“None of My Business: P.J. Explains Money, Banking, Debt, Equity, Assets, Liabilities, and Why He’s Not Rich and Neither Are You”
By P.J. O’Rourke
Atlantic Monthly Press
242 pages, $27
Sooner or later, in any gathering, pops up the subject of the hour — money, the pablum of American life.
P.J. O’Rourke, a longtime Sharon resident, tackles the subject and more in his latest creative satirical writings. He sees the solution of how to get more money, that is, “to claw your way up the corporate ladder, succeed beyond your wildest dreams, and amass an enormous fortune. Hey. You’ve got the right book in your hands!”
Once again, O’Rourke emerges from the woods with secret revelations, such as:
“A great thing about economics is how it’s like live crabs in a pot of boiling water. If one of the crabs almost makes it out of the pot, the others will pull him back down.”
He offers up this observation in his latest book of laughs, “None of my Business.”
O’Rourke’s business-major wife turns to their children and says, “If you really want to get rich, listen to your father. Listen especially carefully when he says, ‘That’ll never catch on.’ For example, your father asks, ‘A phone that connects to the Internet? What for? I’ve got a computer at home. That’ll never catch on.’ He asks: ‘A face-book? Why would anyone want a book full of faces? That’ll never catch on.’ ”
His wife advises their three adolescent children: “Just listen to your father. And whenever he says, ‘That’ll never catch on,’ invest every penny you’ve got.”
O’Rourke adds more than a touch of humor in this one, confirming that within every court jester breathes a Hamlet. As in: Lesson 1: The Power of the Economic Impulse.
“The first time I went to a war zone,” he writes, “was in 1984 during the Lebanese Civil War. Everybody needed a way to get money — combatants, warlords, spies, and other personnel into (and out of) the country they were tearing apart.”
On the other hand, O’Rourke says, one cannot inspect politics at close range for long without overturning the rock of economics and making fun of the squirmy, slimy things that live there. Some fun-slingers read about economics on their own or take Economics 101 in college. Others are students at a tougher school — the well-known Academy of Feeding a Family — and follow different paths.
“I filed stories for Rolling Stone, The Atlantic Monthly and The Weekly Standard. I reported on wars, elections, coups, riots, civic disturbances, persecutions, oppression, and other human unpleasantness. My job, phony-baloney as it may have been, was, basically, to watch people try to kill each other,” he writes.
Watching people try to kill each other teaches important economic lessons. For instance, when he finally got to the Commodore Hotel, the unofficial headquarters of the foreign press in Lebanon, the smiling Commodore bell clerk asked O’Rourke, “Would you like a room on the car-bomb side of the hotel or on the mortar-shell side?”
The Lebanese Civil War lasted from 1975 until 1990.
In 1975 and 1976 the center of Beirut, known then as the Paris of the Middle East, was reduced to rubble. Thousands of people died. The country’s government collapsed. Then the Middle East being the Middle East, things got worse. Syria invaded one end of Lebanon and Israel invaded the other.
“Economics was not on my mind,” O’Rourke recalled. “Of course, Lebanon did have an economy. Otherwise, all the Lebanese who weren’t dead from civil war would have died from starvation.”
While O’Rourke was working on his article about the Lebanese Civil War causing “terrible losses,” he traveled to the southern suburbs of Beirut to interview people about the political, religious and ethnic issues that led to the fighting that included 14- and 15-year-olds twirling AK-47s around.
When a teenager saw O’Rourke’s American passport, he became furious: “He stuck the AK-47s barrel inches from my nose,” P.J. writes, “and subjected me to a 20-minute tirade about the Great American Satan Devil. I was berated at gunpoint of how America had caused war, famine, injustice, poverty, and Zionism all over the world.”
Then, in a normal tone, the boy said that when he got his green card he planned to go to Dearborn, Mich., “to study dentist school.”
Continues O’Rourke: “Bless the power of the economic impulse: Today that kid probably is a wealthy orthodontist living in Bloomfield Hills. And I’ll bet he votes Republican.”
Lesson 2: The Real Secret Behind All Investment Scams.
In 1997, P.J. went to Albania to cover the complete collapse of the Albanian economy and, hence, Albania.
The scams, he found, “were simple pyramid, or ‘Ponzi,’ schemes. The scammers promised foolishly high investment returns. Foolish investors were paid off with money from more foolish investors: The more foolish were paid off with money from the more foolish yet.”
O’Rourke encountered outraged Albanians and violent protests. The government banned public meetings. Then the army was ordered to shoot. Then all the soldiers deserted. Then the military arsenal was looted. The Albanian military was armed with 1.5 million rifles, pistols, and machine guns, all stolen with 10.5 billion rounds of ammunition. Theft transmogrified into pillage. The railroad to Montenegro was stolen; the track was torn up and sold for scrap. Pillage degenerated into vandalism. Schools, museums, and hospitals were wrecked. Bridges demolished; power lines pulled down.
Albania turned into bits.
An American wire service reporter at the hotel bar said of the locals, “They’ll rob you.” The moment he said that a neophyte British television producer limped in and told us he’d just lost a car, a TV camera, and $5,000.
Then in February 1997, five of the nine large pyramid schemes and all the small ones failed. The remaining four quit paying interest and froze account withdrawals. An estimated $1.5 billion disappeared, which equaled half the Albanian gross domestic product.
How could a whole nation be essentially destroyed by a chain letter?
“It took me less than an hour to find out,” writes O’Rourke.
People in Albania knew about such things, he found. So much money could not be made honestly.
The lesson, O’Rourke concluded: “Albanians didn’t believe they were victims of a scam. They believed they were the perpetrators.”