Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Book Review: P.J. O'Rourke on the Wealth of Nations

(This was my last Blogjob blog post, and its tags were Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral SentimentsAdam Smith’s Wealth of Nationsdivision of laboreconomic value of self-interesteconomicsfirst year economics classintroduction to economics for reluctant studentsP.J. O’Rourke. Note that here and elsewhere I added an S...Some languages don't use plural forms. Native speakers of those languages can often be recognized by writing things like "one student, two student" in English. I am not a native speaker of any of those languages. I left the tags on Blogjob the way Blogjob seemed to want them to be; here, I feel that leaving them that way might be misleading.)

Title: P.J. O'Rourke on the Wealth of Nations 
Author: P.J. O'Rourke
Date: 2007
Publisher: Grove / Atlantic Monthly
ISBN: 978-0-87113-949-8
Length: 195 pages of text plus 47 pages of quotes, references, and index
Quote: "That self-interest makes the world go round has been tacitly acknowledged since the world began going round."
As an explanation of what's in humorist P.J. O'Rourke's digest version of The Wealth of Nations, it's hard to improve on the blurb on the dust jacket. "The Wealth of Nations was first published in 1776 and almost instantly it was recognized as fundamental to an understanding of economics. It was also recognized as being really long...over nine hundred pages...and...you also need to peruse Smith's earlier doorstopper, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. But now you don't have to read either...P.J. has done it for you. He has slogged through all of Smith's works."
Fair disclosure: Tenth grade economics put me to sleep faster than any other subject to which I was ever exposed. Proof: I "read" the teacher's very own anti-Communist tract--required--and felt rebellious and wrote a pro-Communist term paper and took an F for the course. Nobody has to be fifteen years old forever and eventually, after a few more years of neurological maturation, I was happily married to a certified Economist. Our home was full of books about economics. I actually read some of them. I even read The Wealth of Nations, in a consciously clueless fashion similar to the way I've been reading a collection of Renaissance Spanish poetry. The main thing I learned was that I was glad my husband had "retired" from practicing economics and found happiness as a middle school tutor in the D.C. school system.
But if P.J. O'Rourke had been teaching that tenth grade economics course, I think I would have learned something, even at fifteen.
O'Rourke achieved fame as a gonzo reporter, unreliable narrator, self-proclaimed 1960's drug experimenter, probably best known for outrageous road trip stories published in Car & Driver and Rolling Stone. It's hard to imagine how he'd write if he were serious; unlike Dave Barry, he's not published a straight "my son was injured in an accident and I have nothing funny to say" column (so far as I know). You have to get this book and read it to see how. It's quite a feat. He manages to be serious and seriously funny at the same time.
"[I]t is never a question of folly, sacrilege, or vulgarity to better our circumstances. The question is how to do it."
"Coercion destroys the mutually beneficial nature of trade, which destroys the trading, which destroys the division of labor, which destroys our self-interest."
"Adam Smith's flow of goods and services needs to be accompanied by at least the threat of another flow--getting a drink thrown in my face."
"Smith, the lonely  pioneer, is sodbusting the vast untilled prairies of econometrics. There was hardly such a thing as a reliable statistic in the eighteenth century."
"As Smith himself declared in Moral Sentiments, "We may often fulfil all the rules of justice by sitting still and doing nothing.""
This tribute to two of the most ponderous, abstract, soporific Great Books ever written will keep readers awake, give non-economists enough understanding of Smith's ideas to quote at parties, and even guide potential economists through Smith's books and/or tenth grade (or, these days, undergraduate) economics class. Smith had his lively moments. O'Rourke highlights them, and summarizes the long dull patches between them in a readable, memorable way.
If this were a new book, it'd be worth Tweeting my way through, the way I keep trying to do with The Conservative Heart (I'm still on page 126; bear with me, Tweeps). It's not a new book any more. It is, therefore, a Fair Trade Book. I have one copy at home with which I don't intend to part. I have access, via Amazon, to additional copies I'd be delighted to retail to you, for the usual $5 per book + $5 per package for shipping, for a total of $10, of which I'll send $1 to O'Rourke or a charity of his choice. (If I can track him down, anyway; Laura Ingraham has yet to choose a charity here.) Four copies at one time would thus add up to a total of $25, which you would send to either of the addresses that should be showing in the upper left-hand corner of the screen, and O'Rourke or his charity would get $4. And that option is seriously recommended to anyone taking or teaching a first course in economics; this is the book that will set students on their feet, eyes open, ready to absorb information about subsequent economic theories. 
(Update: you can now pay with an Amazon giftcard as well as by Paypal or U.S. postal order, but if using either online option, you need to add $1 to the total. If using a postal money order, you pay a comparable surcharge directly to the post office, so go ahead and send me $10 or $25.)
For forty-some years I would never have imagined I'd recommend any book about economic theory as a fun read. But this one is.