Whenever P.J. O’Rourke travels to war-torn countries, he keeps his ears open for gunfire and his eyes focused on finance.
“Watching people try to kill each other teaches us a very important economic lesson: Everybody’s in this for profit, no matter what crisis is going in,” O’Rourke said during a book event held April 8 by the Colloquium for the Advancement of Free-Enterprise Education (CAFÉ). CAFÉ is a program of the Naveen Jindal School of Management that educates students about the history of economic philosophies, with an emphasis on the workings of free markets.
O’Rourke, a veteran journalist and political satirist, offered a humorous but no-nonsense view of economics for a large group of students, professors and community members in JSOM’s Davidson Auditorium. The author of 19 books ranging from cars to etiquette to the theories of 18th century economist Adam Smith, O’Rourke covered topics from his latest book, None of My Business: P.J. Explains Money, Banking, Debt, Equity, Assets, Liabilities, and Why He’s Not Rich and Neither Are You (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2018 ).
From Iraq to Bosnia to Somalia, O’Rourke's road to economic wisdom has not always been smooth. He described arriving in Beirut to cover the Lebanese civil war in 1984.
“My taxi looked like it was used by Steve McQueen for the breakout in The Great Escape, and when we got to the hotel, the desk clerk asked, ‘Would you like a room on the car-bomb side or the mortar-shell side?’ ” he said.
Despite the carnage, the Lebanese people “still had the economic impulse,” he said, recalling a teen soldier who stuck a gun in O’Rourke’s face and gave him a 20-minute lecture on “the great American Satan” before admitting he wanted a green card to study dentistry in Michigan.
“That kid is probably now a wealthy orthodontist living in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, who voted for Trump,” O’Rourke said. “What I learned in Lebanon is you can’t get rid of the profit motive: Sorry, Marx. Sorry, Lenin. Sorry, Bernie Sanders.”
O’Rourke told several stories of the profit motive run amok. Covering the Albanian civil war in 1997, he learned the conflict was sparked by pyramid schemes “and the bedrock economic principle of the foolish being paid off by the more foolish: Does that remind anyone of Bitcoin?”
He described cryptocurrency as “an invention of outlaw nerds with weaponized slide rules from an evil high school math club who made themselves into darknet billionaires. … That’s money for you. The entire history of money is the history of confusion, and frankly, much of that confusion is deliberate.”
Amid his comic tales of financial mayhem, O’Rourke kept returning to the idea that socialism and government regulations simply do not work.
“The free market is about making the pie bigger, while government is about dividing up the pie until people say, ‘We gotta get our slice of the pie!’ which is a dangerous tendency,” he said.
Dr. Hasan Pirkul, Caruth Chair and Jindal School dean, said authors like O’Rourke can teach students key lessons about defending free-enterprise in a fast-evolving society.
“Times change, and we need thoughtful leaders to address new challenges and defend the free market,” he said. “For our students, there is a significant responsibility on your shoulders.”
Dr. Stan Liebowitz, CAFÉ co-director, said he had been a fan of O’Rourke’s crafty writing style since both were students at Johns Hopkins University in the early 1970s.
“He’s very funny, but he’s not just about humor,” Liebowitz said. “He takes what he does seriously, does his homework and learns about economic institutions so he can then pretend to his readers that he doesn’t know anything and make jokes.”
Dr. Peter Lewin, also a CAFÉ director, said the business world needs more lampooning by people like O’Rourke.
“We’re delighted to have O’Rourke, an eminent satirist who has as a way of painting the world in a way that’s both humorous and profound,” Lewin said. “Intelligence is important. But humor enables you to examine situations with greater objectivity and perspective. If you don’t have a sense of humor about business, you’re not going to do as well.”