The Magazine

The Mighty Dollar

A wealth of worthless observations about money.

Dec 12, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 13 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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Further bungling numbers, Roberts cites UCLA’s annual survey of freshmen. In 2010, 77 percent of the college kids said they thought it was important to be “very well-off financially.” In 1980, 62.5 percent thought so. And in 1966, 42 percent were of that opinion. To Roberts, this proves that everything in America is getting worse; to a parent, this proves that kids are getting smarter.

Roberts is no kid. What his Ph.D. is in, I don’t know; but if it’s economics, he skipped some required reading: The Wealth of Nations, Book IV, Chapter 8, “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production.”

The argument of Shiny Objects (such as it is) is complete by page 12. The text in the remaining 300-odd pages alternates between the stupidly obvious—“The 1920s were a time of great upheaval”—and the stupid—“.  .  . the federal budget rose from $9 billion in 1939 to $100 billion by 1945, and much of this money fell into the hands of the American people.” Pray tell, from whose hands had it risen? There is also much larding with quizzes you can take to find out if you’re a naughty spendthrift with crap values. (You are.) 

Roberts concludes with an exercise in secular piety patronizing enough to cause any feeling undergraduate to stink-bomb the social science department:

Psychologist Clayton Tucker-Ladd has asked hundreds of college students the question below, which I would now like to ask you:

Is it morally just and fair to be free to have plenty to eat, nice clothes, luxuries, time and money for fun, TV, and comforts, while others in the world are starving, uneducated, and in poor health?

CIRCLE ONE   Yes   No

Oh, chain me to the garden gate, dump the fridge, the breadbox, and the canned goods down at the end of the driveway, lay out my Casual Friday duds, pour the Chivas in the sink, throw my cash to the winds, waste my waking hours in idle gloom, rip the satellite dish from the rooftop, put a pea under every mattress and everything will be okey-dokey for Zimbabweans.

It was, as you can well imagine, with glad relief that I turned to Against Thrift by James Livingston. “Less work, less thrift, more leisure, and more spending are the cures for what ails us,” says Livingston. I’m all ears. Then, just two paragraphs later, comes, “.  .  . a redistribution of national income away from profits, which don’t always get invested, toward wages, which almost always get spent.” You’re losing me, Jim. And a couple of sentences along, “.  .  . higher profits almost never lead to more investment, more jobs, and more growth [italics his] .  .  . so cutting taxes on corporate profits is pointless at best and destructive at worst.”

Forget you.

Against Thrift is ladled out of the same reeking pot of leftover, reheated socialist bean stew as Shiny Objects, though better written. Not that you’d want to read it: Begin with a glance and a groan at the phrase “alienated labor” on page xi of the introduction and go straight to the spectacularly predictable conclusion on page 210: “If we want to prevent another economic disaster, and to promise balanced, sustainable growth, we must create .  .  . a more equal, more democratic America—by redistributing income and socializing investment.” You’ll miss a lot of erudition in between, but it only raises the question of why so much study of Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, and Keynes is needed to be plain wrong.

Livingston seems to be one of those people who actually read Herbert Marcuse while the rest of us were rolling joints and saying we had. (Ours was the wiser choice.) He also read Georges Bataille, the French sometime-poet, surrealist, and pornographer, admirer of de Sade, author of an essay on mysticism in economics, and philosopher so flaky that he was considered a flake by Jean-Paul Sartre. There’s a coda at the end of Against Thrift about how reading Bataille convinced Livingston, a vegetarian, to eat a hamburger.

I don’t know what this has to do with economics, but, then again, I don’t know what anything in either of these books has to do with economics. They do, however, send a strong message. But the message is not to the reading public, government policymakers, or financial titans. The message is to the authors.

Shut up.

P.J. O’Rourke, a Weekly Standard contributing editor, is the author, most recently, of Holidays in Heck.