Eat the Rich
by P.J. O'Rourke
Published by Publishers' Group West
320 pages, 1998
Buy it online
Humor, Travelogue, Economics Lesson and Bar Review
"Why do some places prosper while others just suck?" This is the question P.J. O'Rourke sets out to answer in Eat The Rich. He suspects the answer has something to do with money, so he embarks on a mini world tour to find out what. His theory is simple: visit a few places that are rich; like America, Sweden and Hong Kong; and a few places that are poor, like Albania, Cuba and Tanzania, plus a couple of places that don't seem to have decided whether to be rich or poor yet, like Russia and mainland China and he asks the people standing around the place what they're doing and where their money comes from. It's a nice, direct hands-on approach and ever so much more fun than trying to comprehend economics.
When you finish this unique treatise on economics, you will probably know less about the subject than you did when you started, but at least you will feel superior to Albania.
The tour begins with a visit to an example of what O'Rourke calls "Good Capitalism", in this case the New York Stock Exchange. O'Rourke wastes no time and starts off his observations of the Exchange and the people who run it at his patented punchline-per-paragraph rate, but all too soon, I'm afraid, it reaches two punchlines-per-paragraph: a precarious pace. The market is complex however, what with teenies, upticks, derivatives and innumerable other incomprehensible things to try to understand and mock, so his ferocious joke pace is understandable. His bias toward free market principles is on display in his analysis of Wall Street (and indeed throughout the book) and in the end, he seems to feel that investment capitalism should be not regulated by government, or even a select committee of wise and principled individuals like Mario Cuomo, Toni Morrison, Vaclav Havel, Oprah, the Dalai Lama, Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. No, or we could all wind up in North Korea eating tree bark.
But O'Rourke is just warming up. His next stop is an example of what he calls "Bad Capitalism," as we visit Albania, which "has the distinction of being the only country ever destroyed by a chain letter." The Albanian ponzi scheme fiasco is an economic oddity so strange, so vast and unreal, in a country so weird to begin with that one might suspect that a comedy writer invented the whole story. Or the whole country. O'Rourke actually seems a bit nonplussed by the Albanians and their ways, and he almost flails about a bit attempting to decide how to properly ridicule the already ridiculous.
He gets over it when he hits Sweden, "the only country I'd ever been to with no visible crazy people. Where were the mutterers, the twitchers, the loony importunate?" Well, possibly, they've all been democratized, and their illnesses spread evenly throughout the entire population in yet another example of "Good Socialism," as he calls it.
As opposed to "Bad Socialism" which can be experienced in Cuba where the economy is as obvious as the hookers at the bar at the Costa Del Fleabag.
There's a sober pause when O'Rourke ponders, expounds upon and then dismisses some of the more sobering aspects of economic theory in a chapter called "Beatnik to Business Major" (Taking Economy 101 For Kicks), and then we're off again on our travels with the chapter called "How (Or How Not) To Reform (Maybe) An Economy (If There Is One)".
Which is about, of course, Russia. "At least with Russia, no one even pretends to know what they're talking about." And here he hits his stride and starts delivering up to a blistering punchline-per-sentence, and there's still Tanzania, Hong Kong and Singapore yet to tell.
Bottom line, it's a very amusing tome. If you're an O'Rourke fan you probably already have this one. And if you're not familiar with his work, but you like a good laugh, skip the pyramid scheme and invest in this book. | November 1998
Kent Barrett is a writer and journalist with ridiculous opinions on most topics. You can observe the effect firsthand at his den of nonsense at http://www.yes.net/generality. He lives alone in Vancouver, Canada with Land Rights, his cat, and Salmon Agreement, his Alsatian puppy.