- Capitalism has many features that make it like a game.
- Unlike any other game, however, we’re basically forced to play it.
- AI could lead to a genuine revolution in which we don’t have to play unless we want to, thus freeing up a ton more human potential for creativity, but will it?
Estimated reading time: 7-14 minutes
I closed last week’s piece by teasing that this week, we’d talk about one game we can’t opt out of. I’m talking, of course, about the Western world’s fundamental economic system, capitalism.
To make one concession, you certainly can choose to live a monastic life in the mountains or reside off the grid, catching and growing all your own food. But, while those options exist, they’re chosen by a relatively small percentage of the population for a reason. Barriers to entry are high, material comforts are low, and doing so requires a distaste for the social nature inherent to most members of our species. To be clear, I don’t intend to say that you can’t choose this type of life, simply that a vast majority of people don’t.
As for the rest of us, we’re forced into the highest-stakes game we’ll ever play.
And make no mistake, capitalism IS a game.
First, it has rules. They can be bent and even broken, but if you know them, you’re more likely to succeed. Here’s an example. Have you heard of the tax break known as the “Augusta Rule?” Every single year, you can rent out your place of residence for two weeks and the income is completely tax free.
If you own your own business, you don’t even need to rent it to anyone. You can simply claim to have held company meetings there, provide some easy-to-obtain documentation, expense the costs you didn’t actually incur at a slightly above-market rate, and then bam! Tax savings! At $500 per night, there’s a $7,000 tax deduction, just waiting to be claimed. I haven’t worked up the courage to do this yet, because it feels a bit like cheating, and I only learned about it a few months ago, but it’s still completely legal.
The game of capitalism also has strategies that work more effectively than others, different roles and positions, and incredibly high stakes and rewards. Fundamentally, it’s a game of resource accumulation, where we trade goods, skills, or time to acquire them. At various stages, you’ll play with or against other players and governments serve as de facto “referees.” You win if you’re making more than you’re spending. If you’re in debt, you’re losing. Well, unless you’re using it to fund a massive takeover or secure a huge loan.
Let me explain. I recently attended a financial workshop where the theme of leveraging debt as a wealth building strategy came up repeatedly. In one particularly striking example, a software developer spent $12 million dollars on patents for his app, then secured a $40 million dollar loan against the intellectual property of those patents. After setting up regular payments to service the debt, his company was free to pour a significant amount of that loan into marketing for the app, ultimately driving a massive increase in users and thus, revenue. Even crazier, had the whole thing gone south, he wouldn’t even have needed to give up the patents. Equity in his company served as collateral in the event he defaulted on the loan.
Examples like this counter the narrative we’re fed as children, where we’re told that the way to “win” is to work as hard as possible. We’re led to believe that paid employment functions as a sort of gumball machine. Put more “hard work” coins in and more “material success” gumballs come out, because the output matches the input. Many of us go our entire lives subtly believing this, even when we see examples that prove it’s not true. We can have a hard time accepting the opposite of what we had drilled into us. To slightly strain the analogy here, the above story highlights one way in which one could proverbially put in only a few “hard work” tokens and have hundreds of “financial gumballs” come pouring out.
And this discrepancy is what makes capitalism a game.
If you compete in the shot put, whoever throws it the farthest wins. In basketball, you also need to be able to move a ball over various distances, but simply being able to throw it far certainly won’t guarantee you victory. Strategy, rules, and teamwork matter much more. While overly simplistic, this is why the latter is a game while the former isn’t. Were our economic arrangement a simple input vs. output system, those who got the most out of it would probably be blue collar factory employees, construction workers, or those with multiple minimum wage jobs. Why?
Well, when jobs are physically demanding, repetitive, or require long hours, the people who complete them arguably work harder than nearly anyone else, yet the level of compensation they receive in return certainly does not qualify as “winning the game.” And while many people might say they want to “win” or “do well” from a financial, materialistic perspective, numerous others have a different perspective.
In fact, most players want out.
Here’s the odd thing about the game of capitalism. Many people don’t like playing it.
Hear me out. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that many people look forward to the “not working” aspect of retirement, or that lots of us wouldn’t continue in our current jobs if we won the lottery.
“Now hang on a minute,” you might be thinking. “I’d definitely keep working, and I’ve heard all these stories of people who retire only to go back to work because they lose all sense of meaning and purpose.” You’re absolutely right about that, and here I’ll cite my two identity articles for the 30th time. When people use their job to define their sense of who they are, it can be terrifying to lose that. So they go back. And that’s not the only reason.
Most people genuinely enjoy helping others and feeling useful, which is why people often go back to work even if they don’t need the money. It’s for those feelings. But that’s different than loving the game. The desire to not need to play also explains why we want flexible schedules, “work-from-home” opportunities, paid vacations, and that elusive holy grail of passive income.
But not all players want out…
I’ve met some people, including a few entrepreneurially-minded ones in my various friend groups, who genuinely love the game of capitalism. It lights them up to build an efficient online funnel or split-test marketing campaigns to see which one yields a 9.3% increase in click-through rate. But just like with any game, the things passionate players talk about can seem inscrutable to those who don’t enjoy it as much.
While I’m lucky enough to have some friends with whom I share many interests, for most of them, their eyes would glaze over if I started excitedly talking about which soccer formations best counter a team playing with aggressive, attacking wingbacks or which Super Smash Bros. characters have the best balance between fast frame data and reliable KO confirms.
Along those lines, some people simply love building businesses and finding solutions to problems that are rewarded with increased income. Others see their net worth or annual income as a “life high score” of sorts. They enjoy seeing this number go up, and want to pursue as high a position on the “leaderboard” as possible. And frankly, that’s great! For them. If you’re going to become utterly captivated by and very skilled at one game, your life will probably be easier in many ways if that game is capitalism. But…here’s the problem.
That game is endless, and endless games are boring.
At least, to me.
Games like Pac-Man and Snake, or tower defense games like Call of Duty’s beloved Nazi Zombies mode are too repetitive to hold much appeal or capture my attention for long. I find the lack of an ending or overarching goal besides, “Survive as long as you can,” to be fundamentally unsatisfying. Perhaps you could make the argument that games like this are all about the journey, playing for the sake of playing, being fully present with the experience, and enjoying every second as it comes. And hey, fair point. But, if you’re that in tune with the flow of life, you’ve probably transcended any desire to play such games. Plus, nobody forces us to play Pac-Man or Candy Crush. You certainly don’t need to play them in order to put food on the table. But, with the game of capitalism, we have to play.
AI programs like Dall-E and ChatGPT have led to all sorts of prognostications about the future of work, worsening wealth inequality, and impending unemployment crises. To that end, I’ve spoken to multiple entrepreneurially-minded individuals who feel that AI makes some form of Universal Basic Income inevitable.
Should this come to pass, making money may start to resemble other games. People will be free to play as much or as little as they like, newly emboldened to turn their unique, creative passions into income-generating endeavors if they feel so inclined.
And I imagine people will thrive when given this opportunity. But right now, we’re sort of stuck. We either believe we must play, or make enough money to feel secure opting out by retiring. And this has consequences. Stress over money stifles our natural creativity and problem solving abilities, and there’s a ton of untapped human potential tied up in simply making ends meet. I’ve seen this first hand. My work schedule now allows an outlet for my creativity through unpaid activities like writing this blog for all you wonderful people, something I simply didn’t have the time or energy for earlier in my career.
The various stages of my career highlight some common strategies for “winning the game.”
The first phase of my adult life was spent in a “low enjoyment, high pay” phase in the corporate pharmaceuticals industry. By the end, I despised it, despite the financial rewards. The second phase was the exact opposite, coaching D-III soccer and working as a strength coach (plus a couple other part-time jobs) for comparative pennies. While I loved the work, I went from making just over $100,000 in 2016 to around $65,000 in 2017 and 2018 combined.
Since shifting to personal training in late 2018, I’ve pursued the strategy of working for “high enjoyment, high pay,” with the ultimate goal of “making enough to not need to work anymore. As I mentioned previously, that’s what many people seem to want out of the game of capitalism. But, they’ve resigned themselves to never reaching that goal and embracing the “high enjoyment, low pay” strategy, or pursuing the “low enjoyment, high pay” route in an attempt to get there quicker. It’s often seen as a functional win to employ the latter strategy’s cousin, finding employment that’s “tolerable and for enough money that I don’t hate it.” But, this still often isn’t enough to be satisfying.
Players are getting sick of the game.
At the risk of going too morbid here, rising “deaths of despair” suggest that it’s becoming more and more miserable to play. Like a pickup soccer player who keeps getting brutally slide-tackled during casual 5-a-side games, many people just don’t want to compete anymore. I don’t mean to equate financial success with the perception that life is worth living, but our system is set up in a way that makes it incredibly easy to believe this to be the case.
My vision (at the risk of sounding like a naive, utopian idealist) is for a world where we don’t use such a significant portion of our time and energy just to keep the lights on, leaving us with at least some freedom to express ourselves and create.. Then, the game of making money could be more fun, and more like a videogame you opt into. Picture this: “Dude! I discovered a copywriting strategy that makes people five times more likely to click my ‘Schedule A Call’ button! Amazing, right?” A statement like this could be little different than, “Whoa, I explored a secret cave and discovered a Flame Sword that deals triple damage! Isn’t that sweet?”
My answer in both cases is, “Definitely! If you’re into that sort of thing.” This is more how I’d like making money to function. This way, we’d also remove the unfair moral judgment we apply to those who aren’t successful in the game of capitalism. “They’re just lazy and uneducated,” or any other simplistic assessments.
In reality, maybe they just don’t enjoy this game. I mean, how engaged are you in games you find tedious, complicated, and unrewarding? We don’t really get to choose what we like, after all. Our preferences just sort of find us and call to something within. So, when it comes to making money, will AI make it more like playing an optional game? Maybe. I suppose it’s equally likely to entrench us deeper within it. I’m not sure enough of us can imagine life without this game. But we’ll see. In the meantime, we’ll all just keep playing.
But think about this. What would you do if you didn’t have to play?Before you go, I’d love to hear from you. Which strategy are you currently pursuing in the game of capitalism? Would you continue to play if you didn’t have to? If not, to which pursuit(s) would you devote more time and energy? Reply to this email and let me know!