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Kilkenny, in Ireland, the Land of My Fathers, hosts an annual festival named Kilkenomics. It describes itself as “the world’s first economics & comedy festival”. The first time I read about this, I thought “There’s a good reason for that”: economics isn’t very funny. The page below comes from one of my undergrad textbooks. If you can find a punchline there, you’re doing better than me.
You can count the number of funny books about economics on two fingers. And P. J. O’Rourke wrote both of them. His latest is None of My Business.
The cover promises that P. J. will explain “Money, Banking, Debt, Equity, Assets, Liabilities, and Why He’s Not Rich and Neither Are You”. The book doesn’t quite deliver on this. There are some good sections on monetary economics, such as the value of ‘hard’ money, the troubles of negatives of negative interest rates. But it illustrates the rest with references to personal examples which, while funny, will hopefully have occurred to any reasonably intelligent person already. This is a book to be read more for entertainment than enlightenment.
For that, you should track down his 1998 masterpiece Eat the Rich. Traveling the world, O’Rourke finds ‘good capitalism’ on Wall Street and ‘bad capitalism’ in Albania. He finds ‘good socialism’ in Sweden and ‘bad socialism’ in Cuba. What matters, he argues, are institutions, which economists usually define as ‘the rules of the game’. In this, O’Rourke is actually in agreement with the mainstream of economic development literature of the last 30 years or so, from the work of Douglass North to that of Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. In Eat the Rich, O’Rourke presents a sophisticated argument which has been at the forefront of economic research and makes you laugh along the way. No mean feat. You’ll even find a page with a punchline.
Funny and true.
John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.