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Books: Economics for comics

Books | A conservative satirist lampoons the global economy

Issue: "Exodus from Disney," Nov. 7, 1998

Eat the Rich is, like most of conservative humorist P. J. O'Rourke's other books, actually informative in small and odd ways. This latest, which is starting to show up on bestseller lists, comes very near to being a good primer on economic theory. "I had one fundamental question about economics," Mr. O'Rourke begins. "Why are some places wealthy and other places poor?" The most obvious reasons are unsatisfying, he contends. "It's not a matter of brains. No part of the earth (with the possible exception of Brentwood) is dumber than Beverly Hills, and the residents are wading in gravy. In Russia, meanwhile, where chess is a spectator sport, they're boiling stones for soup.... Natural resources aren't the answer. Africa has diamonds, gold, uranium, you name it. Scandinavia has little and is frozen, besides." Armed with a notebook and a Rolling Stone credit card, Mr. O'Rourke went out to test his theory. His first stop was Wall Street. And along the way, he does a surprisingly good job of explaining some important economic principles and terms to the reader. "The reason you go broke in the commodities market-or die from the cholesterol in sausage [made from your excess pork bellies futures]-is because you're betting you know more than the actual producers and consumers of the commodity," he writes. He gets more theoretical when he reaches Albania (where a failed national ponzi scheme has decimated the economy), Sweden (where the massive welfare state threatens to smother the economy), and Cuba (where the economy has simply been outlawed). "Finding out what the Cuban peso is worth is a complex economic calculation," he writes. "To put it in layman's terms, a pretty close approximation is nothing. Pesos are of use almost exclusively for buying rationed goods. The Cuban rationing system is simple: they're out of everything." Eventually, he turns his sharpened pen on the grand economic theories themselves: "Marxism has had such an impact on this century and remains, even after the fall of the Soviet bloc, such a potent intellectual force that we tend to forget how loony are its fundamental tenets." The big difference between capitalism and communism, he explains, is the theory of value. Marx said "the value of a product is determined by the work required for its production." Capitalism says a product is worth whatever some sucker will give for it. And this brings up a greater question: How are we to value P. J. O'Rourke? We social conservatives never know quite what to make of this self-styled Republican Party Reptile. The GOP, in fact, encourages us to downplay our differences with our libertarian brothers-in-arms; but P. J., if I may call him that, is not so much a brother-in-arms as a brother-in-law. He's loud, he visits too often, he raids the fridge, and he teaches the children to cuss. But he's family, and he is entertaining. It helps to know something about P. J. For one thing, his style of conservatism is not very far removed from his style of liberalism. In his youth, he believed in free love, cheap dope, and government checks for everyone. He seems less to have changed his ideology than to have realized that he had little chance of getting any of those three commodities. But it's great fun to watch P. J. come ever closer to the fold. He grudgingly admits, "the prosaic, depressing, and somewhat shameful fact is that the secret to getting ahead is just what my parents told me it was"-hard work, responsibility, property rights, and the rule of law. He ends this book quoting not only Adam Smith and Milton Friedman, but even the Old Testament. "I have been thinking-in socioeconomic terms-about the Tenth Commandment [Thou shalt not covet].... Think about how important to the well-being of a community this commandment is. If you want a donkey, if you want a pot roast, if you want a cleaning lady, don't [expletive deleted] about what the people across the street have. Go get your own."

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