P.J. O’Rourke has never been afraid to tackle big subjects. Previous books have attempted to explain the entire US Government, refute the arguments of the environmental lobby, and describe the bits of the Gulf War that CNN wouldn’t broadcast. With his latest book, “Eat The Rich”, PJ sets his sights on possibly the biggest question of them all: “Why do some places prosper and thrive, while others just suck?”
To answer this question O’Rourke embarks on more globetrotting, this time calling in at Cuba, Tanzania, Russia, Sweden and Hong Kong – among others – to try and find out why some countries are obscenely successful and others aren’t. How can the tiny island of Hong Kong be such an economic success while Tanzania, rich in natural resources, is a dismal failure?
Despite the serious subject matter, O’Rourke gleefully takes pot-shots at every target he can find, whether describing Russian Mafia wives as having “covered their bodies in Elmer’s Glue and run through the boutiques of Palm Springs buying whatever stuck” or pointing out the flaws in economic theory. “A society can produce both guns and butter, they say, but if the society wants to produce more guns it will have to – because of distribution of resources, capital and labor – produce less butter. Using this example you’ll notice that, at the far reaches of gun-producing efficiency, Howitzers are being manufactured by cows. And this is just one of the reasons we can’t take economists too seriously.”
PJ’s particular skill is that the jokes don’t distract from the stories he recounts. Even as he attacks sacred cows left, right and centre (“maybe Hong Kong just wasn’t one of those vital, strategic places worth fighting for, like the Falklands. Maybe the Poms only intervene militarily where there’s enough sheep to keep the troops entertained”) he writes movingly about the human wreckage left behind by failed political and economic experiments. In Albania he discovers the only economy to have been bankrupted by pyramid selling schemes; in Russia he discovers a twisted form of capitalism where “the only way to enforce a contract is, as it were, with a ‘contract’ – and plenty of enforcers”.
The self-proclaimed Republican Party Reptile is equally savage towards his own country and, in particular, the barely comprehensible world of the stock market. Shares, he explains, entitle you to a share of a company’s profit – “specifically, you get the profits that are left after the corporation settles its tax bill, pays off its bond debts and other prior obligations, gives enormous bonuses to its top executives, uses part of its earnings to buy other corporations and Indonesian real estate, and retains another part of its earnings in case it needs to buy more Indonesian real estate”.
In conversation with Spike’s Chris Mitchell in 1997, O’Rourke explained that he wanted to write a book about economics which was fun to read. “At least here I’m dealing with human endeavour to better oneself and one’s time, rather than the human endeavour to whack each other over the head. It should be a bit more optimistic”. You read it here first, folks.
In “Eat The Rich” he succeeds in making economics amusing – often hysterically so – but his optimism faces stiff opposition. Everywhere he travels he meets people who are trying to survive while governments of all political hues continue to create chaos by meddling with things they don’t understand. Ultimately, though, “Eat The Rich” is prime-time PJ, full of the sharp humour and vicious satire which characterises his best writing.