Ben Stein "got a queasy feeling a few weeks ago" when he "read about a talk" given by Ben Bernanke. Thus was this week’s column born, if you’ll be kind enough to permit him:
Please let me explain why I felt so nervous when I read those reports.
I’ll outsource this one to Dan Radosh.
Let me explain? Is there any more annoying phrase in the New York Times Op-Ed arsenal? It’s your column, douchebag. The reason you have it is in order to explain your opinions. You don’t need to ask permission.
This stupid verbal tic is both condescending — what are we going to do, not let him explain? — and arrogant. There are people who would kill for space in the New York Times, and you waste yours with this totally unnecessary locution?
Ah, that felt good.
What Radosh doesn’t say – because he’s writing about the lucid Paul Krugman rather than the muddled Ben Stein – is that the annoyingness of the "let me explain" tic is exacerbated tenfold if you never actually explain what you say you’re going to explain.
There are, broadly, two types of Ben Stein column: the ones where he’s clearly and obviously wrong, on the one hand, and the ones where it’s pretty much impossible to work out what he’s trying to say, on the other. This week’s column is of the second type.
Part of the problem is that Stein never really tells us what it is he’s talking about. Note it’s the reports of Bernanke’s speech that he’s responding to, not the speech itself. But which reports he’s talking about he never says, and he summarizes them in a very vague way, saying only that there’s a feeling Bernanke will "crack down on the economy and stop the inflation" if indeed inflation "started to heat up in a big way".
Why does this make Ben queasy? Well, first we have to sit through a history lesson about Arthur Burns and Paul Volcker. Apparently Volcker was a popular man: "the public had become so sick of inflation that it was willing to put up with real pain in order to end it," says Stein. Then we have to speculate about what might happen "if we are to have Israel and the United States bombing Iran". And finally Stein asks the big question:
Would Mr. Bernanke crack the whip?
Crack the whip? What whip? Does he mean start a tightening cycle? Does he mean raising the Fed funds rate so that it’s positive in real terms? So that it goes up past neutral and into the realm of tight? Does he mean pulling a Volcker and pushing rates into double digits? Above all, are we still in Stein’s fantasy world where the US and Israel bomb Iran? It’s all very, very unclear. But that doesn’t mean it can’t get muddier still:
When Mr. Bernanke spoke at Harvard, was he really saying that he and the Fed would be willing to let the economy spin into recession and confusion, without turning on the monetary spigots? I am positive that he now thinks he could do so.
Apparently Stein seems to think that it’s the job of a central bank chairman "to let the economy spin into recession and confusion" if inflation picks up. And he thinks that Bernanke agrees with him. No, Ben, that really is not the idea behind effective central banking.
But back to the thing Stein was meant to be explaining: what’s making him queasy? Is it the prospect of recession and confusion? Is it the prospect that there won’t be recession and confusion? Or is it just that he had a dodgy taco last night? We’ll never know for sure. But for what it’s worth, my money’s on the taco.