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From Barnes & NobleOur Review
P. J. O'Rourke is confused about economics. "Why," he wonders in the first paragraph of his new book, Eat the Rich, "are some places prosperous and thriving while others just suck?" As he gropes for an answer to this question, he comes to a staggering realization: Like most of us, he doesn't know diddly about money. After a few abortive attempts at the textbooks he managed to avoid throughout college, he quickly sees that the only way to educate himself will be to go to those places where he could actually see economics in action -- to investigate societies with all different kinds of economic systems, some that have succeeded and others that are complete disasters, and discover what makes them tick. A global economics field trip!
If there is one thing you can trust P. J. O'Rourke to do particularly well (as anyone who has read his contributions as the foreign affairs desk chief of Rolling Stone can attest), it is to go to strange places, hang out with some locals, and make clever, biting remarks about the native population and its quaint and/or exotic habits of living. For this kind of travel writing, there's simply no one better. O'Rourke is also particularly good with the general slandering of politics and the machinations of those in power. In Eat the Rich he combines these two strengths, and the result is a tour de force -- perhaps the funniest book he's ever written.
And so he's off; it's a pilgrimage, really, to cure himself of economic ignorance. First stop, naturally: Wall Street, for an example of "good capitalism." He spends some time on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and his description of its ordered chaos is destined to be a classic. He also interviews financial types of various castes, to get a feel for the terrain. As always, he's fast and loose with an analogy: "'People put their money where their thoughts are,' said one investment banker I interviewed. This means that there are a a lot of men who are, so to speak, in financial topless bars, sticking millions of dollars into the G-strings of lap-dancing debts and equities."
In the next chapter he contrasts this with a trip to Albania -- "bad capitalism" at its very worst. Where as Wall Street as the standard-bearer of capitalism is epitomized by the NYSE, Albania, whose newly-free market was brought to its anarchic knees in 1997 by the collapse of multiple crooked pyramid schemes, is epitomized by the pandemonium of Skenderbeg Square in the center of Tirana, the Albanian capital.
"Sheshi Skenderbej" is an all-concrete piazza the size of a nine hole golf course. A dozen streets empty into it. From each street come multitudes of drivers going as fast as they can in any direction they want. Cars head everywhere. Cars box the compass. The pull U-ies, hand Louies, make Roscoes do donuts. Tires peel and skid. Bicycles scatter. Pushcarts jump the curbs. Brakes scream. Bumpers whallop. Fenders munch. Headlight glass tinkles merrily on the pavement. There's a lot of yelling.
Arming himself with a local guide he tries to get to the bottom of how Albania's economic situation has made it what it is. Then he does the same in Sweden and Cuba (good socialism and bad socialism), Russia, Tanzania, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, with several pauses in between to assess the lessons he's learned and the damage he's seen.
One could easily conclude that O'Rourke decided to write this book in order to score free vacations to some unusual locales; whether or not that's true, I couldn't care less. His descriptions of these places and their spastic economies are priceless. Eat the Rich is part travelogue, part treatise on the politics of money, and one of the funniest books you will ever read.