Reading P.J. O’Rourke’s new book is a lot like gorging on a bag of potato chips: they taste great at the time, but they leave you feeling still hungry, slightly guilty and with a peculiar taste in your mouth. Eat the Rich is essentially a series of stand-alone essays, a travelogue focused on economic conditions in various countries. A self-described “economic idiot,” O’Rourke has set out to explore why some places “prosper and thrive, while others just suck.” The American writer neatly bisects the world into examples of “good” and “bad” socialism and capitalism, with a clear bias in favor of free, unfettered markets. This odyssey, recounted in his distinctive, sardonic style, takes O’Rourke from Russia to Tanzania, from Cuba to Sweden, in search of answers—and excuses for brittle one-liners at the expense of the locals.
O’Rourke’s first stop is Wall Street, which he upholds as the purest example of free-market capitalism. Visiting the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, he makes the requisite quips about the littering, the ugly outfits and bad language. He also provides a cleverly simplistic synopsis of the recent Asian crisis in financial markets. But lack of analysis and insight leave the reader with such clichéd conclusions as, ‘The investment industry creates panic and euphoria.” As with subsequent chapters, this one relies too much on clustered numbers and facts, the sort one finds in official publicity packages and data searches. “The New York Stock Exchange does $23 billion in business on an average day,” he reports. “There are 207 billion shares registered on the New York Stock Exchange . . . More than $1 trillion of international currency changes hands every day.”
He fares much better in his take on Hong Kong-style capitalism, a “stewing pandemonium” that is “socialism’s perfect opposite.” An accomplished travel writer, O’Rourke captures the manic energy of the city-state and its laissez-faire system, which offers “hardly enough welfare to keep one U.S. trailer park in satellite dishes and Marlboro Lights.” While lamenting the 1997 hand-over
of Hong Kong to China’s Communist regime, O’Rourke remains sanguine about the impact of the Asian crisis. He observes that “a mere continent-wide financial collapse is unlikely to faze the people of Hong Kong.”
He does, however, have grave reservations about the effect of China’s rule. O’Rourke has a scathing view of China’s hybrid version of capitalism, specifically its manifestation in Shanghai. He compares the squalid tenements with the city’s rabid commercialization, pronouncing, “A free market is a natural evolution of freedom. There’s a missing link in Shanghai.” Unlike the Darwinian economy of Hong Kong, Shanghai is creationist, its prosperity bestowed by—and subject to—a higher power: the state.
For someone who claims to be an economic neophyte, O’Rourke has strong views about such matters as state intervention in economic affairs. He uses his travels to Cuba and Sweden to bolster his case against government-run economies, although Sweden’s “good socialism” is depicted as more bumbling and less inherently evil than Castro’s regime.
In fact, O’Rourke’s take on Sweden is especially resonant for Canadians because it examines a parallel, albeit more extreme, socioeconomic model. It is a snapshot of what Canada was poised to become before the deficit crisis of the early 1990s curtailed government spending and brought many of its programs to an abrupt end. Among other similarities, Sweden has a national sales tax on goods and services—25 per cent, as compared with Canada’s seven-per-cent GST— and a high unemployment rate of 13 per cent compared with Canada’s 8.3-per-cent rate. It
also has an exceptionally polite population and a full-fledged identity crisis, both of which have been attributed to Canada as well.
The chapter on Sweden is one of the few in which O’Rourke breaks away from smartmouth commentary and cribbed statistics to offer some fresh context. He observes, for example, that dating back to the time of the Vikings, Swedes have had a deeply-ingrained tradition of communal decision-making. As a result, a dominant role for government is an accepted part of community life.
A piece about modern Russia’s version of community life is perhaps the most vivid and instructive part of O’Rourke’s book. It is particularly relevant in light of that country’s recent economic collapse—which is foreshadowed in the author’s depiction of a newly-liberated economy run amok. While cataloging the damage done by decades of central planning and consumer deprivation, O’Rourke’s portrait of inadequate infrastructure and weakly-rooted reforms overlaid by hyperbolic growth and expectations is simultaneously amusing and alarming.
In the end, however, O’Rourke fails to pull together all the disparate pieces of Eat the Rich. And he never really does resolve the reasons for the ups and downs of the global economy. In the book’s banal conclusion, he declares that the modern industrial economy works, although it works better in some places than others. O’Rourke also offers up the obvious insight that hard work, education, responsibility, rule-of-law democracy and property rights are imperative for economic success. Pass the chips.
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