it's funny 'cuz it's true:
p.j. o'rourke says it's all good

Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics
P.J. O'Rourke
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 240 pages)
eat the rich cover
buy it
The popularity of satirist P. J. O’Rourke is easy enough to understand.  In bestselling books like Parliament of Whores and All The Trouble in the World he takes on “big issues” like government and geopolitics and reduces them to comic rubble. In essence, anything can be understood, no matter how intimidating or possibly dangerous, if you’re armed with an expense account and the lightning mind of a born smartass.  While many people have one or the other, few have both, and thusly we have a market for P. J. O’Rourke.

In Eat the Rich, O’Rourke takes on another “big issue”, perhaps the most confusing of all in spite of its omnipresence in our lives: economics.  He begins by introducing himself as yet another know-nothing who slept through college Econ 101 courses, and decides that it’s time he plays a bit of catch-up. And so, armed with travel vouchers from the glossy magazines where he works (O’Rourke is the “Foreign Affairs Desk Chief” at Rolling Stone), he sets off around the world to learn about money and, as Adam Smith put it, “the wealth of nations”.

He finds robust, everyman capitalism on Wall Street, and civil war-causing bad capitalism in Albania. He finds good, if troubled socialism in Sweden (too much government regulation), and poverty-inducing bad socialism in Cuba.  He journeys through the economic chaos of Russia and the hopeless poverty of Tanzania, the booming, elysian wealth of Hong Kong and the government-mandated hothouse wealth of Shanghai. He discovers what we already know, and makes it hilarious, with the humourist’s gift of distorting the mundane in a fabulous funhouse mirror.

For those who’ve followed O’Rourke’s writing, it should come as no surprise that he finds the best, the brightest, hope of economic paradise in America, and in any nation that follows its lead to a free, unregulated market fuelled by what O’Rourke assumes is every man and woman’s innate drive to get rich.

O’Rourke is a genuinely funny writer, with an unerring eye for the absurd in any situation, and a persona that can best be described as “Hunter S. Thompson Lite”. He plays the role of the boomer apostate, ruefully recalling the radical idealism of his youth and chuckling with relief that the rest of the world seems to have made the same journey rightward as himself. He gets a lot of mileage out of the icon that dominates the streets of Shanghai, the “faintly smiling, bland yet somehow threatening visage” of - not Chairman Mao, but Colonel Sanders. 

As for actually eating the rich, O'Rourke has no intention of doing any such thing since, as he explains in the joke that closes the book, eating the rich would be destroying the better part of ourselves. O’Rourke’s book is a tricky come-on that cops the attitude of a rebel and shows us that we can have it both ways, adopting a rebel’s sneer while co-opting everything that once seemed so worthy a target of brickbats and scorn.

©1998, 2002 Rick McGinnis