4 People Who Beat Capitalism at Its Own Game
There’s an incredible divide between the cold, hard, touchable (or at least viewable on a phone app) reality of money and the greater idea of it. Flipping through a fat wad of bills or feeling the weight of a piece of fine precious metal? Ooh baby, that’s the stuff. Thinking about the constant, cracking ceiling over most people’s heads created by the ideas and realities of a currency-driven existence? That is most definitely not the stuff.
There’s no need for me to prattle on more about wealth inequality. At this point, you either realize it’s a problem, are filthy rich or are a struggling small business owner with a misunderstanding of how marginal tax brackets work. For us little fellas roaming the peaks and valleys of a paycheck-to-paycheck life, we don’t often get to do any damage to the world’s ivory towers. So, when one of those chances presents itself, you’ve gotta jump on it.
Here are four people who beat capitalism at its own game…
GameStop Short Squeeze
In 2021, the nation experienced a collective level of interest in GameStop that probably hadn’t been reached since desperate mothers were clobbering each other over Wiis at Christmastime. The reason this time wasn’t any new console, but instead a financially devastating financial judo toss of the big banks any Machamp would approve of. By the time the dust settled, hedge-fund investors were leaking capital from central arteries and a whole lot of people with Robinhood accounts were suddenly in the unimaginable modern position of being able to buy a house.
How did they pull it off? First, there’s a misconception that it was nothing more than a scam, but it was based on actual market evaluation. A slightly oversimplified, pithy way to look at it could be a reimagining of the famous Mark Twain quote: “Reports of GameStop’s death were greatly exaggerated.”
GameStop, facing gamers’ preference for online shopping, had become an incredibly popular option for a sort of economic death pool bet known as “shorting.” Given that we’re talking about GameStop, let’s pretend we’re talking about some hideous little Funko Pop and construct an analogy guaranteed to burst a blood vessel in a day trader’s brain. You think the latest Funko Pop of Deadpool, Thanos, Benito Mussolini, whoever is gonna be worth jack squat in a month. So you borrow one from a friend, promising you’ll replace it, and immediately sell it for $20 or whatever those nasty little bits of vinyl generally demand. You figure, once the value drops, you can pick up a brand new one off eBay for a buck or two, and pocket the difference. Unfortunately, it turns out you were dead wrong. Suddenly Funko Mussolini is the hottest fucking piece of plastic on Planet Earth. You watch in horror as the eBay prices start to skyrocket, knowing that you owe your friend one plastic dictator, irrelevant of price.
Investors who had assumed GameStop was dead in the water borrowed shares, sold them and assumed they could pick up whatever shares they ultimately owed for pennies on the dollar when their debts were called in. Astute internet traders, however, realized that GameStop was perfectly financially solvent and criminally undervalued, and started buying as many shares (READ: tiny fascist desk accessories) as they could. Meaning: Demand went through the roof while supply remained the same, and a bit of basic economics will tell you what that does for value. As short holders watched in despair, the market price of GameStop skyrocketed, knowing they were still on the hook for millions of metaphorical Lil’ Benitos, dreading the inevitable call from the people they borrowed from, informing them it was time to deliver the promised Pops posthaste. At which point they’re forced to pay out the nose to make good on their promise, no matter the asking price.
Jerry & Marge Crack the Lottery
The lottery, even though it’s painted as a fun little side hustle that could result in you being showered in cash, is a pretty calculated and dark way to capitalize on economic desperation. First of all, know that it absolutely 100 percent wouldn’t exist if any money was ever lost by the government on it. It’s the same basic reasoning that should tell you that when a casino’s floor is 80 percent slot machines, it’s not because people keep winning money on them. It’s the government’s way of sticking a federally-approved slot machine at the counter of every convenience store in the country, where if you line up three sevens, you’re finally free of crushing financial insecurity.
So, if you’re able to catch a mistake in how the lottery’s run that enables guaranteed profit, you’ve just discovered a form of access straight to governmental coffers that would usually be impossible without the IRS taking you out back like a sick dog. Jerry Selbee saw that opportunity in a lottery variant called “Winfall” that featured one extremely ill-advised twist. Unlike a lottery in which you either matched all the numbers or were shit out of luck, whenever Winfall’s jackpot hit $5 million, it paid out to all the people who’d gotten the closest. This small detail was enough to completely tip the scales in favor of someone with a good understanding of probability and enough money to buy tickets en masse. Jerry and his wife Marge rode their arithmetic to a final profit of over $20 million.
Being a nameless, faceless, mostly ignored cog in the machine is usually just a source of mental anguish. For one Buffalo government employee, though, it was that anonymity and indifference that paved her path to a payday. Jill Repman worked as a clerk in the fire department when she found herself in trouble for fudging her personal books in order to collect extra money. Little did anyone know that the punishment for that would pay her more than she could have imagined.
She was disciplined by being put on paid administrative leave, probably until they were able to figure out what they intended to do about it. Once she was placed on leave, however, that particular decision slipped between the couch cushions of bureaucracy, where it would remain for over seven years. Seven years during which, despite not performing one iota of work or so much as laying a fingerprint on the front door of her employer, Repman was continuously paid her normal salary. By the time they realized they’d never gotten around to actually firing her, she’d long found a new job, while collecting over $500,000 from the one that forgot to hand her a pink slip.
Vulfpeck’s Silent Album
If you want to offer a vast portion of all music ever recorded for only a couple dollars a month, somebody’s going to have to take a pay cut, and it sure as hell isn’t going to be the CEO who came up with it. In the case of Spotify, it falls to the artists who produced the media that the entire company relies on. Why produce a product at all when you can just sell somebody else’s and tell them to go fuck themselves? Of course, when Spotify created their new, pittance-based pay structure, they also created some loopholes, one of which was spotted by Ann Arbor band Vulfpeck.
Now, with the exception of John Cage, there aren’t many musicians who have found success in releasing music made of pure silence. Mainly because, who would pay for that? With Spotify, however, people didn’t have to pay for it. All they had to do was “listen” to it, ad infinitum, and Spotify was the only one who’d have to fork out any money for those ghost plays. So Vulfpeck released a silent album called Sleepify and encouraged people to leave it on, looping overnight. They ended up collecting roughly $20,000 in royalties from Spotify thanks to everyone casually bumping the sound of silence.
Eli Yudin is a stand-up comedian in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, What A Time to Be Alive, about the five weirdest news stories of the week, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts.