Ben Stein devotes his latest column to the subject of profligacy. It’s a subject he knows a lot about: he has filled previous columns with paeans to expense-account temples like Morton’s and Mr Chow, and he regularly talks lovingly about his Cadillac STS-V.
He even published an essay under the headline "It Ain’t Easy Being Rich", in which he complained about the upkeep on "a home in Beverly Hills, a home in Malibu, a writing retreat in Rancho Mirage, another in a high-rise condo in West Hollywood, and a pied-à-terre in Washington, D.C., (which is sort of like a foreign capital nowadays) and some others I won’t mention right now."
All of this Stein covers with a very brief mention towards the end of this column saying that he is "far from a small player in the extravagance game". Instead, Stein devotes most of his space to two people he’s very close to: a woman he’s known for decades, and his son. Clearly, for Stein, it’s much easier to beat up on his loved ones than it is to beat up on himself. In fact, he dickishly tries to sarcastically absolve himself of responsibility for his son:
To hustle and scuffle for a deal is something he cannot even imagine. To not be able to eat at any restaurant he feels like eating at is just not on his wavelength. Of course, that’s my fault. (I have learned that everything bad that happens anywhere is my fault.)
Actually, Ben, that is your fault, completely. Your son is 21, and unemployed. As a general rule, unemployed 21-year-olds do not believe that they can eat at any restaurant they like. The ones who do believe that only believe it because they have been over-pampered, and because they have been given far too much money/credit by their parents. What’s more, those parents invariably have exactly the same attitude to restaurants, especially pointless and flashy ones like Morton’s and Mr Chow.
What’s more, as Yves Smith notes, Stein starts off the column spending a lot of time picking on his old friend, just because "he needs to make his pampered son look better".
The friend’s story is not exactly sympathetic: she’s been spending something north of $20,000 a month for years now without ever finding a job; she lives in a $2.7 million house; and now, with the imminent end of her alimony payments and her relationship with "a wealthy beau who pays her credit card bills and other incidentals", she’s scared about how she’s going to maintain her lifestyle.
Now she is up all night worrying about money. “Terrified,” as she put it. She wanted me to tell her what to do.
What could I say? I did the best I could, but I had to tell her that she was on very thin ice.
Actually, Ben, you did more than telling her that she was on very thin ice — which clearly was something she has pretty much grokked at this point. You also plastered her all over the New York Times as a poster-child for profligacy, and gave more than enough identifying details that if she hasn’t already dumped her wealthy beau, he’s now well aware that she’s thinking of doing so.
Stein epitomizes everything I hate about LA: he’s happy to use his friends and his family for personal gain (he splashed his son all over the cover of his book about the joys of fatherhood) only to stab them in the back (describing him a few years later, in print, as "surly, and desperately unhelpful… a walking time-bomb for self-demolition"). He lives in a bubble of privilege which is so airtight that he really thinks the troubles of a mother with a $2.7 million house and a $20,000 monthly allowance belong happily in column called "Everybody’s Business". And he’s so self-unaware that he can genuinely describe his life as a freelance writer in Hollywood as "the most insecure existence imaginable".
I think most of us can imagine, without overmuch difficulty, an existence rather more insecure than that of the overeducated upper-middle-class Ben Stein, slumming it as a writer in Hollywood. But obviously he can’t — he’s someone who can’t simply can’t conceive of a life that he hasn’t experienced himself. Which is yet another reason, if one be needed, that he has no business writing a column for the NYT.
Update: Hilzoy piles on.