Humorist P.J. O’Rourke died this morning, at age 74, of lung cancer. As well as being a humorist generally, he was the top economic humorist in the United States.
I loved his book Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics. In a review of the book I wrote somewhere, I said, “So think of O’Rourke as a modern Adam Smith, with these two differences: O’Rourke’s data are more recent, and you’ll get side-splitting laughs on every page.”
My favorite passage is the opening paragraph:
I had one fundamental question about economics: Why do some places prosper and thrive while others just suck? 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. Nor can education be the reason. Fourth graders in the American school system know what a condom is but they’re not sure about 9 x 7. Natural resources aren’t the answer. Africa has diamonds, gold, uranium, you name it. Scandinavia has little and is frozen besides. Maybe culture is the key, but wealthy regions such as the local mall are famous for lacking it.
My second favorite passage, about his trip to the newly emerging Shanghai:
And omnipresent amid all the frenzy of Shanghai is that famous portrait, that modern icon. The faintly smiling, bland, yet somehow threatening visage appears in brilliant red hues on placards and posters, and is painted huge on the sides of buildings. Some call him a genius. Others blame him for the deaths of millions. There are those who say his military reputation was inflated, yet he conquered the mainland in short order. Yes, it’s Colonel Sanders.
My third favorite passage is the part where he discusses economics textbooks and one textbook in particular:
Looking into an economics textbook as an adult is a shock (and a vivid reminder of why we were so glad to get out of school.) The prose style is at once peurile and impenetrable, Goodnight Moon rewritten by Henry James.
And his comments on Economics by Paul A. Samuelson:
And here was another shock. Professor Samuelson, who wrote the early editions by himself, turns out to be almost as much of a goof as my friends and I were in the 1960s. “Marx was the most influential and perceptive critic of the market economy ever,” he says on page seven. Influential, yes. Marx nearly caused World War III. But perceptive? Samuelson continues: “Marx was wrong about many things . . . but that does not diminish his stature as an important economist.” Well, what would? If Marx was wrong about many things and screwed the baby-sitter?
P.J. was not just an economic humorist, though. He was a pretty decent economics thinker. Years ago, I opened, with some skepticism, P.J.’s book On the Wealth of Nations, in which he went through Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations pretty much chapter by chapter. He really got Smith, including a lot of nuances. Indeed, his book helped me realize why I could never get through the sections on taxation in The Wealth of Nations.
I will miss P.J.