P.J. O'Rourke on Math
By David Henderson
Warning: I normally post on one thing at a time. This is more stream of consciousness than I’m used to doing.
My favorite P.J. O’Rourke book is Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics, written in 1998. In my review of the book, I wrote:
O’Rourke addresses the most important question in economics: “Why do some places prosper and thrive while others just suck?”Adam Smith dealt with that same question. So think of O’Rourke as a modern Adam Smith, with these two differences: O’Rourke’s data are more recent, and you’ll get side-splitting laughs on every page.
Immediately after asking the question above, O’Rourke writes:
It’s not a matter of brains. No part of the earth (with the possible exception of Brentwood) is dumber than Beverly Hills, and the residents are wading in gravy. In Russia, meanwhile, where chess is a spectator sport, they’re boiling stones for soup. Nor can education be the reason. Fourth graders in the American school system know what a condom is but aren’t sure about 9 x 7.
I thought of that last line while reading co-blogger Bryan Caplan’s latest post and the many particularly good comments on that post.
My own view on the issue is agnostic. But it certainly is true that many people in many fields can go far without much math. I do see my students in an MBA program hampered in their understanding by not remembering basic algebra, but they are rarely hampered by not understanding calculus.
Incidentally, while rereading my 17-year-old review of Eat the Rich, I found two more of my favorite paragraphs from my review, which highlighted some of my favorite content in O’Rourke’s book:
Why not figure out what makes economies rich by reading an economics textbook? O’Rourke lists a number of reasons, one of which is the prose style of the typical economics text: “puerile and impenetrable, Goodnight Moon rewritten by Henry James.”
Style isn’t O’Rourke’s only objection to economics textbooks; he says the content is typically questionable, too. O’Rourke quotes famous MIT economist Paul Samuelson: “Marx was wrong about many things.. .but that does not diminish his stature as an important economist.” Asks O’Rourke: “Well, what would? If Marx was wrong about many things and screwed the baby-sitter?”
I hadn’t known this when I wrote the review–I’m not sure whether O’Rourke did either–but it turns out that Marx actually did screw, and impregnate, the baby-sitter.
Oh, and while I’m at it, here’s a quote from O’Rourke about micro- and macro-economics:
That is, microeconomics concerns things that economists are specifically wrong about, while macroeconomics concerns things economists are wrong about generally.
Does that sound familiar. It will if you have seen Yoram Bauman’s stand-up routine (at the 0.34 point.)
Postscript: My post on Robert Murphy on math in economics.