Ben Stein's Diary

Nothing but Fear Itself

By From the July - Aug 2012 issue

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ALEX AND I ARE AT OUR HOUSE IN MALIBU. You simply cannot imagine how beautiful the weather is here today. Cloudless blue skies. No humidity at all. Slight breeze. Temps in mid-70s. Birds of all kinds, especially some kind of blue birds (maybe blue jays), flying all around, singing perfectly.

Immense hawks with forked tails also cruise by all day long looking for prey. Actually, we were supposed to be in D.C. attending memorial services at Arlington. But gnarled McFate (a Nabokov reference) stepped in. Two nights ago, I got a call from someone very close to me, a woman I am fond of, to put it mildly. She told me that her 24-year-old son, of whom I am also extremely fond, was having a nervous breakdown. The poor kid has been having one problem after another, so I ran right over.

He was standing in his undershorts (boxers, probably a gift from my wife and me) covered in blue food dye. He had several bowls of blue water on the counter in front of him. In the bowls, immersed in the water, were various bits of takeout Japanese food.

To make a horrendously long story short, the young fellow believed that there were microchips embedded in his rice, that some of the fish skin from his sushi was attacking some other skin in a bowl, and that persons unknown were attacking him with fishing line and fishhooks. He also thought that I was audio recording him and that my friend (his mom) was videotaping him.

It took until four in the morning to get him even a bit calmed down. By then, my wife and I were so tired from helping the young man and his family that we were in no shape at all to travel in the morning. I am bitterly sorry about missing that super special event.

At all events, here we are in Malibu. The young man is really a smart, lovely person, but he is going through a horrible time. If he took his meds on a regular schedule, he would be a lot better off.

His mother and my wife and I thank God every single day for the pharmaceutical companies that at least keep some small semblance of a lid on this kid’s soul. Where would we be without those scientists and their companies? The progress that has been made in antipsychosis, anti-schizophrenia drugs is simply fantastic. These are lifesaving creations of the human mind.

I do not believe this kid would be alive without these prescriptions. But he will take them, and he will get better and make a real contribution to society someday. Thanks to the pharmaceutical companies, from the bottom of my heart. They make life possible for so many millions of people every day.

HERE IN MALIBU, I slept late along with my Julie Good Girl, my perfect German shorthaired pointer, and then I got up and prayed a lot for that young man and for the hero soldiers, Marines, airmen, sailors, Merchant Marine, war workers, OSS, CIA, FBI, Coast Guard, police, and prison guards who keep us safe. What can we do or say that is enough for these spectacular men and women? There will never be enough roses to throw in their paths.

In a related vein, if I had my way about education, I would require that The World at War, the marvelous 30-hour series about World War II from the UK, be shown to every grade-school boy and girl in this country starting right now. This would be a much better country with more gratitude for the people who keep us free and safe. What happened to teaching gratitude? Back at Parkside Elementary, long ago and far away, on its green and leafy campus in Silver Spring, Maryland, we were taught to love and praise the USA endlessly. Many of us were the grandchildren of immigrants. We had seen the miracle of America in our lives, our families going from poverty to solid middle-class status in a matter of decades. Every father of every boy and girl had been in the war as a military man or a war worker. It showed. We really loved this country.

The few kids who complained about America—usually children of Party members—did so about racism and did so with affection. I just cannot recall anyone who seriously doubted that we were the most fortunate kids who ever lived to be growing up in America in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. There simply was no ingratitude, just as there were no overweight kids except maybe one or two.

This was a different America. In some ways, it was worse than today, because there was explicit, legally sanctioned racism and vile sexism, but in some ways it was a far more confident, happier world. It was a club…the best club in the world, and we all belonged.

If someone told us we would have a First Lady who had been given every possible opportunity America had to offer and then had said that she never felt proud to be an American until her husband was named his party’s nominee for president, it would not have been conceivable.

As I say, a different world. I can remember reading a book in the mid-1950s about a Soviet takeover of the United States. The first thing the Russians did was round up all of the CPUSA members and shoot them. The Russians reasoned that if these people were dissatisfied with the best country on earth, they would be really, really dissatisfied with Red Amerika, and would make trouble. Why not do the sensible thing and shoot them all right away?

AFTER MY PRAYERS, I made a lavish brunch for Alex and me. Eggs, sausage, Thomas’ English muffins (the world’s single best food), O.J., and Tazo Refresh Tea with honey. I made it and cleaned up from it. My father earned his way through Williams College—where my genius colleague Susan Reifer also went—partly washing dishes. I feel in touch with him when I do it.

Then I looked around my very tiny home and saw that some horrible little rodents had been nesting in the bed in the downstairs guest bedroom. I had to totally strip the bed and wash everything in scalding water in my great Kenmore washer and dryer. I bought those at the Sears in Oxnard about 15 years ago, maybe more. They still work perfectly. It is amazing to me how well made most appliances are. They work their little souls Out and then they can be fixed and made to work some more. They never get tired and rarely complain.

Then, after dishwashing, much, much, much filing of statements from Merrill Lynch and Fidelity. How I hate doing that. I really cannot stand to look at any statements about losing money, and that’s what has been my portion lately. I get totally terrified when I am losing my stash. When I was a younger man, I had a father and mother to protect me. Now I don’t have anyone to protect me. Not a soul. I just have me and my savings, laid up against times such as these. And I still get scared. How must a husband or housewife feel who is living from paycheck to paycheck and then loses his or her job? How must people feel who are about to be foreclosed upon and don’t know where they will live?

Fear is a real, cruel, angry entity. It is a virus that robs life of joy. I don’t like seeing it in the eyes of my friend’s son. That’s real fear. That’s nameless, unreasoning fear. I’m not really talking about that kind of mentalillness fear. I’m talking about economic fear—the horrifying fear of literally running out of money. This is perhaps the worst fear there is. I’m reading a magnificent short biography of Hitler by someone named A.N. Wilson. He very correctly says that the specter that has been haunting all of the industrial earth for the last several centuries is the fear of running out of money, of having your home sold, of having your furniture seized, of being on the street. Of such fears are National Socialist German Workers’ Parties formed.

There is way too much of that sort of fear in this great nation now. Men and women are terrified, and with good reason. The downswing has been going on for almost four years. I know there has been recovery in some areas. But the fear is real. It hangs over everything we do, keeps us up at night, wakes us early. Millions have lost their homes. Millions have lost their jobs and their retirements. This is real damage. And we did it to ourselves. The Chinese didn’t do it. The Moslems didn’t do it. We did it to ourselves by trusting too much in the Fat Years and not looking out enough for the Lean Years.

Now we are suffering.

WHAT TO DO? Motivation is everything. We have to feel more optimistic. Then the corporations will spend their huge cash hoards building plants and stores, and we will have more people employed. If we had leadership in this country that our business leaders and home buyers believed in, we would revive in a year.

Alas, we have a political leadership class that believes in taxing the successful. I cannot say I blame them. I know envy, too. And I know we need the tax revenue. I hate deficit spending, but now is not the time to raise taxes on anyone but the very, very richest… and they’ll find a way of getting out of it anyway.

What else can we do? There is an aura of negativity that hangs over Mr. Obama and his pals that frightens Americans in a position to buy homes or build factories. There is just something so dismally downbeat about him that the rest of us get downbeat too.

Let me put it otherwise: One of the great “laws” of economics is Fisher’s Law, for Irving Fisher of Yale. The “law” says Money times Velocity of money (how fast it gets spent) equals Prices times Transactions. MV=PT. We are getting a staggering rise in the stock of Money, almost a terrifying rise. It just went vertical after the crashes in 2007, 2008, and 2009. But we are also getting virtually nil Velocity, as businesses and families live in fear. This keeps Transactions low. (We also have a maddening rise in Prices that the government simply pretends is not happening. I wish I could take Dr. Bernanke shopping at Pavilions, a remodeled Safeway brand that is expensive on a breathtaking scale, with prices rising literally day by day. Maybe then he would not keep up the bromides about inflation being “well controlled.”)

We are a nation in the motivation doldrums. A Reagan would snap us out of it. He would cheer us up and make us go out and spend. Not Mr. Obama. He keeps us in fear. Not good.

Enough thinking about this. Enough thinking altogether. Time to start marinating the delicious salmon I am going to grill for Alex and me tonight.

I have to lie out on the deck and watch the hawks, too. Life is short, and I dare not think of how late it is. For now, I am just watching the hawks and the ocean and stroking the head of my Julie Good Girl. And thanking God for the people who make it all possible, who sleep in glory. I have done enough for now.

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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.