This Popular Card Game Taught Me Why Modern Capitalism Is so Incredibly Screwed Up

A rich man playing cards
A rich man playing cards

I’m sure you’ve played this card game before. Some call it President, others call it Scum, Janitor, or even my personal favorite, Asshole. It’s a simple game that many of us learn as children.

You take a full deck of cards and distribute them evenly to 4 or more players. You then follow the rules to capture cards each round, with the ultimate goal of emptying your entire hand before anyone else.

Rules of Engagement

The crux of this game is the rankings. After each round is completed, players are assigned a position based on the order in which they placed.

Let’s say you have 5 players as an example. The first person to finish the round would be named President, the second named Vice President, etc.

It looks like this:

  1. President
  2. Vice President
  3. Regular/Citizen #1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc
  4. Vice-Ass
  5. Asshole

When the next round’s cards are dealt, the Asshole must give the President his 2 best cards. The President must give the Asshole any 2 cards of his choice in return. The same goes for the Vice-Ass and Vice President, but only 1 card.

Simple right?

Poor Assholes

I was teaching this game to some of my British and Taiwanese friends in a pub the other day and I noticed a few things.

  • I absolutely dominate this game.
  • One of the Brits was getting more and more frustrated as she couldn’t get out of the Asshole position — and kept enriching my hand as a result.

It occurred to me that this is probably one of the best realistic depictions of our modern economy I’ve seen in a long time.

The poor Asshole stayed poor and couldn’t rise above her position. The President got to keep the best assets and relied on the labor of the poor Asshole.

In return, the President could distribute in a heavenly fashion whatever he deemed worthy for the poor Asshole.

Did he like the Asshole? Here, enjoy your two 7’s.

Did the Asshole forget to buy the President a drink on his birthday? That’s a 2 and a 3 for you, Missy. The poor stayed poor and the rich got richer. Only the players in the middle jockeyed for position, just like the middle class.

Origins

In Japan, the origin of the game is known as Daifugō (大富豪 — Grand Millionaire) and sometimes Daihinmin (大貧民 — Grand Pauper).

In China, an even earlier offshoot is called Zhēng Shàngyóu (争上游 — Upstream Struggle).

The card game may be centuries old, but the names and principles of the game are clear — it’s meant to represent class struggle in society.

But during my absolute domination of my foreign friends the other day, I couldn’t help but think the game needs a bit of updating if it truly wants to reflect modern capitalism.

Reality

The core premise of the game is the lower class citizens pay tribute to the upper class. Fair enough.

But the game of President is flawed here.

If you have 5 players, the top 40% of people would be upper class, while 40% would be lower class. If you have 500 players, only 0.4% of people become aristocrats, and only 0.4% of people become the lowest in society.

Clearly, this is not even close to reality — at least for the poor.

In 2020, this is what the wealth distribution looked like in the U.S., according to Statista:

A pie chart showing the wealth distribution of the U.S.

Percentage of wealth owned by percentage of population. Chart created by Author

In this neat little chart, you can see that 10% of the population owns almost 70% of the country’s total wealth!

And the bottom 50%, potentially half of the people reading this, own a measly 2% of everything.

That’s insane. And how does this affect our little game of President?

No longer can the position of Asshole and Vice Asshole be limited to just 2 players. From now on, 50% of all players must be treated as poor people and give up their cards to the wealthy.

You know what? Let’s just abolish the position/class of Vice and make all 50% pure Assholes.

The middle class (ie. Regulars/Citizens) will make up 40% and the remaining 10% will go to the wealthy aristocrats.

Income Tax

But we can’t stop there, friends. Because there is another major flaw in the game as we know it.

The Assholes, the lowest on the totem pole of card game society, only have to give away 2 of their cards (4% of the deck). And while this is eerily consistent with the actual percentage of income tax paid by the bottom 50% of U.S. taxpayers — 3.1% — it doesn’t explain the whole picture.

In the game of President, players have to reset their cards every single round. In the modern economy — oh boy, if only that was true.

According to the non-partisan, non-profit organization, United for a Fair Economy, nearly 60% of all U.S. billionaires in 2012 grew up in extremely privileged circumstances.

What does that mean for our card game? Well, it adds a factor of scarcity. Most people play the game with 50 cards dealt evenly each round.

But now, the Presidents of the game get to keep 1 card each round. At any point in a future round, they can choose to play that card or keep it by their side.

Is it a wildcard and they really need to play it? Sure, why not.

It’s the equivalent of hiring the best lawyers in the country to bribe, ahem, help you win a big lawsuit. Or maybe it’s getting your best friend’s son elected governor of a state to help swing a few contracts your way. Maybe it’s making an incredibly large donation to a super PAC, to make sure some new anti-tax laws are enacted next year.

Either way, those cards are theirs to use as they see fit.

Takeaway

If you’ve been paying attention to the new rules of the game, you may have noticed an obvious flaw. The game can’t go on forever.

No matter who becomes President, at some point 1 or 2 players will have so many extra cards in their bank there won’t be enough left to play a game.

Give the game a little more time and there will only be cards in their banks. The uber-rich will have nothing but assets and no one to play with.

But they’ll also have no one to pay tribute to them in the form of ever-increasing rent, insanely expensive medical bills, lifelong burdensome college tuition payments, and the never-ending need to buy more and more useless crap from Amazon.

What then, will the rich President do? Nothing. Because the game will be over and everyone will have gone home.

But in the game of our current system of capitalism, ‘going home’ means something entirely different. So, who’s up for a friendly game of Guillotine?


J.J. Pryor

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