Everything I Know About Economics I Learned Playing Poker

Back in my young adult days, those carefree days BC (Before Children), some friends and I played an informal poker game almost every week. We’d play all night on a Friday, settle up as the sun was rising and crawl to our beds with our winnings. This went on for a while until children started coming, jobs were too exhausting, mortgages taken out—in other words, we soon enough had less time and little money to play.

The game was a quarter to open, nickel bets—pretty low stakes really but the game was for fun and this was, after all, the late 1970’s. We were mostly in our young 20’s and this level of wager was acceptable to our wallets. My friend’s boyfriend, Josh, served as “banker” every week. It was his house (well, he lived there) and his poker chips and he was insistent. So, okay. Didn’t matter.

Or did it?

During the course of the game, if you ran out of chips, you had to dip back into your wallet, toss it to Josh, and he’d count you out some more white, blue or red plastic disks. When I didn’t have money in my wallet, which was frequently, I was out. At this point, I became the runner for snacks and drinks and simply enjoyed observing the game. This was true of anyone in the game—except Josh. As the game went on, when he was out, he simply grabbed more chips out of the box and said he’d settle up with the bank at the end of the game. His wallet was in the other room or something. Because we trusted Josh as one of us, nobody minded.

True to his word, yes, he settled up at the end of the game—but after many weeks it became apparent that he was usually the big winner. Not that he was that great a player. He was fair—as were we all. Since I was sitting out A LOT (testament to my own card prowess!), I noticed something very interesting.

What really happened was that Josh would be out and out and out again. He “borrowed” countless times during the game—even to bet bigger when he got an especially good hand. What I slowly realized over the course of time, was that his endless ability to obtain more chips meant that Josh was able to outrun the chance aspect of the game and wait out everyone’s ability to buy chips until everyone went out and he “won.” Most of the money that had come to the table, left in Josh’s pockets.


Oddly enough, this is what happens in finance today. Every time you play by depositing money, taking a loan or using a credit card, bankers get to legally create money where they had none. They get to loan out, theoretically upon promise of interest payments, $10,000 for every $1111.12 in the vault. They’re “banking” on several assumptions: that not all the depositors would ask for the money back at the same time; that borrowers will pay the interest on those loans, and mostly that they control the government (ironically by debt!) that regulates the “fractional reserve system” that lets them create money out of thin air anyway. They produce nothing and that’s exactly what comes out of the banks’ pockets every time they issue a mortgage, a loan or run a credit card company. Instead, an account is created for you. Numbers go back and forth between accounts without anything of actual value being involved. Ultimately, fear of personal (and to a certain extent global) economic collapse keeps everyone running as fast as they can chasing an ever smaller pool of dollars as the mathematics of principal and interest spiral out of control. The cards, however, are in the bankers’ favor since they possess a nearly limitless resource of credit.

In other words, if we had all had Josh pass us chips on our promise to settle up at the end (like he did), players could then say “Oh, silly me. Don’t have it.” Then Joe would have been left holding the EMPTY bag as it were. As it was, we all ponied up and Joe pocketed a lot of money where he only had maybe a fiver on him to start.

If Josh were a real banker and we didn’t pay, he might then whine, “Okay, but you’ll owe me $2 more since I have to do without that money” (more revenue from nothing!) or even hold a gun to our heads, saying, “Pay up or else.” If he managed to frighten us enough, we’d say, “Okay, man, Sheesh! Don’t get all weird,” and go get the money by whatever means. Or we’d ask to play again in hopes that Lady Luck would shine on us this time. In Josh’s game, as in modern “finance,” she’s nowhere around.

Of course, economics is much more complex than this but only in shades of this theme. For more explanation, YouTube “Money as Debt” and watch the movies by Paul Grignon.

*Maybe the names have been changed to protect us all. Maybe not.


The Dalai Lama’s Wardrobe

I was thinking the other day about the Dalai Lama. This simple monk has been the famed Dalai Lama of my 60’s-70’s childhood and youth, and the leader of the Tibetan people since before I was born. He has come to stand for peace and compassion in a world where there is precious little of either. While I’m not Buddhist, I have the utmost respect and admiration for the Dalai Lama as both a leader and spiritual teacher.

Since I wear religiously observant dress, I was curious about what the Dalai Lama wears.  He always basically looks the same with minor variations in headgear—though he favors the visor to preserve his unadorned head which is also symbolic. If you can’t think of what he (and many, many other Buddhist monks) looks like, here he is:


The robes are dyed from all natural materials and the fabric made from six kinds of natural fibers. There are three parts:  a waistcloth, upper robe and outer robe. The robes can be worn in different ways depending on the occasion and depending on the sect. When seeking alms, for instance, the waist cloth is worn alone or the outer robe is worn around both shoulders. For doing work, the monk would wear the simple configuration of the bare right arm. The outer robe would be more draped over the wearer during ceremonial or traditional occasions.

I was also curious about the colors*, which seem fairly consistent across Buddhism. I had naively guessed that the gold colored upper robe was meant to represent the divine (with gold’s associations with wealth, nobility and prestige) and the maroon outer robe was indicative an earth color. I romantically presumed that the dress was conveying a message about the inner divinity covered by the outward Earth reality. Actually, I had it exactly backward.

Not like my native clay soils here in the Mid-Atlantic, U.S., Asian soils are yellowish in color. However the color is also both associated with death and dying and also, obviously, great wealth. It can also be related to discipline. The dye for this color is made from onion skins. The gold or actually saffron color of the upper robe connects with the earthly existence or experience. The maroon, made from lac and madder root, conveys a fire and victory. The saffron is only a small part of the uniform and almost completely covered by the victorious Reality of the Divine.  In other words, the maroon speaks of our true essential spiritual nature being more than this physical existence.

The robes themselves are practical for protection, for a ground cloth for sleeping or praying, and for decency. They are easy to clean and simple to repair. They are objects of reflection—reminding the wearer both of his connection to the Buddha and a long past heritage and also his vibrant Buddhist community, but also that he or she has committed him/herself to higher spiritual ideals.

The simplicity of wearing a basic robe partly symbolizes the vow they have taken to live a simple life. It is like their “uniform” in a way. A symbol of their non-status that they are no longer partake in the material aspects of society. from The Buddhist Blog

Except for the robe reference, that could be said of Plain people, as well. The clothing we wear matters (ask any teenager!) because it’s individual and it “makes a statement” no matter what you’re wearing. How does your wardrobe convey what you want to be said?


*The tiny blue armhole edging on the Tibetan robe is thought to indicate royalty as in a prince or it could be an addition to signify ultimate triumph over Chinese occupation of Tibet.