expect more from their government economically, that is also where Canadian expectations largely begin, and end. And in an era where economic choices are increasingly moral ones, not merely managerial or prudential, this Canadian government, and this federal budget, may have to borrow a page from America’s political rulebook.
It’s no longer enough just to nudge inflation, and smartly project G.D.P., especially on the multi-generational track of sacrifice it will take to salvage our global and national economy. Now we’d like to know why, if only to decide what can be sacrificed, and what never should be.
Monopoly and Poleconomy are imperfect analogies. Both speak to the power of the capitalist narrative, its internal tensions, its liabilities, and its expectations for political and moral life. Both are fictions. And, perhaps most ominously, both fictions must be overcome by their native lands if the one central icon they venerate—the capitalist markets—are to recover.