Why is it that we are earnest scholars of amorosity and necrosis but turn as vague and fidgety as a study hall in June when the topic is economics? I have several hypotheses, none of them very good.
Love and death are limited and personal. Even when free love was in vogue, only a certain number of people would allow us to practice that freedom upon them. A pious man in the throes of Christian agape may love every creature in the world, but he's unlikely to meet them all. And death is as finite as it gets. It has closure. Plus the death ratio is low, only 1:1 in occurrences per person.
Economics happens a lot more often and involves multitudes of people and uncountable goods and services. Economics is just too complicated. It makes our heads ache. So when anything economic goes awry, we respond in a limited and personal way by searching our suit-coat pockets to see if there are any wadded up fives inside. Then we either pray or vote for Democrats, depending on our personal convictions of faith.
Or maybe economics is so ever present, so pervasive in every aspect of our lives that we don't really perceive it. We fail to identify economics as a distinct entity. We can watch a man slip and fall and almost never hear him say, "God-damned gravity!" And we can watch a man fall ten times and not see him become interested in how gravity works. Almost never does he arise from the eleventh tumble saying, "I went down at a rate of 32ft./[sec..sup.2]--the force being directly proportional to the product of the earth's mass times my weight and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between that patch of ice on the front steps and my butt." And so it is with economics. No amount of losing our jobs or our nest eggs sends us to the library for a copy of John Maynard Keynes's The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money.
The very pervasiveness of economics keeps us from getting intellectual distance on the subject. We can view death from afar for an average of 72.7 years if we're a male American, and 79.5 years if we're a female. Although love is notorious for fuddling the brain, there is matrimony to cool the passions or, failing that, sexual climax will work in the short term. But there is no such thing as a dollargasm. Money is always with us. What am I going to do to take my mind off money? Go shopping? Drink and drugs will cost me. I suppose I can play with the kids. They need new shoes.
Constant money worries have a bad effect on human psychology. I'd argue that there is more unbalanced thinking about finance than about anything else. Death and sex may be the mainstays of psychoanalysis, but note that few shrinks ask to be paid in murders or marriages. People will do some odd things for political or religious reasons, but that's nothing compared to what people will do for a buck. And if you consider how people spend their dough, insane hardly covers it.
Our reactions to cash are nutty even when the cash is half a world away and belongs to perfect strangers. We don't ridicule people for dying. Or, in our hearts, despise them for fooling around. But let a man get rich--especially if it happens quickly and we don't understand how he did it--and we can work ourselves into a fit of psychotic rage. We aren't rational and intelligent about economics because thinking about money has driven us crazy.
I'm as much of a mooncalf as anyone. I certainly had no interest in economics as a kid, as kids don't. Children--lucky children at least--live in that ideal state postulated by Marx, where the rule is, "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." Getting grounded equals being sent to a gulag. Dad in high dudgeon is confused with Joseph Stalin. Then we wonder why so many young people are leftists.
From Eat the Rich, by P. J. O'Rourke. © September 1998 , P. J. O'Rourke. Used by permission.
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