Last night I was part of an audience for a recording of BBC World Book Club featuring PJ O’Rourke talking about Eat The Rich, his book on economics, published in 1997.
My question was:
You list the following as the foundations of a modern industrial economy: hard work, education, responsibility, property rights, rule of law, and democratic government. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the American standard of living has been falling since 1973. In which of these six areas do you think the United States has changed for the worse, and what could be done to reverse the trend?
He didn’t much like that one, and slipped off the hook by disputing government statistics as a whole. He pointed at the preponderance of electronic entertainment devices – from music players to flat-screen TVs – as evidence of an advance, then sought refuge in the rise of single parenthood, marital breakdown and the rise of drug abuse as evidence of a fall in societal standards. He deftly declared psychology and sociology beyond his remit or knowledge to try to avoid further discussion. Harriett Gilbert, WBC’s marvellous host, did try to pin him back on the hook, but PJ’s a wily fellow.
A question from my friend Efua Meadows Smith in Ghana was a good one:
Ghana is rich in mineral resources, particularly gold. Recently we discovered large oil reserves off the coast. Given that we actually have an honest government which has been stamping out corruption, what would you recommend we do with the extra money in order to secure our future economic wellbeing; spend it on health, infrastructure, or education?
PJ talked knowledgeably about unnecessary mortality due to diarrhoea, and the cheapness – 35c per instance – of the cure. Education was his investment of choice, using Scotland in the Eighteenth century as an example.
I stayed to talk with Harriett and then realised that I was the only ‘civilian’ left. PJ revealed he’d been up at five that morning due to mild food-poisoning. Whilst we waited for the lift I entertained him with an old joke from university days: the questions in the Economics exam are the same every year; only the answers change. The lift arrived. I remarked that it was signed as being the evacuation lift, and that his bowel problems should thus be cured instantly. I’m glad to report that he roared with laughter at my gags. Apparently he’s the second most-quoted person in the Penguin Dictionary of Humorous Quotations (Oscar Wilde being number one). I’ll keep an eye on any new additions…
The show airs on February 5th, 2011, and will be available to download as a podcast.