by Bruce TierneySeptember, 1998
Over the past several years, journalist/essayist/satirist P.J. O'Rourke has tickled our collective funny bone with his views on liberals, Republicans, war, politics (and politicians), automobiles, government, and manners. He has written for a wide array of magazines, ranging from Rolling Stone to the New Republic, from Car and Driver to Vanity Fair. In his latest work, Eat the Rich, O'Rourke takes on the subject of economics, I wanted to know why some parts of the earth prosper and others suck, he says. So, armed with nothing but wads of cash and the goodwill of his publishers, O'Rourke spent a couple of years investigating the vagaries of economies around the world. From Sweden to Albania, Cuba to Tanzania, he crisscrossed the globe, finding fact and humor in more or less equal measure.
For O'Rourke, as with many of his generation, the topic of economics was first raised by his parents, who had grown up during the depression: . . . Booms and busts can have larger consequences, such as in 1929 when stocks were crashing, banks were collapsing, and President Hoover was hoovering around. Pretty soon you could buy the New York Central Railroad for a wooden nickel, except nobody could afford wood. People had to make their own nickels at home out of old socks which had also been boiled, along with the one remaining family shoe, to make last night's dinner. So the kids had to walk to school with pots and pans on their feet through miles of deep snow because no one had the money for good weather. My generation has heard about this in great detail from our parents, which is why we put them in nursing homes. On his visit to Cuba, O'Rourke writes, Figuring out what the Cuban peso is worth is a complex economic calculation. To put it in layman's terms, a pretty close approximation is nothing. In Moscow, O'Rourke was able to find free-range chicken and Italian food authentic enough to satisfy the Corleone family, but there were virtually no Russian products in sight. For, as the Russians have discovered a free-market economy (mas o menos), they have also discovered brand names. Easy to sneer at this, opines O'Rourke, But there's a reason why, when we go to Florida, we don't drink Ocala Cola. It is perhaps difficult for Americans to grasp, but Russia never had a Renaissance, never had a Reformation . . . Russia never had a Roaring '20's, a Booming '50's, a Swinging '60's, or a Me Generation. There was just one Them Generation after another. In Albania, O'Rourke explores how the entire (meager) holdings of a small country were gambled away in a sophisticated pyramid scheme. In Hong Kong, he wonders at the short-sightedness that would allow the British to give up one of the wealthiest colonies on the planet, Why didn't the British give some other islands to China? Britain, for instance. This would get the UK back on a capitalist course Beijing being more interested in money-making than Tony Blair. Anyone familiar with O'Rourke's recent books will be able to make a pretty accurate guess at his views, but he makes a good case for his conclusions, drawing from both his own experiences and the writings of the world's premier economists. And, as usual, he takes a dry topic and moistens it with a liberal (oops, conservative) dollop of humor.