Ben Stein Watch: December 14, 2008

Are you worried about the state of the economy? Fear not! Ben Stein has a solution: "the federal government," he says, "has to guarantee loans made by lenders".

This looks like English. It has English syntax. But I don’t think it has any actual meaning.

I’m serious: the more you think about what it could possibly mean, the less it makes any sense. The only thing I can come up with is that by "lenders" Stein just means "banks", and that he wants the government to pay the banks in cash whenever a borrower defaults on a loan. So if I use my Citibank Mastercard, say, to buy a new TV, and then I miss my next credit card payment, the taxpayer will just pay Citibank back for me. Does that mean that I now owe the government the cost of a television, plus interest and penalties?

I don’t think Stein actually has a policy in mind when he writes these things; he’s just bullshitting, like he does on television, in the expectation that if he sounds authoritative, no one will notice that his words make no sense at all. The tactic seems to be working, too, at least when it comes to the readers who matter most: his editors at the New York Times.

Maybe they were bludgeoned into insensibility by Stein’s sequence of obnoxious observations:

High-end restaurants, like my favorite, Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills, are still almost impossible to get into…

A friend in real estate in California has written to me that “the recession has destroyed our wealth,” adding: “We are essentially bankrupt.” …

The house across from ours in Beverly Hills was sold two years ago and leveled to build a house twice as big; the lot sits empty and is again for sale…

My Cadillac dealer down here in the desert, near Palm Springs, is constrained by the credit crisis…

There is nothing here — nothing — of the remotest interest to Stein’s readers. This is the business-page equivalent of Larry King’s unlamented column in USA Today: a concatenation of insipid banalities, published for no reason other than the fact that the author has some kind of celebrity status.

Still, Stein does retain the ability to throw the occasional curveball:

Maybe Barack Obama can put some meaningful regulation in place when he becomes president. Maybe he can convince Congress to repeal the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act and get the private bar back in oversight gear.

You thought that blaming the Community Reinvestment Act for the financial crisis was stupid? Well, Ben Stein can outstupid even that: he’s blaming the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act instead, without stopping to notice that big class-action suits tend to happen after there are losses, not before. They don’t prevent bubbles and wrongdoing from happening, they only serve to redistribute wealth after those bubbles have burst.

The headline on this column is "Before the Fear, There Was Foolishness". Which is actually true. But it ignores the fact that the column itself is proof positive that there’s just as much foolishness during the fear, too. Some things are just constants. Like, it seems, Ben Stein and his abysmal column.

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