NO ONE HAS DARED PREDICT what might happen around here if the general public got a grip on how our madcap economic system works, or if the financial pages were as much fun to read as the sports section. But with the likes of Andrew Tobias loose in the land, the test may come sooner than you think.
He is a member of the irreverent new breed of business writer, who can wade fearlessly into the most abstruse financial transaction and emerge with an account of what happened that reads like The Ipcress File. A graduate of Harvard Business School, and the author of The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need, which spent 30 weeks on the best-seller list, Tobias had done his homework and perceived the comic potential of the "dismal science." This book is a collection of his columns and articles that appeared mostly in Esquire, New York and Playboy over the past 10 years.
Magazine writing is an ephemeral art form, and 10 years is a long time. The passing shot at Richard Nixon and Patty Hearst loses some of its spin; the price of gold no longer astounds. But a generous sprinkling of footnotes and "instant hindsight" afterwards help to lessen the jet lag and many of the pieces still hold up well on their own. Tobias is a master of the pithy opener. ("There are two ways of becoming poorer: You can be paid less, or you can be paid more and have it buy less.") Some of his oneliners can make you laugh out loud on the bus.
He not only throws the big abstract numbers around, he tells you what they mean. The $65 billion the U.S. laid out for imported oil in 1979 cost $295 for every man, woman and child, or $1,180 for a family of four, or more than all the gold in Fort Knox, or as much as 32.5 million acres of farmland -- the entire state of Iowa, maybe. That's for 1980. For 1981, "they could have Wisconsin."
He doesn't just talk about wasting oil, he buys shares in some oil wells in Portage and Trumbull counties in Ohio. "I don't think of my oil as the batch in the tank of a speeding ambulance," he writes. "Mine is the oil that generates the electricity it takes to heat the water that's left running while the nation shaves."
He represents us all, as he fights for the only working ball-point pen in branch 007 of Citibank, on the corner of Broadway and 72nd Street, next to the Yum Yum Ice Cream store that refuses to move. The whole mad future of electronic banking comes together in his adventures with statements and canceled checks. First, through the new magic of computers, he gets 40 of his own canceled checks, plus 40 that belong to a Chinese laundry in Queens. When the missing 40 finally wander in, they are joined by seven others "belonging to a Mr. Sid Silvers. What Citibank seemed to be moving toward was a system of sending out canceled checks at random, relying on its customers to sort them out among themselves." But progress lies ahead. "Branch 007's first generation out-in-the-freezing-cold cash machine, which was always either out of cash or out of order, was replaced by a pair of second-generation indoor video-screen machines" that in one week could handle 7,200 transactions. "That is, roughly speaking, a line of customers more than a mile long."
By the time he has finished buying his New York apartment, you feel as though you'd bought one yourself. "There are your lawyer and their lawyer; your bank's lawyer and their bank's lawyer; the lawyer for the building and the lawyer for the managing agent of the building; the real estate agent's lawyer, if it's gotten sticky enough; and lawyers who, passing in the halls, stop to see why such a crowd has gathered."
He dares to grapple with puts and calls. The "whole point of a put -- its putpose, if you will -- is that it gives its owner the right to force 100 shares of some Godforsaken stock onto someone else at a price at which he would very likely rather not take it."
He demolishes chain letters. "By the time the folks who each supposedly sent me $1 get to the top spot, 64 million people have to have joined at the bottom, and for each of them to reap the promised $8,000 return on his dollar yet another 512 billion folks, give or take, must join in."
He deals with commodities trading and tax shelters and disposes of the "Good News!" disposable razor. "Now all you have to do is buy nine razors, pile them in the medicine cabinet as best you can, take the cardboard promo off one, take off the protective plastic cap, shave, replace the cap; then when the blade gets dull, just toss out the razor and pull out a new one (without having eight others fall out of the medicine cabinet at the same time)."
He reports on wheeling and dealing in Hollywood, and there are several profiles which demonstrate that he has a good ear and takes good notes. In the course of his research on the building operations of Samuel Jonathan Lefrak he learns that "you can engrave the entire ethics of the real estate industry in New York on a flea's behind and still have room for the Lord's Prayer." Can they beat that on the sports page?