Sunday, February 04, 2007

Ben Stein Congratulates Himself

Recently, conservative commentator Ben Stein--perhaps most famous as the host of "Win Ben Stein's Money," and for countless "Celebrity Jeopardy" apperances, as well as stints with the government--penned an article about capitalsim, whose conclusion I agree with, but whose substance is completely disturbing in its unaware self-congratulation. My very wise and clever father offers an excellent take on Stein's "The Hard Rain that's Falling on Capitalism". First, here are excerpts of the article:

A FEW evenings ago, my wife and I were standing in the kitchen of our home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., feeding our voracious hounds, when a song came on the radio. It goes, “If only you believe in miracles, baby, so would I...”

Suddenly a flood of thoughts came into my head. I put on my swim trunks, and even though it was 42 degreesoutside, I got into my superheated pool and swam, looking up at the stars, and this is what I thought:

My whole life is a miracle so far. I live in glorious houses — tar-paper shacks by hedge fund standards, but plenty for me. I have a great American-made car. Above all, I have the most wonderful wife and the handsomest son on the planet.

My parents had a great, super life. They went from obscurity and lower-middle-class status in the Great Depression to fame and fortune in the postwar period. Their good fate was attributable mostly to their genius and hard work, but also to two culprits usually criticized in the media: President Richard M. Nixon, who made my father famous and powerful, and variable annuities, which made him and my mom well-to-do.

Thanks to Nixon’s appointing Pop as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and to TIAA-CREF selling Mom and Pop those annuities, their latter decades were happy and comfy. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am the honorary spokesman for the National Retirement Planning Coalition, one of whose many sponsors is the National Association for Variable Annuities.)

All of the miracles of our lives are because of America and our ancestors’ lucky, brilliant decision to move here from the desperation of Eastern Europe. All of it is thanks to the brave men and women who fought and died and bled on World War II battlefields like Anzio and Tarawa to keep us free, and to the
framers of the Constitution.

But it’s also thanks to capitalism. I realized this as I swam back and forth in my pool looking up at the stars and the contrails. Under capitalism, my grandparents, my parents and I could be paid the value of what we produced.

Their (our) income and position in life were (are) a function of what value we could add, not of the status of poor stateless Jews that we would have been in Europe.

Capitalism values people as individuals according to contract, as we lawyers and economists learn, not according to the status of our birth. This in itself is a miracle.

This miracle has been vibrant in the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans who have gone from nothing to something, thanks to the dynamics of capitalism. They have seen their pay rise and they have been able to convert their sweat and toil and creativity into capital by saving and investing in the stock market and becoming capitalists themselves — myself. [...]

But, as I swam and watched the private jets’ lights as they glided right above my head into Palm Springs International Airport, I had a chilling thought: in capitalism, the most fundamental building block is trust. [...]

When I see what the top dogs at all too many corporations are now doing to that trust, I feel queasy. Outrageous— yes, obscene — pay. Greedy backdating of stock options, which in my opinion is straight-up theft. Managers buying assets from their trustors, the stockholders, at pennies on the dollar, then forestalling competing bids with lockups and insane breakup fees. [...]

Empires come and go. Economic systems come and go. There is no heavenly guarantee that capitalism will last forever as we know it. [...]

If that trust disappears — if the system is no longer a system for the ordinary citizen but only for the tough guys— how much longer can the miracle last?

Now, here's Ronald Meyer's take:

Since I have time, I thought I'd write my editorial thoughts on the attached op-ed, sitting duck though it be.

Fresh from overindulging on munchies and California wine with his wife, Uncle Tzvi* Ben Stein counts his blessing while lapping his pool. The pool is heated, so he can indulge himself at the expense of atmospheric CO2 levels, though it is 42 degrees in his yard. His house in Rancho Mirage is a tar-paper shack compared to the houses of those whose taste matters. It seems that Ben's wife let him into the pool too soon after eating, because he isn't getting enough perfusion to the old noggin as he experiences rapture in the pool.

Not only is Uncle Tzvi's life a miracle, but so were his parents', thanks to Nixon having made Dad chairman of the council of economic advisers and thanks to the TIAA-CREF variable annuities that his parents had no choice but to buy as academics.

There are so many miracles, especially capitalism, which "paid [his forbears] the value of what they produced." Further miracle, "capitalism values people as individuals according to contract... not according to the status of our birth."

But Ben cramps up as he realizes that Capitalism™--the board game is not fun to play when others at the table are cheaters, such as those greedy CEO's.

As Ben seems to be suffering an attack of Republiopia (the ability to see only one side of an argument, and an in ill-informed side at that), here are a few mental status queries to test if Ben's frontal lobes can compensate for his defective visual cortex.

1. Could you turn down the heat on the outdoor pool, Ben, and swim at the local J? That should provide a few carbon credits to offset those cranked out by your Caddy.

2. That sagacious President who set your Dad up as chairman--could his and his vice-president's tax evasion violations have helped to set a bad example for later government and corporate leaders? Hmmmm? How about his Dick's disregard for any rules: could they have been bad for our political culture?

3. OK, so capitalism esteemed all of those Jewish immigrants. What was it that allowed only small numbers of them to enter large swaths of institutions of higher education or corporations because of Jewish quotas? And why did all of those silly lady garment workers and other unionists not at the time see how fairly valued they were? Perhaps the thermostat on their backyard pools was set too low, and their brains had frozen.

4. What percentage of Americans are lucky enough to be able to participate in TIAA-CREF, Uncle Tzvi, and how many are stuck with what they thought were their corporate pensions that the capitalists have devalued or stolen by declaring bankruptcy? How many are thankful that your capitalists' boob--er I mean boy--George was not able to convert the social security benefits into a capitalist's high-fee feeding frenzy?

5. Say, Ben, TIAA-CREF beneficiaries pay pretty low fees and their investments follow the performance of market indexes. Why are so many Americans fooled or forced into buying worse performance for much higher fees from the likes of anarchists such as Merrill-Lynch, Smith-Barney, Dreyfuss, etc? Oops, did I say "anarchists?" I guess they are actually capitalists, aren't they?

6. Finally, Ben, how many laps can you go with your head so far up your butt? Now that is a miracle.
* An Uncle
Tzvi is a Jewish Uncle Tom.


The heights said...

Stein's article makes me want to cue up the theme from team America - World Police-

Chris said...

In spite of all the fluff that surrounds it (both in his and your commentary), Stein's main point (viz. capitalism requires trust and therefore a modicum of virtue) is extremely valuable and deceptively simple. There's a reason that Adam Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments AND The Wealth of Nations. Likewise, our republican system of government requires a similar modicum of virtue in order to function properly (see The Federalist Papers). "Virtue" isn't exactly in style today, so it doesn't surprise me that both sectors lack it to their detriment.

Elaine said...

Stein does not reveal anything new except that he is amazingly gullible, and the "fluff" is the main takeaway--the fact that he is surprised that self-proclaimed capitalists are avaricious and that he has the gall to use his lot in life as proof that capitalism works.

Chris said...

I know you're focused on Stein the person, but I'm talking about the ideas. The fact is, that we have the capitalism is largely a miracle seen from the eyes of people who lived through the 70s and saw what Keynesian economics and socialist policies did to the economies of the West. Friedman's economic ideas were regarded as absolutely ridiculous and absurd until they were implemented in the 80s and shown to work.

Capitalism's most admirable and most dangerous quality is that it relies on the ethics of people themselves as opposed to the amorality of the state socialism which also causes people to become passive and ever more demanding of payouts from that state. In a capitalist system, what you get out of it is what you put into it. This is a very dangerous idea that easily be taken advantage of, and I don't for a second deny that people do. But the fact that people do, is not a problem with capitalism, it's a problem with people and a culture that values the self over everything else.

Elaine said...

For one, I don't think the 80s through today has witnessed pure capitalism as much as you intimate: many of the largest profiting companies aren't built on models of innovation and ingenuity but rather adversity to change, like the American oil and auto industries. Conglomerates rule most major markets and have fought against competition, often succeeding.

It is naive really to think that any system can be enacted in its pure form. Capitalism and socialism are ideal types, and that pesky problem of people and culture that impedes capitalism from it full expression is inevitable. Also, might the ethic of capitalism, or at least capitalism as it is preached today be the culprit behind this culture "that values the self over everything else"?

Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

I don't think I even "inimated" that the 80s witnessed "pure" capitalism...I don't even know what that is.

As for your blaming capitalism for our self-obsessed culture. I don't believe the protesters of the 1960s were capitalists.

Elaine said...

You said Friedman's ideas were implemented in the 80s and "worked."

I expect a little more in a debate about whether we live in a self-obsessed culture than pinning it all on 1960s protestors. Perhaps analysis of the media's role, the fact that some of said protestors turned into pro-capitalist yuppies, the role of new religions, a society obsessed with getting rich quick, etc., etc.

Chris said...

Exactly my point. The problem lies beyond just capitalism/socialism, conservativism/liberalism. It's one of the most complicated issues that strikes at the core of human nature. I've been reading a lot lately about the aristocracy in the 18th century and it seems like we retain a lot of the same morality today (the pursuit of wealth, self-obsession, spending beyond our means), the difference being, back then, it was pretty much limited to the aristocracy while today it's just been expanded to the masses. Having been told so many times in school how awful "bourgeois values" were, it's not surprising.

Michael Blaine said...

Ben's main problem is that he thinks corruption in America is new, when it has a storied tradition, dating back to Tammany Hall, the Teapot Dome scandal, and earlier.

Heck, the Dutch swindled the Indians out of Manhattan for just a few beads.

Corruption is part and parcel to life in the New World!