Ben Stein Watch: September 14, 2008

Ben Stein this week has decided to tell us that it’s easy to overestimate (a) the amount of harm that government does, and (b) the amount of good that government can do.

Being Ben Stein, of course, he’s a little bit dickish in how he makes the point: he hangs the whole column off the fact that he sat next to Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine on an airplane ride, and feels the need to include this:

This band sings about inequality and oppression in the world, mostly, as far as I can tell, in the Western world, and, these days, mostly in George W. Bush’s world. In the process, all of the band members have become well-heeled indeed. Raging against the machine — which I am morally certain is done by the band with utmost sincerity — pays well sometimes.

Personally I’m very glad that unreconstructed leftists like RATM can still have some visibility in terms of US political discourse. I don’t share their politics, but in a world where professional politicians are severely constrained in what they can say, it’s now falling to people like Morello to keep debate and activism alive.

Stein’s a comfortable Republican; the main thing he’s agitating for, in terms of change in Washington, is more financial regulation. But it doesn’t take much imagination to realise that from the point of view of die-hard supporters of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, there’s actually an incredibly long list of things that Washington politicians can, should, and don’t do.

Stein concludes by saying that "Washington is not the problem" — maybe it isn’t, if you’re a Republican multi-millionaire like Ben Stein, living a life of privilege and taking a not-my-problem attitude to the plight of the downtrodden across the Americas.

But Washington can make a difference, and a very large difference at that. Whether we want the kind of change that is being demanded by Morello and his band is a different question, and one which Stein doesn’t raise. If they had their druthers, I can assure Stein that they would make some very sweeping and far-reaching changes indeed. They’re angry at the fact that those changes are not being made, and their anger is real. And yes, it is fair to hold Washington responsible for not making those changes, especially if you feel those changes should be made.

On the other hand, if you stay within the bounds of acceptable political discourse — if you ignore the RATM types who instigated the column in the first place — then Stein’s point is actually reasonably substantive. If you look at the campaign rhetoric on both sides, but especially McCain’s, the issues being empasized are precisely the ones which will make the least amount of difference to people’s lives.

Given the positions he loudly espouses, it’s entirely reasonable for Tom Morello to be angry at Washington. But those aren’t the issues that today’s presidential campaigns are concentrating on. Stein’s right that those things — complaints about spending on earmarks, or about McCain’s choice of vice-presidential candidate — are aimed at the one area that Washington cannot and will not ever be able to change: the nature of human politicians.

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