Ben Stein's Diary

Treasure Your Local Police

This and more from rainy, beleagured L.A.

By 2.11.13

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Los Angeles
Thursday
A visit to my shrink, whom I will call Dr. P. We talked for about forty minutes out of my allotted 50 minutes on the subject of a young male relative. The young man, whom I have often written about in this space, has a number of “issues.” He won’t work. He won’t do any household chores except for watching his very adorable daughter when his wife is at work for a few hours each week. He uses a copious amount of medicines, legal and illegal, and vast quantities of alcohol.

He also smokes heavily and usually is unshaven and unkempt, despite which he is very handsome.

This young man, whom I will call “T,” is moving to a small city in the Deep South. We don’t know what he’s going to do there. His wife doesn’t know what he’s going to do there. We all just hope he’s going to do something constructive there and maybe he will. We all love him like mad. He is extremely witty when he wants to be, and has astonishingly good manners among strangers. Just incredibly good. At social functions he is friendly, outgoing, helpful, genuinely caring. He could easily be a politician or a maître d’. Or maybe a cruise director.

Anyway, he could do those things if he cared to work, but he doesn’t.

So, off he goes to the Deep South, and I asked Dr. P. the following question. “Have you ever known anyone who has a history of certain kinds of behavior, usually self-defeating, who goes to a new location and whose behavior changes dramatically and who stops doing the self-destructive behavior?

“Yes,” said Dr. P. with a broad smile.

“Really?” I asked him. “May I ask where this person went that changed his behavior so much?”

“Prison,” said Dr. P.

We both laughed but it was a rueful laugh past the graveyard.

It is a weighty burden to have a troubled relative that I am responsible for, especially at my age.

The other main subject I often talk about with Dr. P. is my own profligacy with money. (Maybe profligacy is always with money.) You simply cannot imagine how wasteful I am with money.

Well, maybe you can since I talk about it so much. Much of it has to do with owning too much real estate which, alas, has corrected to the downside in a huge way in the recent crash. To be sure, it has recovered a bit in the Los Angeles area, but not in the desert (not in the slightest) and not in Sandpoint. So, if I sold there, I would take a series of losses.

I don’t want to do that. I have no reason at all to believe that real estate won’t recover everywhere, eventually. Frank Hathaway, the smartest man about real estate I have ever met, former CEO of LAACO (ticker LAACZ), the best managed real estate firm I have ever owned stock in, once told me the essence of real estate trading. “You sell when it’s high, not when it’s low.”

Nevertheless, Dr. P. endlessly advises me to sell real estate and tells me I am headed for trouble if I don’t. Dr. P. is, like all psychiatrists in L.A., Jewish. (Why is that? Is it because it’s a sort of wizardry?) This reminds me of an old Yiddish saying: “Every Jew has two businesses. His own and real estate.”

Anyway, as I told my Doctor, whom I love like crazy, “You always want me to sell real estate. You talked me into selling my house in Aspen in 1982 for pennies. That was the single worst financial mistake of my life. It would have made me a well-to-do man to have kept that house. It was a catastrophe. You wanted me to sell my condos in West Hollywood. They’ve doubled since then and that was just a few years ago. So, as long as I can afford to hold on to the real estate, I’ll keep it.”

Of course, that could be a mistake, too.

The really disastrous mistake, the one that simply kills you dead, is not having adequate liquidity to stay the course when real estate or stocks or commodities head south. I hope I have not made that mistake. I learned much about real estate from one of the smartest guys about money I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, my brother, as I call him, Ray Lucia. He is responsible for a good chunk of anything sensible I have ever done with money.

Another huge mistake people make -- and I have done this far too many times -- is to try to pick stocks without knowing something that the market doesn’t know. Once in a great while it can be done, but usually you are far, far ahead of the game just going with the index.

Another big mistake I often make: or rather my wife often makes -- putting your bills on auto pay on your credit card. That makes finding errors and stopping them almost impossible, or so I have found. Just suck it up and pay with a check.

Well, too much talk about mistakes. Better to dwell on the beauty of my Julie Goodgirl.

Friday
Up stunningly early to be on TV with the beautiful, super-gorgeous, drop-dead gorgeous Jenna Lee on Fox. Rain was falling. The radio news promised more rain and meanwhile a reign of terror was being visited upon the law enforcers of Southern California by a madman ex-cop who is shooting them whenever and wherever he finds them.

Meanwhile, he has published his “Manifesto” of his grievances and announcers on TV are speculating that he “might” be insane.

As Renae Garcia, my ace makeup girl, pointed out, “When people are writing out manifestoes, by definition they are insane.”

“Starting with Karl Marx,” I added.

The spot with Jenna Lee was extremely brief. Just a minute or two, mostly talking about what it would take to “bring back” the middle class.

“The middle class grows one man or woman, one family at a time, by acquiring skills, acquiring education, acquiring habits of thrift and discipline. No one can wave a wand and make the middle class grow. No one waved a wand to make them shrink. With some exceptions, if people have skills and work and save, they will get into the middle class -- or above -- and stay there.”

I am endlessly reminded of what Bernard Baruch, a financier and wise man, told America to do after World War I. “Work and save.” My father used to quote this to me. He was a fan of Bernard Baruch and I think must have met him at some point. It is amazing how what our fathers teach us sticks with us.

Then, after beautiful Jenna Lee came “Cavuto on Business,” hosted this week by Charles Payne. It was the same usual theme: taxes kill countries. The specific was that Baltimore, home of the Ravens, is dying because it has high taxes. The same thing is going to kill America, suggested the other panelists, Gary Kaltbaum, Charlie Gasperino, and my secret crush, Dagen McDowell.

“Look, why don’t we just not have any taxes at all?” I suggested. “If they’re that bad for us, why have them at all?”

That did not seem to impress anyone but me and maybe my friend from San Francisco, the super-smart Adam Lashinsky.

There is a point here, though. We pay taxes to have a responsible, lasting fiscal structure. Somehow the idea that taxes are per se bad has taken hold and it is a dangerous idea.

Yes, we want taxes to be low, but we do not want to live by the printing press. That way lies genuine ruin.

One of the other panelists noted that Chicago and Detroit also have high taxes and are falling apart, which supposedly proved that high taxes kill cities. “I think there are other factors involved,” I said. But my makeup artist shot me a warning glance, so I went no farther. In any event, I love Chicago and I don’t think it’s falling apart at all.

The high point of the show: Charlie Gasperino was talking about restaurants that offer discounts to families with well-behaved, quiet children. “When I was a kid, I’d get the back of my father’s hand if I talked too much,” said Charlie.

“He obviously didn’t do it enough,” said Adam Lashinsky. He was referring to Mr. Gasperino’s constant interruptions of everyone, especially Adam. It was a great wisecrack and we all laughed like mad, even Charlie. Fun to be on a panel on TV.

Then, back to makeup to get to see pictures of my makeup girl’s super sweet baby girl, Mayzie Joy, and then home in the rain.

That manifesto-writing cop-killing psycho is apparently up in the high Sierras and the cops have lost the trail. Great.

I got home and felt exhausted. So did my wife, so we slept all afternoon with our dogs -- my gorgeous, loving Julie, and her pitiful, hairless, asthmatic Pomeranian. It was bliss.

Every so often, I would check on the super blizzard hitting the northeast. Scary. But probably beautiful if you live in a high rise or as my sister does in Brooklyn Heights, in a co-op with a panoramic unobstructed view of the harbor. Great if you can lie in bed with your dog and watch the snow fall.

At about 5.30, I went over to the house from the guest house and had some chicken soup. Great stuff. My messenger appeared with tragic tales of her medical mystery tours and almost simultaneously, one of my beneficiaries appeared to get a check. She also had her tales of medical woe. They swapped stories of how many painkillers they were taking and which anti-depressants and which benzodiazepines. They were also carefully looking at me and the other perhaps trying to figure out how to kill the other so there would be one less mouth for me to feed and therefore a bigger share for her. Maybe that’s just my imagination.

I was glad to see them both leave so I could go back to the guest house (which is just a large room above the garage) and lie down with my wife and my Julie Goodgirl. I am really a very blessed man to have them in my life and to live in a warm, dry space.

The only sure way to instant wealth -- gratitude.

Saturday
So this is how it goes if you are a police officer. You’re sitting at a stoplight in Los Angeles with your son and a madman with a high-powered weapon and a low-powered brain opens up on you, killing you both. Or you’re on patrol in Riverside with your partner and the same madman shoots you and kills one of you and wounds the other. He has just a few minutes before that shot at two other law enforcement men in the nearby town of Corona.

So, that’s your life if you’re a cop and that’s your death. A crazy person with a grievance figures he can make it right by shooting you.

I wish this were a geographically confined phenomenon, but it’s not. It can happen in Texas or Illinois or even in New York City. By virtue of wearing the uniform that promises law and order to the rest of us, you get a target painted on your back.

Meanwhile, comedians make jokes about you eating donuts and TV shows and movies portray you as crooked or incompetent. And politicians who would pass out if they faced the dangers you face every hour of every day complain that the pensions you earn if you manage to survive to retirement are too much for the taxpayers to afford. Yes, those same taxpayers whose lives you are saving with your own lives. Those taxpayers. They cannot afford to pay you the pensions you have been promised so you can spend whatever is left of your life fishing on Lake Pendoreille.

Talk about a tough gig. On the one hand, any creep you pull over for a broken brake light can take out a Glock and kill you. The tension leaves you with too many suicides. On the other hand, some people say you’re overpaid.

I am not sure how you can overpay someone for offering up his life for us citizens every single day. But that’s what it means to be a cop.

Meanwhile, I am awfully glad we have them on our side. I wouldn’t want to face that madman by myself.

Sunday
A good night’s sleep after an hour trying to figure out Batman--the Dark Knight Rises. It was too complicated for me so I gave up. Alex and I did have a fine sushi dinner at Yoshi. I recommend that place highly. In West Hollywood. On Santa Monica. It looks dreadful but the food is great. Service is even better. Remember to tip the sushi men.

I lay in bed and read in Military History magazine about Lieutenant Tarleton, a vicious British cavalryman who behaved with great cruelty to the colonists in the Revolution. Except that sometimes he was quite respectful. But at other times, he was simply a war criminal, an actual murdering-of-the-surrendered-and-wounded war criminal. I had not known about him. I hope he’s suffering a lot in hell.

I also read about how very much of the Revolution was fought in my new favorite state of South Carolina. Lots of action and lots of patriots and lots of blood. I suspect that gave them a good reason to believe they should start the next Revolution, the one against Lincoln.

I think I shall have to get and read a history of South Carolina.

Meanwhile, I played with Julie Goodgirl, rubbed her perfect fur, looked her in her ever loving eyes, thanked God for my wife and for the fact that we are still together after all these years -- 45 years! I bless my parents for that. They stayed together and so we had the example of staying together. They were not always ecstatic with the other, but they stayed together and my sister and her husband have been together for 51 years and wifey and I for 45 years.

I owe more than I can possibly describe to my parents. And far more than that to Big Wifey, who just brought me a cup of tea. Tazo Refresh. Best tea on earth. Best wife on earth.

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About the Author

Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes "Ben Stein's Diary" for every issue of The American Spectator.