I turned into a square myself, of course, as everyone who lives long enough does. I got a job as a journalist--but without ever considering that journalism was a business. (Although I would have been unpleasantly surprised to get a hug instead of a paycheck at the end of the week.) And I continued to ignore economic issues even though I had a press pass to the most spectacular extravaganza of economics in this century.
It was the 1970s, and the economy was changing almost as often as bed partners. The Great Depression may have been more dramatic, but it was a one-trick pony. In the '70s, globalization suddenly included the other three-quarters of the globe. The places that used to make our windup toys were making our automobiles. Everything was being imported--except oil, which had hitherto been given away free with a windshield wash and a set of highball glasses at most brand-name gas stations. Then, one day, you couldn't buy oil for money. Not that there wasn't plenty of money around in the '70s. It just didn't happen to be worth anything. We had a previously unimaginable combination of fever inflation and hypothermia business slump. You could make more money buying Treasury bills than you could make breaking into the Treasury. The gold standard disappeared from the scene. Maybe it joined a cult. International currency-exchange rates were determined with mood rings. The most powerful nations in the world had, at their helms, an amazing collection of economic nincompoops--Nixon, Carter, Mao, Harold Wilson, Georges Pompidou, Leonid Brezhnev. And the electronic-media revolution was under way so that bad ideas about economics were spreading around the world at neural speed.
I dozed through it. And I was covering politics, too. Even I realized that money was to politicians what the eucalyptus tree is to koala bears: food, water, shelter, and something to crap on. I made a few of the normal journalistic squeaks about greed and self-interest, and let the thing slide.
It wasn't until the 1990s, when I'd been a foreign correspondent for ten years, that I finally noticed economics. I noticed that in a lot of places I went, there wasn't anything you'd call an economy. And I didn't know why. Many of these countries seemed to have everything--except food, water, shelter, and something to crap on.
I decided to go back to the Econ texts I'd finessed in college and figure things out. And my beatnik loathing returned full-blown. Except this time it wasn't the business majors I despised; it was the authors of the books they'd had to study. It turns out that the Econ professors were economic idiots, too.
Looking into a college 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 puerile and impenetrable, Goodnight Moon rewritten by Henry James. The tone varies from condescension worthy of a presidential press conference to sly chumminess worthy of the current president. The professorial wit is duller than the professorial dicta, and these are dulled to unbearable numbness by the need to exhibit professorial self-importance. No idea, however simple--"When there's more of something, it costs less" --can be expressed without rendering it onto a madras sport coat of a graph and translating it into a rebus puzzle full of peculiar signs and notations. Otherwise the science of economics wouldn't seem as profound to outsiders as organic chemistry does. And then, speaking of matters economical, there's the price of these things--$49.95 for a copy of Economics, fifteenth edition, by Paul A. Samuelson and William D. Nordhaus.
Economics has been, as its edition number indicates, in use as an Econ text forever--that is, since 1948, which counts as forever to the baby-boom generation. The book is considered a fossil by many economists, but it has been translated into forty-six languages, and more than 4 million copies have been sold. Economics was what the current leaders of international business and industry were afflicted with in school. 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?
From Eat the Rich, by P. J. O'Rourke. © September 1998 , P. J. O'Rourke. Used by permission.
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