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P.J. O’Rourke
P.J. O’Rourke
Eat the Rich
ISBN: 0871137194
Eat the Rich
A conservative, prosperous, American journalist gadding around the world laughing at all the ways less successful nations screw up their economy—this might not sound like the recipe for a great read, unless you're Rush Limbaugh, but if that journalist is P.J. O'Rourke you can be sure that you'll enjoy the ride even if you don't agree with the politics. Although Eat the Rich is subtitled A Treatise on Economics, O'Rourke spends relatively few pages tackling the complexities of monetary theory. He's much happier when flying from Sweden to Hong Kong to Tanzania to Moscow, gleefully recording every economic goof he can find. When he visits post-Communist Russia and finds a country that is as messed up by capitalism as it was by Communism, O'Rourke mixes jokes about black-market shoes with disturbing insights into a nation on the verge of collapse. P.J. O'Rourke is more than a humorist, he's an experienced international journalist with a lot of frequent-flyer miles, and this gives even his funniest riffs on the world's problems the ring of truth.
—from the publisher's website
Eat the Rich
Program Air Date: January 3, 1999

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: P.J. O'Rourke, author of "Eat The Rich: A Treatise on Economics," at what stage in this book tour are you?
Mr. P.J. O'ROURKE, AUTHOR, "EAT THE RICH": I am at the very, very, very, very, very tag end.
LAMB: Oh, wow, how did we win this one?
Mr. O'ROURKE: I'm not sure. And, you know, it's pretty har--hard to get an Irishman to--to become fully sick of talking about himself. But I have achieved that state.
LAMB: What's it been like? What's the reaction to "Eat The Rich"?
Mr. O'ROURKE: It's--I'm--I'm very glad to say that it's gone well. We were a little worried about bringing out a book on economics in the fall season, which is the usual, you know, I was Princess Di's maid's cousin's boyfriend season, and hideous--all this, you know, unauthorized autobiography time, you know, and rock stars with very rich and varied social lives, spill their guts and--and--and the usual plethora of--of Liz Taylor books. It's hard to compete in the non-fiction department in the fall season, especially a book about economics, something--a subject where people just close down, you know.
LAMB: Where have you been?
Mr. O'ROURKE: On the tour?
LAMB: Yeah.
Mr. O'ROURKE: Where haven't I been? I have not been--I didn't go to Mexico this time. NAFTA, to the contrary, and that's about the only place I haven't been.
LAMB: Where did you just come from?
Mr. O'ROURKE: London. I know more got done with doing this in the--in the United States when my English publisher said, you know, you have to come over here and do the same thing over there. Of course, it's a little easier in England because you--all you do is go down to the BBC building and get moved from studio to studio to cover the entire nation. But, you know, it's--it's--my father was a car salesman, and--and all my uncles were car salesmen--my grandfather. In fact, there's an O'Rourke now who's a fourth generation car salesman in the O'Rourke family. And all I ever wanted in the way of a career--career aspirations--I just didn't want to be a salesman. I was willing to do pretty much anything else. I didn't want be--and then, you think, `Well, I'll never to have to sell anything now, I'm a big author,' you know. But write one and you find out how wrong you are. Course I'd been studying economics, so I should've known that, so...
LAMB: The first time in the book you got my attention was Paul Samuelson. And the reason was because that's the man that wrote my economics book in college.
Mr. O'ROURKE: Don't you still want to kill him?
LAMB: I want--I want you to tell me what he was telling me, and who is he?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Well, Paul Samuelson was a--was an economics professor who basically grew up or came to--to maturity during the--the Roosevelt era. He's an old-fashioned Keynesian, big government, Roosevelt Democrat. Now this is--has to do with why I disagree with him; this does not have to do with why he's a stinky author. But he presented ec--he wrote the--the economics textbook issued at the end of the '40s that was in use for the next--well, it's still in use. But it was for the next 25 years, in particular. It was--it was really the standard textbook. And it is a mathematical and graphic analysis of economics, every idea, no matter how simple. When there's more stuff, it costs less--has to be put on a graph. And in my--my book has one graph, and has a graph of the X--I never remember which is the X axis and which is the Y axis--but one axis is quantity of the unqualifiable and the other axis is quality of the unquantifiable.

And so many of the graphs in Samuelson's book are essentially that. You can read the basic--"The Wealth of Nations," the basic text of modern economics, and there's not any mathematics in it. For a general understanding of economics--it's a social science, it doesn't need any equations. And one of the reasons I think that there are so many equations--well, there are a couple of reasons there's so many equations that we have to memorize if we're going to take economics. One is it prepares you for graduate work because that gets very specific and very technical and measuring the amount of M1 money and M2 money and M14 money and M55 money and all that kind of stuff and--and--and very statistical analysis. And the other thing is that it makes it so much more important.

I think John Maynard Keynes, a brilliant man, knew--what--what he knew was that in the Depression situation that the government had to--while the government was going broke, the government had to spend more money. And it had to inflate the money and make the money worth less. You couldn't sell this politically. You simply couldn't sell this politically. You couldn't go to the public in Britain or the United States and say, `What we should do to get out of this problem is make our money worth less, and throw the government deeper into hock.' Because the voters would go, `Get out of town.' So Keynes invented a huge mathematical formula--most of it nonsense--which was so baffling and important and scientific looking, that he was able to sell the idea of inflating the currency and--and--and--and putting the government into greater debt to counteract the effects of the Depression. He was probably right, given the situation that it was, but I think he knew what he was up to.
LAMB: Did you tell the folks over there in London that you thought that Keynes did not know what he was talking about?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Oh, no, no. See I think he did know what he was talking about. Just deliberately created a way--a nonsensical way of talking about it that would be more convincing than the sensible way of talking about it.
LAMB: Let me ask you one more question about Paul Samuelson. If you show up in college and you're a freshman and you read Paul Samuelson, was he teaching us a certain line in his book?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Yeah, but I can forgive him for that. Yes, he--he's definitely a big government guy in favor of government interference in--in the economy, less so as his--his editions progress. If you--if you pick up the original edition of Samuelson, you'll find it to be very much to be a New Deal document. When you get down to the current edition, which he--he--he wrote with another economist named Nordhouse, you will find a very moderated version of--of that. Yes, he is teaching a particular line, but that's OK. I don't--I don't mind that, as long as the students are getting the basic concept of economics, then they'll be--if they're understanding the basic concepts of economics, then they're free to agree or disagree. They'll understand enough to agree or disagree with the teacher.
LAMB: Let me dip in--way into the side of your book. `Each train car carries two middle-aged ladies whose job, as far as I could tell, is to walk up and down the corridor making sure no one smokes. You can drink on the train. You can puke on the train. You can yell and quarrel and party all night. You can cut tripe on alcohol stows and make fetid picnics of smoked fish and goat cheese but you can't smoke.'
Mr. O'ROURKE: That was Russia. That's the Transiberian railroad, with that marvelous sort of--of--of Russian logic about things, you know.
LAMB: Why were you there?
Mr. O'ROURKE: That got to be quite a question about day three. My wife was with me on this trip. We went from Irkutsk in Siberia to Vladivostok. About day three we were seriously asking why we were there. But I'd gone to Russia because I wanted to see one of these--it was '96 and I wanted to see one of these economies that was allegedly reforming itself from socialism. What I found was not reformation. What I found was this bizarre sort of kleptocracy, this place without any rule of law. It wasn't a matter of whether they were socialists or capitalists. They didn't have enough law for you to--you know, for it to--the words to make any difference.
LAMB: Where did you go in Russia?
Mr. O'ROURKE: We started out in Moscow for the--for the Yeltsin elections in '96. Then we went to St. Petersburg. Then we flew out to Siberia to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal. And then we took the train over to Vladivostok and stayed in Vladivostok for a little while, so got a pretty good picture of the country. Although I regret now, for the sake of the book--I wish we had gone to some of the kind of collapsed industrial cities, the--the--the--the big defense industry cities that have really suffered because of the end of the Soviet Union. So we missed that a little bit.
LAMB: You write earlier in that chapter, `One thing they don't tell us is that inside of St. Basil's is a dusty jumble of catacombs and closets badly made and primitively decorated, that the whole thing is really just a pile of bricks and timber and more like something molded out of mud by kids than a real piece of architecture.
Mr. O'ROURKE: It's strange looking at that, you know. The St. Basil's, of course, is that backdrop that everybody always uses when they're broadcasting from Moscow. The great cathedral that's there on--on Red Square right by the walls of the Kremlin. Stalin meant to tear it down, and a most noted architect of the--Soviet architect of the time said that he would slit his throat on the steps of St. Basil's cathedral if--if Stalin were to tear that down. And apparently the threat worked. Not many men were able to threaten Stalin. But Stalin didn't do it.

When you go inside this and many other very grand buildings in--in Russia, it is shocking to see how primitive these buildings really are. They're quite marvelous from the outside, and quite marvelous really period. But they are very primitive. Some of the great palaces and--and state buildings in Moscow that are still left, they look like Italian palazzos. But in fact, they're made out of logs, logs covered with plaster to imitate stone. And you don't really realize that until you walk in and you see that the walls are about four feet thick and you wonder what--what gives here, you know. What gives here is that these things are--are plastered over log cabins made to look like--made to look like fancy European buildings. You were really in Russia--even now--but I mean all through the 18th and 19th century--you were on the frontiers, the very fringes of Western culture.
LAMB: You--you say this about the Russians: `Russians smell. They smell with a big mildewy, musky, left the gym clothes in the car trunk all summer stink. And they didn't start smelling any better between Irkutsk and the Pacific because Russian trains don't have baths in the bathrooms or showers or hot water or soap or towels or toilet paper.' Is that really true?
Mr. O'ROURKE: It's true. I'm--I'm--I'm sad to say that it's true. This is a place that--where--it isn't really that I think that the Russians were particularly personally dirty. It's--there is--or there was, at any rate, no such thing as dry cleaning in these places and there really--people don't own a lot of clothes and it's not easy to get your clothes washed. Everybody doesn't have a washer and dryer in their--and they drink and they smoke and between one thing and another it is an odoriferous country.
LAMB: How many times have you been to Russia?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Four or five. I went there the first time in 1992 when Brezhnev was still in power and sort of in the--in the twilight of the Brezhnev era.
LAMB: Do--you mean '82.
Mr. O'ROURKE: '82, yes, indeed I do. Starting to lose those--first sign of late middle age, isn't it? You start losing those dates.
LAMB: Or an overnight flight from London.
Mr. O'ROURKE: Well, there's that. And then I went back for the Reagan summit. And then I was back again right at the point when--I didn't actually see the siege of congress and stuff, but it was right about that time when things were just falling apart when Yeltsin was coming in and--and Gorbachev was going out. And I guess this was the fourth time I was there.
LAMB: You keep saying through--through that chapter that every time you go to these small towns outside of the big cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, there's nothing there. Explain that.
Mr. O'ROURKE: No. It's--I think, in general, Europe is--is--I mean all of us notice as tourists that it--it centers on its big cities in a way that America doesn't. Every country--perhaps simply because they're smaller countries. But Germany has just one Berlin. Bonn was never a close runner up. There's only one Paris in France. There is no second city in--in--in England. And Russia's like that, but more so. The--all the attention--not only from the Soviets, but from the czars, was paid to Moscow and St. Petersburg, maybe a little bit to Vladivostok. Once you're even in the suburbs of these cities, you are in a much more primitive country, with much more primitive infrastructure. And when you are out in the country--really out in the country--you--you could be in almost any century. You'll see a single thin strand of electric wire. I looked out the train window between Moscow and St. Petersburg--we--we took the overnight train, and it was that time of year where the--where it's light virtually around the clock. It was, you know, just at the summer solstice. And I--I watched for two hours out of the train window through, you know, the part of Russia that's closest to Europe--closest to--to--to one of the more developed areas of Russia--two hours without seeing a paved road. It's amazing.
LAMB: In your...
Mr. O'ROURKE: Oh, one other little thing with that. When I--I'd been in Stockholm earlier that year and there's an open-air museum in Stockholm. Name is going to escape me. It's a sort of combination zoo-museum so--and they have some ancient Swedish houses that are preserved there. You know, sort of like Henry Ford's thing in--in--in Deerfield, Michigan. And there was a house from the--from the 15th century, very nicely restored and preserved. I saw one out the window on the way between Moscow and St. Petersburg just like that. People were--had a tin roof now, otherwise unchanged. People still living in it. You know, what was a museum piece in Sweden was home in--in--in--in Russia.
LAMB: In your acknowledgements you say, `How does one give full and sufficient credit to one's wife without sounding like a mealymouthed pig or giving the readers mental images of the tambourine playing spouse in "This is Spinal Tap."'
Mr. O'ROURKE: Yes, and I--of course this was--I wrote this before poor Linda McCartney died so--I mean, 'cause, I mean, it's a reference second hand to Linda McCartney because that was what the--the parody in "Spinal Tap" was of her. I didn't know she was sick or I would've picked some other embarrassing spouse, you know. But it is tough because--I don't suppose it's just wives. I'm sure there are--there's many women writers have the same problem with how you thank your--your husband. I've known Pat and Jim Schroeder for a long time and when--when she was in Congress her husband formed with some friends of his who also had wives in important places the Dennis Thatcher club, the motto of which was, `Yes, dear.' You know, and so...
LAMB: Tina--Tina O'Rourke is who?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Tina O'Rourke is my wife and...
LAMB: For how long?
Mr. O'ROURKE: ...and we have been married since 1995--three years. Got a little kid now, just one. And Tina, who was a PR executive at Ogilvy, Adams and Reinhard, before we got married I conned her into quitting her job. And so she has been running our little world ever since, allowing me to stare out the window and--and smoke cigarettes and drink cups of coffee and pretend that I'm writing.
LAMB: Where do you live?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Half the year, we're in New Hampshire, in the--in the summer and the fall; and in the winter and spring, we're down here.
LAMB: And what's the reason for the two different places?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Well, I was--I came down here in 1988 to write a book about politics, "Parliament of Horrors," and I meant to stay for a year--maybe a year and a half--however long it took me to do the research. And I just liked it. I'd lived 15 years in--in New York. I had a place up in New Hampshire. I was done with New York. New Yor--I was exhausted with New York. Great place to be a kid but--unless you're fabulously wealthy, a tough place to be an adult. And I loved being up in New Hampshire, but you go woods queer after about three or four weeks, you know. I mean, you--the only--you only have about eight neighbors and they're all talking about the same thing, you know, and--and about how the squirrels got in their attic, metaphorically and literally. So when I came down here, I just really liked Washington. You know, if you're not involved in politics--well, I'm telling you this, you--you--you understand. If you're not directly involved in politics, it's a wonderful place. I mean, you got 50-yard line seats for a great deal of quarreling and fighting and on and on and been here ever since.
LAMB: What book is this?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Eighth or ninth. I'm not really sure.
LAMB: What's your day job?
Mr. O'ROURKE: I'm--I'm still the international affairs correspondent--a desk chief, actually--technically, for Rolling Stone magazine. Although I'm kind of determined now not to go overseas anymore so I don't know what's exactly going to happen with that, but I still write for Rolling Stone quite frequently.
LAMB: And in this book, you went to Hong Kong and Shanghai and Tanzania and...
Mr. O'ROURKE: I tried to--I wanted to il--I mean basically the question behind this book was, `Why are some places--regions poor and other regions rich?' Not individuals--too complicated a question for me. But why are certain regions--why do you go to some place, you know, why--why are we so much richer than Argentina when the two countries kind of look alike, they're both made up of immigrants and--and so on. So I decided that I would try and go to--to find this out, that I would try and find also interesting places to go, partly for my sake, partly out of personal greed for going to interesting places, but also for the readers' sake. I thought it would be more fun to illustrate these with--and then also f--wanted to find places that illustrated certain concepts that lead to success or failure within an economy.
LAMB: I don't know if you can do this or not, just so we can give our viewers an idea of where you've been, so if they get this book they'll...
Mr. O'ROURKE: Oh, sure.
LAMB: Let's just go down quickly and give--just give a quick reaction to each place: Wall Street.
Mr. O'ROURKE: Well, Wall Street was my example of good capitalism, and by good I don't mean a moral judgment. I mean, in capitalism, as we have it in the United States, if you buy something, it gets delivered. It doesn't get stolen on the way. If you sell something, you get the money for it, usually. Or--or you--if you don't, you can bring a lawsuit to get that money. So we have a capitalist system that--that functions. Whether that's a good thing or bad thing, of course, is a matter open to pretty considerable debate. But it does function.
LAMB: Albania.
Mr. O'ROURKE: Bad capitalism because you have a free market in Albania, one of the capitalistic ideals, but you also have no law. You simply have no law whatsoever, and therefore, the strongest win.
LAMB: Sweden.
Mr. O'ROURKE: Sweden I used for good socialism, and again, I don't mean good in the sense that I think socialism is swell. I don't happen to personally. But it is socialism under the rule of law. Sweden has rule of law, it has democracy, and it has a protection of property. It has property rights. They may not be quite the same as our definition of property rights but--but--but--but they've got them. And as a result, even though I personally consider their economic system there, which is--you're--you're essentially taxed--all your money is taken. You make some money and the government takes all of it. And then it gives it back to you in lavish government benefits, whether you want them or not--ice skating in July--you know, skiing in August. But it works. Sweden works because it has rule of law.
LAMB: Cuba.
Mr. O'ROURKE: Cuba is, in theory, the same socialistic system as Sweden, except there is no rule of law, no democracy, of course. Not only is there no practice of democracy, you can go to jail even for advocating it. No property rights, there's no property. It all belongs to the government. So Sweden has a socialist system that works. Cuba has a socialist system, and it's a hell hole.
LAMB: Russia, we kind of talked about that.
Mr. O'ROURKE: Yeah. I mean, Russia was my example of reform, of trying to change. Although it turned out to be sort of a big Albania.
LAMB: Is it Tanzania (pronounced Tan-za-nEa) or Tanzania (pronounced Tan-zAY-nia)?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Tan--funnily enough they say it both ways there. It's a synthetic word. It was Tanganyika and Zanzibar. And when both countries became independent, they decided, for reasons that have never been fully clear, to join in union.
LAMB: It's your longest chapter.
Mr. O'ROURKE: I love the animals. I know it's a little off the point of economics, but the animals were so cool. And then the Ngorongoro Crater is the single most speculator place I've ever seen in my life. The Serengeti is fantastic. And you can go--let me give a little plug for Tanzania. It's safer, more pleasant, the people are nicer. Although the accommodations are slightly rougher than Kenya. If anybody wants to go on an African safari, it's the place to go. People are great.
LAMB: But you have a question on chapter eight--Tanzania--how to make nothing from everything.
Mr. O'ROURKE: Tanzania--the reason I went to Tanzania, aside from the fact that I wanted to see the animals, is that Tanzania's twice the size of California with a population considerably less than California's. It's got arable land, lots of mineral resources. It is a peaceful place. It is riven neither with tribal conflicts or political civil wars. Nor has it had any extensive exterior wars. It didn't even have the worst colonial history. The--the colonization came late to Tanzania. The Germans were really never very good at it. It was a trust territory after World War I, so it didn't have all those coffee planters and nut hatches that came down and sort of spoiled the landscape in--in Kenya, stole the land. Wise and yet it's one of the 10 poorest countries in the world.

Now how can that be? And it turns out that they applied sort of Western socialist idealism to an economy that was really unsuitable for it--very tiny farms--little farms, and they nationalized all these farms. Took away property rights. Took away democracy. Even though Julius Nyerere, who was the ruler of--of Tanzania for the first 20 or so years after its independence. Was a good man, a decent man, honest man, kindly man. But he had these socialist ideas and he sacrificed rule of law, he sacrificed property rights. Indeed, he sacrificed democracy to put these socialist ideas into force, and he bankrupted the country. Interesting thing, though, is that when Nyerere retired, he admitted it. He said, `We failed. We have to go back and try something else.' He said, `I failed.' And said, `I had--I meant well but it did--it didn't work out.' He has to be the only world leader to have ever said that.
LAMB: Shanghai.
Mr. O'ROURKE: Shanghai is--on the face of it, it looks like tremendous economic progress is--is being made in China. And indeed, it probably is a more productive place than it was under Mao. But there's something sort of scary about the economic growth in China. It's a top-down economic growth. You don't grow--your company doesn't grow in China by introducing a good product which proves popular; you then expand production of that product and so on. But the ordinary method of merit, the way a company would grow in the United States. It grows by making some sort of political connection with the government, getting a contract, getting a deal with the government. And then the government enforces the--the--the marketing of--of--of the product and it--the result is eerily similar to two other countries that were, in their day, noted for economic progress. One was Nazi Germany and another was Mussolini's Italy. There is a fascistic aspect to the coalition between bus--big business and the totalitarian government in China.
LAMB: Before you got out of there, they--they changed the population number from 15 million to 16 million to 17 million. How many people live there?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Oh, I don't think we really know, you know. I mean, a billion to say a round number--a billion.
LAMB: But in--in Shanghai there...
Mr. O'ROURKE: Oh, in Shanghai, that's right. Yeah, Shanghai they couldn't--they--they simply don't know. People come in from--the Chinese countryside is still excruciatingly poor, and people just pour--you have to have a permit to live in Shanghai. But people sneak in, and just pack the place. And they really don't have any idea how many people live there.
LAMB: This quote from your--the last chapter where you feature a country now--now part of a country. `Prince Charles had just given a little speech. Quote: "We shall not forget you, and we shall watch with closest interest as you embark on this new era of your remarkable history," unquote.' Prince Charles, Great Britain and then you say, `In other words, goodbye and bolt the door bugger you.' What was that all about?
Mr. O'ROURKE: That was the Brits just handing Hong Kong to the Chinese. I thought it was one of the great shameful moments in--in--in 20th century. Interesting how the Brits--noble people that they are--and we saw their--their mettle in--in World War II certainly and the battle of the blitz and a lot of other things. How they have been in on two of the great shameful--in fact, they've been in on a number of shameful things. One was certainly the Munich agreement turning Czechoslovakia over to Hitler. And I think one was the--giving Hong Kong--the agreement to give Hong Kong back.
LAMB: Were you there that night?
Mr. O'ROURKE: I was there. Yeah, I was there for the handover. In fact, I was there for one--one-year anniversary this--this year--for one-year anniversary of the handover. And see all the Brits had to do to keep Hong Kong was say to the Chinese, `Oh, you want the rock back. Well, of course, it's your rock. Welcome to it. We'll take the people, however, the people are our citizens.' All they had to do was give whatever the British equivalent is of green card to all six million people living in Hong Kong. And the Chinese would've been powerless to take it back. They didn't want the real estate, after all. The real estate's insignificant. They wanted the money, the business connections, the--the banks, all that sort of stuff. If those people had all been free to go to Britain, no, they wouldn't have because they wouldn't have had to. I mean, the Chinese would've simply had to accept some form of the status quo for--for--for Hong Kong. Had Britain been willing to take those six million people.
LAMB: You say in that chapter that Hong Kong is the best contemporary example of laissez-faire. But every year when the Wall Street Journal publishes--and I don't remember whose account it is--of the freest countries of the world, Hong Kong is...
Mr. O'ROURKE: Free index of--Hong Kong's Freedom House is the--is the--the organization that--that they're quoting.
LAMB: They're number one, America is number six.
Mr. O'ROURKE: Oh, yes, well, actually this year...
LAMB: See--explain--explain why.
Mr. O'ROURKE: This year they're not, they're number two--Singapore is number one. Yeah. But...
LAMB: That's right. Yeah. But why is--I mean, you spent enough time there and you've got a lots of st--statistics.
Mr. O'ROURKE: It's simple.
LAMB: What is it?
Mr. O'ROURKE: You get to keep the fruits of your labor in Hong Kong. I mean, nothing defines economic freedom like your freedom to do what you want with the money that you make.
LAMB: What's the tax there?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Fifteen percent flat. Up to 20,000 Hong Kong dollars a year there's no tax. Hong Kong dollar's worth about seven Hong Kong dollars to a US dollar.
LAMB: And that stays right there?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Oh, they're pegged--it's--it's pegged to our currency. They have an interesting currency. Their money's actually worth something. You know, no one's money these days is actually worth anything. It's what we call fiat money. It is declared to be valuable by the government of a given country, because, you know, if you take a 50-dollar bill to the US Treasury, they'll give you two 20's and a 10. They won't give you any gold or any silver or anything like that.
LAMB: How many people live there?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Six and a half million, something like that. But let me go back to the money for a second. Hong Kong's money actually is worth something. It happens to be worth American dollars. They have, in their treasury, enough American dollars to buy back every single piece of Hong Kong currency that's ever been issued. So you can actually go down--admittedly, it's not like getting gold or silver or a piece of land or a sheep--but you can go down to the bank in Hong Kong, any time you want, turn in your Hong Kong dollars and get 7.6 or something like that, you know, Hong Kong dollars to $1, US dollar.
LAMB: You say no minimum wage, no unemployment benefits, no union-busting legislation, no Social Security, no national health program, enough wel--let's see--and hardly enough welfare to keep one US trailer park in satellite dishes and Marlboro Lights.
Mr. O'ROURKE: And, not only that, not only is--is there that minimal government spending and minimal government taxation, there are no import taxes, no export taxes and no taxation on the movement of capital. There is no--you can--if you make money in Hong Kong, you can take that money out again and there are no penalties for it. I mean, you simply--you pay the--that low, flat tax rate, and the money is then--you don't have to worry about trying to move your capital.
LAMB: What would happen if the United States did exactly what Hong Kong does with their economic system?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Utter and complete chaos. We--it would be--i--i--you know, from an--from pure economic growth point of view, it might be a desirable thing to do, but, of course, we have to realize that Hong Kong pays a price for its minimal government. One thing, they have no national defense, as is illustrated by the fact that the mainland Chinese just took them over.

Second place is that they have a lower rate of social benefits for--for people who are, for one reason or another, helpless, or relatively helpless, in their society, and less transfer to the poor than we would probably find acceptable in the United States. It may even be less than they find acceptable, but they had a reason to do it. They were in such desperate straits in the late 1940s, early '50s when millions of refugees poured into Hong Kong as the--as the Communists took over the mainland, that they simply didn't have the luxury to have huge social benefits, and they knew that the only chance that they had was for enormous economic growth. And largely due to one British colonial agent, a guy named Sir John Copperwaithe, the--the British authorities decided, `Well, we'll set up the situation so that it maximizes economic growth, because that is the only hope that Hong Kong will have not to be a permanent international basket case.'

So they took this risk, and the refugees there had very little to lose. After all, they might get minimal welfare benefits in Hong Kong, but they were going to starve, or be shot, on the mainland. So they weren't whining about welfare cuts.
LAMB: You said in the early part of the book you don't know anything about economics, or at least you didn't before you started this book. Is that really true?
Mr. O'ROURKE: It was true enough for all normal purposes. Once I started to write about politics about 10 years ago, I was inevitably confronted with certain economic issues, and over that 10 years, or say the eight years until I began this book, I had begun to pick up little bits and pieces. But I had no systematic knowledge. I had no knowledge of it as a--as a--you know, I--I was--I was very, very spotty. There were one or two things I understood, and lots of stuff that I just was absolutely in the dark about.
LAMB: Cato Institute. What's your relationship with them, and who are they?
Mr. O'ROURKE: I am the H.L. Mencken research fellow at the Cato Institute.
LAMB: What does that mean, H.L. Mencken, in your--in your personal opinion?
Mr. O'ROURKE: They just wanted to give me an embarrassing business card, and I get paid nothing, and I believe that I really deserve the--to get exactly that for anything...
LAMB: But for a journalist like you...
Mr. O'ROURKE: They're friends of mine. They--they're friends of mine.
LAMB: But for a journalist, what's it mean to be the H.L. Mencken anything?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Nothing. Oh, for--well, H.L. Mencken is one of my personal heroes, and at the time that the Cato Institute gave me the position as the H.L. Mencken research fellow is when Mencken's diaries came out, and it turned out that he was such an embarrassing old grouch, and they thought that was--since I was an embarrassing middle-aged grosch--grouch, they thought that was appropriate.

But Cato has been a huge research resource for me, because they are, you know, very devoted. They're libertarians. They're very devoted to the free market. I don't always agree with them on every point, but they have done fabulous research about what makes markets work, why some places have better marketplaces than other places do. And also, Ed Crane, the head of Cato Institute, is a--a pretty savvy economist himself, and he was a big help in walking me through some of the thickets.
LAMB: What are these books all about that you list in the opening chapter here?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Well, probably the most important of those is the--is the Friedrich Hay--von Hayeck's "The Road to Serfdom." It is--it was written in the '40s, during World War II, as a antidote to what Hayeck saw as the increasing collectivism of politics in the world. He was protesting against communism and Nazism, but also against the in--increasing organization and size of the--of the democratic welfare states. Hayeck is one of the great champions of the individual. I mean, he basically says that individuals are smarter than groups. Anybody who's ever had to deal with a mob or with Congress could--could probably tell you this. One on one, individuals will make, on average, reasonable decisions, whereas if we put people in a group--it's like the difference between Harvard and the Harvard football team.
LAMB: The--the list, though, would that reflect how you think about economics today?
Mr. O'ROURKE: No. It would reflect more of--of--of what I found really valuable in the reading that I had to do to do--to do this book. It isn't so much a matter that I agree with the opinions of the people listed, as it was that they provided insight, which was--it's a difficult subject, and it's--and very few people explain it well. I--I--I fear I'm not one of them. Todd Bughol--Budholz--Buchholz--I'm not going to get that right--his book, what's it--it's--it's "New Ideas from Dead Economists."
LAMB: Right.
Mr. O'ROURKE: Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant survey o--o--of economics. This is what should be the textbook for an economic survey course, especially if it were only going to be one semester. He runs through all the economic schools of thought, their gradual development and their, you know, diversity and divergence of opinion, and gives a thumbnail sketch of each, and--his was the f--if it hadn't been for him, I don't know where I would have gotten the first handle on the subject.
LAMB: Politically, you are what?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Politically, I'm--I--I'm very conservative in the libertarian direction of conservatism. It's a sort of a--the great divide between the--those of us who believe in--in maximum individual freedom and--and maximum individual responsibility, as much freedom as is consistent with public order, as much responsibility as consistent with passion. And then there are the snake handlers, you know, so...
LAMB: Who in politics, running around, represents you as much as anybody else, or a couple people? Visible, you know, politicians like...
Mr. O'ROURKE: Oh, no one. I th--I think I could safely say no one. I mean, there--there are individuals that I respect, either for their personal qualities or for their political point of view, but I think--I think it is wrong to make heroes out of politicians, or even to look to them, in a democracy like our own, for excessive leadership.

They--there i--is--it is a very compromising thing to--to--to--to be in political office, elective or appointive. These people have to make a lot of really painful choices. Often they're choices like the British had to make between extraditing or not extraditing Pinochet, where something's going to be--horrible is going to happen no matter what choice you make, and you're going to be morally compromised no matter what choice you make. It's a dreadful job. I wouldn't wish it on anyone, and--and so I have a lot of respect for politicians for--for--for making these decisions that I--I wouldn't care to have to make.

On the other hand, I find it shocking that people are lining up to be politicians. I mean, it would seem to me, in a rational society we would have to draft them, you know? So the--the fact that they're lining up, you know, jostling each other, fighting day in and day out in order to get these horrible jobs, indicates that they're all a little crazy.
LAMB: What's P.J. stand for?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Patrick Jake.
LAMB: Why do you use the P.J.?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Mm. Pretension. I--when I was in college, I used to sign my name P.J. O'Rourke because I thought it looked cool. Never occurred to me that anybody--I was always Pat or Patrick. It never occurred to me that anybody would call me P.J., and after I started to write, and that was my byline, I would meet people that had--I didn't know personally that knew me from--from--from work, and they'd say, `Oh, you're P.J. O'Rourke.' And the first time I heard it, I thought, `Pajamas. Pajamas O'Rourke. I'll never be rid of it.'
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Toledo, Ohio.
LAMB: How long did you live there?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Mm, you know, I--I left after college.
LAMB: Where'd you go to college?
Mr. O'ROURKE: At Miami of Ohio.
LAMB: Same state, down south...
Mr. O'ROURKE: Yep, that's exactly right.
LAMB: ...of Toledo.
Mr. O'ROURKE: Near--near--near Cincinnati.
LAMB: What'd your parents do?
Mr. O'ROURKE: My dad was a car salesman, my mom was a housewife.
LAMB: Brothers and sisters?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Two sisters, perfectly normal sort of middle-American household.
LAMB: And how did you get into journalism?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Didn't know how to do anything else.
LAMB: When did you--when did you first get interested in it?
Mr. O'ROURKE: I was--I never did. I was--when I was in college, I decided I was going to be a writer. Now I didn't really want to be a writer, and I didn't have any noticeable talent as a writer. I could talk, so I--and I like to read, and I was an English major, so I figured I had some of the--the--the--the constituent parts of being a writer. But the real reason I decided to being a wri--to--to be a writer was that I was bored and embarrassed by being a college student. I thought it was--you know, `How dull, how bourgeois.' I wanted to be something else--oh, a rock star, you know, or a soldier of fortune or a race car driver. But I didn't have a race car. Soldier of fortune would have meant a, you know, entry-level stint in Vietnam or something, which didn't sound like much fun. I couldn't sing or play an instrument. Of course, I realize that hasn't stopped a lot of rock stars, but I--but I thought, `Well, I can--you know, I can type--well, I can write in longhand, at any rate.'

So I decided I would be a writer, you know, for the--for the--to be cool. I didn't have anything to say, and I wasn't any good at saying that nothing, but I plodded right along. And so for a number of years, I intended to be a poet and a novelist, writing, you know, James Joyce-type stuff, except a little harder, a little more difficult to understand. And when I got out of--I went to a writers' program at Johns Hopkins, which was perfectly worthless--and when I got onto that, I realized, well, I now had to make a living. And the writing things that were slightly harder to understand than James Joyce didn't seem to--to lead to much cash. So I started to work for these little underground, left-wing newspapers back in the '60s, you know the one...
LAMB: Left-wing?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Oh, yes. Yeah, I was very courant in my--in my political views in the '60s.
LAMB: What year did you get out of Miami of Ohio?
Mr. O'ROURKE: '69.
LAMB: And then where--where was your first real job?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Probably my first real job, not counting those, you know, sort of crash pad hippie newspapers, was in New York on a weekly called The Herald, on the East Side. I rose in the space of three months from messenger to features editor, not due to any talent of my own, but due to the fact that people were quitting this place in droves. It was the worst little newspaper you ever saw in your life, and was failing, and everybody was leaving, and so I went from--in fact, they were totally incompetent. I got--I rose above messenger--a friend got me the job as messenger--they would be putting the headlines together on a Thursday night, I think it was, and I'd be standing around waiting to messenge things, and they would be going, `New high-rise regulations--how can we fit that in? Tall buildings to get extra laws--that doesn't fit.' And they didn't know how to write headlines. And so I'd worked on these little hippie newspapers; I knew how to fit--and so I'd say, `Well, you know, you want New High-Rise Fire Regs.' They said, `Oh, boy!' So they gave me an extra $25 a night to come in--extra $25 a week to come in one night to write their headlines.

And then they couldn't--they couldn't snip wire service copy together. You know, they--they did a weekly news digest. Why they needed that in New York, I can't imagine, but they did. And they couldn't tear the Reuters copy off and clip it together and make a news digest. They just didn't know how to do it. Well, I knew--even I knew how to do that. So they gave me another $25 and another night a week if I would do that. Then they realized that they were paying me, you know, $50 more than they'd been paying me before, and for that they could hire me full-time, and so--so I rose.
LAMB: So how long have you been with Rolling Stone?
Mr. O'ROURKE: I've been writing for Rolling Stone since the--off and on--since--since the--since the early '80s, and--and--and all the time since the--you know, for a good--good decade or more, 12 years or so, now, and that's been great. That's been absolutely...
LAMB: How does Bill Greider and P.J. O'Rourke--one on the left, one on the right--end up at the same publication that goes to communicating?
Mr. O'ROURKE: I don't think--I don't think they know. I think it was just one of those--those accidents. And, of course, the worst thing from Rolling Stone's point of view is a couple of years ago I came to the Greider--Greider writes about economics a lot--lovely man, Bill Greider--wrong about everything, but a lovely man.
LAMB: He was just here to--we just did his book.
Mr. O'ROURKE: The--so he does a lot of stuff for Rolling Stone about economics. And I went in to Jann Wenner, who owns Rolling Stone, and I said, `Jann, you know, I would--I--I've got this idea for a book about economics, and I'd like to do some pieces for Rolling Stone that would sort of help me build the book,' because obviously I couldn't afford to travel to all these places on my own, and so many of these chapters started as Rolling Stone pieces, usually having more to do with the country and less to do with the economics. And then I would reshape the--the piece for the book.

And so Jann said, `Wait a minute, wait a minute. This is a rock 'n' roll magazine, and you're telling me now I have two lunatic economists writing for a rock 'n' roll magazine?'
LAMB: What made you become a conservative?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Um...
LAMB: And what year did you do it?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Life experience. There was no real road to Damascus moment, but it was--it w--there were--a number of things happened. When I was deeply involved with--wi--with left-wing politics, and I was st--involved with organizing demonstrations in nine--during 1972, political conventions in Miami--that year they were both held in Miami--and--and--and--and, you know, previous to that, I'd been involved in anti-war stuff, and so on--I noticed in--increasingly, from--from 1969-1970, I noticed that the authoritarian, totalitarian tendencies on the left, the very thing that had upset me with the adult world that I was rebelling against--rules, regulations--and here the authority seemed to be almost entirely arbitrary. It was whoever could yell loudest and whoever could claim the strictest adherence to Mao or Marx or some other person none of us had read. And it gave me the creeps. I--I didn't like the cult of personality that went--I--I knew Abbie Hoffman, and I liked him personally, but I didn't like the kind of structure that grew up around these guys, which was part hero worship and--and--and--and--and part sort of funny sort of authoritarianism that didn't seem to have any authority behind it. I said, `Gee, you know, regular society looks more reasonable than this.'

Then there was, you know, getting old and starting to realize that you--that--that--that--what--I--I was going to stop the war in Vietnam like--by dressing like a clown? That was very useful, I'm sure. I got my first paycheck, and I never realized how much money--I mean, first real paycheck--of course, I knew taxes were taken out, but I always got those taxes back at the end of the year because I only worked for a couple months in the summer, you know? So it was just like a sort of forced savings plan. I didn't realize how much--in New York City how much money came out of your--when I was being paid 200 bucks a week, out of my first paycheck, I thought it was--no, it's 150 bucks a week. It was--first paycheck was going to be 300 bucks, and I netted out $165 or something like that. Shocked. I said, `Wait a minute.' I said, `I'm for socialism--we've got socialism.' They just took half my money, you know.

And then there was a gradual--I think as one gets older, a greater respect for--both for the individual and for tradition, in a way. Because one of the things that makes me a conservative and not a pure libertarian is that sort of desire to give a vote to the dead, if you will, you know.
LAMB: The title of your book is "Eat the Rich." I want to ask you about where you got the title, but I also want to ask you where you got this little character right here. What is that?
Mr. O'ROURKE: I don't know exactly what that is, but it seemed to work on the cover really well. We--we had done up several different cover ideas, and when we finally decided to use the picture of me about in--about to eat, I guess, a rich person, it st--it wasn't quite working. And we had this--we had this illustration that was left from--from another cover idea, and the--and the two sort of seemed to click together. It was just so--I don't--or so the art director tells me.
LAMB: Where'd you get--where'd you get the title?
Mr. O'ROURKE: It turns out that it's a rock song, or did--has been a number of rock songs. The noted group Motorhead did one, but so did Aerosmith and then somebody else, too. I first saw it on a T-shirt in Lebanon in the middle of the civil war in 1984. And I'm looking at the devastation of Beirut, and here is one of these--one of these teen-age terrorist kids with an AK-47, wearing this T-shirt that says `Eat the rich.' And I'm looking around at Beirut, and I'm thinking, `Wow. They did a pretty good job, didn't they?' But then later somebody told me it had been a catch phrase from the late '60s or early '70s, with--with--with some sort of Marxist types.
LAMB: `In this state of imbecility I had, for amusement, turned my attention to political economy.' Thomas De Quincey, "Confessions of an English Opium Eater." What is this?
Mr. O'ROURKE: I just--I was reading that book--actually I was reading that book because it was the 25th anniversary of Hunter Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," and Rolling Stone wanted me to go out and interview Hunter--and Hunter and I had been friends for years and years--and to get Hunter to talk seriously about this book. And I knew that one of the great influences on Hunter was De Quincey, and I hadn't read--I mean, I suppose I read around it a little bit in college, I ….So I was reading that, and I came across that quote, and I said, `It's perfect.' And it's...
LAMB: Who's De Quincey?
Mr. O'ROURKE: He was a--an English romantic writer who ate opium, and got addicted and got quite sick, and--and tells his story in "Confessions of an English Opium Eater," sort of a Coleridge contemporary and...
LAMB: Did--you finish the book with a supposed story that Ronald Reagan used to tell, about the pig? What is the story, and did he tell it?
Mr. O'ROURKE: The--you know, I haven't been able to track it down for sure whether--Reagan told so many jokes. I mean, they usually weren't jokes of his own composition. They were--they were jokes that were around. And he always used them well. They were--they were always apposite. They always were appropriate to the situation, and in--in some--something having to do with--with economics, and with the tendency for us to punish wealth, to--to--to try and siphon off wealth for--for--for--for other purposes in a society, Reagan told a joke about the--the traveling salesman who stops for the night with a farm family. When he goes in to have dinner with the farm family, there is a pig sitting right at the dining room table. And this pig is wearing three medals around his neck, and a w--has a wooden leg. And the--and the salesman's very confused, and he says to the farmer, `I--I see you have a pig right here having dinner with you, right--right at the dining room table.' And the farmer says, `Yep, that's because that's a very special pig. You see those three medals around his neck? The first medal, that's when our--our youngest son was--he was drowning in the stock pond and that pig swam right out, pulled him back in to shore, saved his life. Second medal, our--our daughter was trapped in a burning barn, and that pig ran into the barn, grabbed her, carried her out and saved her life. And the third medal, our oldest son, he was trapped in the--in the corral by a mean bull, and tha--that pig ran under the fence, bit the bull on the tail, and the boy was able to get away and it saved his life.'

And the salesman says, `Well, I--I guess so. That really is a special pig. I can--I can see why you gave him the medals, and I can see why you let him eat right here with your family at the dining room table. But how did he get the wooden leg?' And the farmer says, `Well, pig like that, you don't eat him all at once.'
LAMB: You finished the book with that story. Why?
Mr. O'ROURKE: I thought it said a lot about--one of the problems that I ran up against in the book--basically there were two things that, in the end, made one economy work or not. And it wasn't free markets, as I thought when I went into the book. I went into the book very much with the idea that economic freedom must be the key to prosperity, and of course it is important, but it didn't turn out to be quite that simple. And the two things that really mattered were rule of law--rule of law's absolutely vital. If you do not have rule of law, property rights, basic human legal rights, you cannot have any kind of society that works, whether it's socialist or capitalist or anything else.

The other thing was that the human fallacy of redistribution--we operate under a psychological misapprehension of the nature of economics. We think that the economy is zero sum, which is to say we think that the economy is a pizza, and that if you have too many slices, I'm going to have to eat the box. We think it's of a fixed size. Economies are never of fixed sizes. They can grow and they can shrink, and the only way to ensure what the left likes to call `economic justice,' and what the right likes to call `opportunity for all,' is to make the economy grow, is to make the economy get bigger. If you try to accomplish it by redistributing things, you'll be eating that very special pig, and that's why I used that at the end of the book.
LAMB: In your chapter on--on Sweden, you have a lot of--let me read this, and ask you how hard it is to talk vs. write humor, because there's a lot of--I haven't done justice to the humor in this book. I'm trying to read some of the lines. `The Swedes can almost make you believe in this. In the first place, they are nice, nicer even than the people in Anaheim who spend all day in Donald Duck masks.' And that's a P.J. O'Rourke humor line, and you probably have 100 of those in this book.
Mr. O'ROURKE: Always try and bring it back to everybody's ordinary experience, is--you know, if you think about somebody who is nice under the most absurd circumstances, it has to be that sweltering person in the Goofy mask.
LAMB: Do--do you th--do those things come to you easily?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Yeah, I think they do, and I think it has to do with my family. I come from one of those large Irish families that the normal mode of communication was kidding.
LAMB: Well, here's another line: `What happens to Sweden when nobody's willing to lend it more money and the Swedes finally realize that they can really skip work for four months if the kid pukes?'
Mr. O'ROURKE: Simple exaggeration. You know, it--it usually works, and--and sometimes you don't even have to do it on your own. I figured out that under Swedish law, if you took the full advantage of child-care leave, six--sick leave, personal days and--and required vacation, that you could get more than 400 days a year off work.
LAMB: Sweden has no shoeshine stands?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Sweden didn't seem to have any of the small entrepreneurial--other than an--an occasional newsstand, it didn't have the small entrepreneurial aspect that almost every place else in the world has. And that's because everything in Sweden is licensed. I mean, everything is Sweden is very difficult to do, very bureaucratic, and if you let the government take care of you--and unem--unemployment benefits or job retraining or you know, some sort of program--you'll probably make about as much as you would shining shoes.

Basically, the Swedes have--have worked out a system where it's no longer really necessary to work, which, of course, puzzled me, because the Swedes are hard-working. And I asked a--one of the few c--politically conservative Swedes that I met while I was--in fact, I may have personally met every politically conservative Swede. I think you could get them into this studio. I asked him, I said, `Why, if you have all these welfare benefits, why do people still work? If you had all these welfare benefits in the United Sta--benefits in the United States, we'd all be off on a picnic.' And he pointed outside--it was--it was already dark at three in the afternoon, sleeting, it was about 15 degrees Fahrenheit, and he said, `You see that? That's how it is all the time here.'
LAMB: This one little line, little political shot, page 164--`A few weeks after I left the country, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton came to'--is it Arusha (pronounced A-ruh-sha) or Arusha (pronounced A-roo-sha)?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Arusha. (pronounced A-roo-sha)
LAMB: Tanz--Tanzania...
Mr. O'ROURKE: In Tan--Tanzania.
LAMB: `...on a fly-through tour of Africa.' This is you writing. `The silly young daughter of the president of the United States told an audience at Kilimanjaro Airport that in America, quote, "We have a big problem with people not thinking that they have a future. Young women and young men, there's a lot of--of hopelessness." The Tanzanians, or Tanzanians, were too nice to pelt her with things.'
Mr. O'ROURKE: Yeah. To go to a country as poor as Tanzania and say things are hopeless in America is--is certainly to insult your audience's intelligence. And yet, you know, thinking back on that, Chelsea wasn't wrong in what she said, although she may not have quite understood how--the way in which she was right. There are people in the United States who don't think that there's opportunity here. There is a lot of hopelessness in the United States. Hopelessness doesn't, of course, mean that there shouldn't be hope. Hopelessness means that they don't have hope. It's descriptive. And there are--and it is accurate to say that there are many Americans who think there are no opportunities i--in this country. The fact that they're dead wrong may have been somewhat lost on Chelsea and wouldn't have been lost on--on her audience.
LAMB: Your next book?
Mr. O'ROURKE: `The History of Toledo, Ohio, From the Dawn of Time Until the End of the Universe.' I--I--I--I--in the first place, I want to stay home. I've been traveling overseas for--for 16, 17 years constantly, and--and now I have a family, and I'm getting old. The other thing is that I wanted to do something about history. I write a--little snatches of history in this other stuff that I write to bring people sort of up to speed on where Albania came from, or what Russia's background was, and I always find that fun to do. And I'd like to do it about America. But I wanted someplace in America that hadn't really succeeded. I wanted someplace in America that wasn't dramatic or noble or tragic, for that matter.

Everybody always writes history about the big stuff, and yet--in fact, that's pretty much the basic thesis of this book, is that history is about important people, important places, and none of us are important people, and none of us come from important places. You know, we come from ordinary places, we're ordinary people. So I want to use--I want to write a history of America basically through the keyhole of my old hometown, home to the Mud Hens and Jamie Farr, Danny Thomas.
LAMB: And Patrick Jake...
Mr. O'ROURKE: ...O'Rourke.
LAMB: Here's the cover. It's called "Eat the Rich." We're out of time. And I thank you very much.
Mr. O'ROURKE: Thank you, Bri.

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