Ben Stein's Diary

Houston, We’ve Got a Problem

We really are pretty far gone.

By From the April 2011 issue

Here I am in Houston. I flew here on a Continental flight last night. It was an absolutely perfect flight. There was even great food -- yummy mushroom soup and a cheeseburger. I have never had a well-prepared cheeseburger on an airplane before, but this one was darned good. I sat next to someone I have completely forgotten, so he must have been fine. The people in front of me hardly put their seats back at all, the usual curse of my existence on an airplane, and I arrived in Houston feeling happy.

At the gate was a young man named Gary who had been sent to make sure I didn't get lost. He was a high school physics and chemistry teacher and quite realistic about the crisis in American education. He teaches at a school that is almost all African American and Hispanic.

He told me the kids have such chaotic home lives, live in such turmoil, and are often so drugged they can barely think straight. Their classrooms are unruly and undisciplined and far too many of them arrive in school exhausted and chemically loaded.

Nevertheless, said he, occasionally one comes out with quite a smart answer to a chemistry question. He was a kind, caring guy, and I was impressed that he was earning a few extra dollars working as a greeter at the airport.

We were picked up by a driver in an electric cart who took us through the airport at a breakneck pace. He kept calling out, "Cart coming through" and then he would say "move left" or "move right" and the passengers on the concourse did just as he said. He had an amazingly authoritative voice. Commanding, but not insolent or rude.

Gary noticed it, too. It was one of the most unusual voices I have ever heard. A perfect voice for a field marshal.

("Croyez-vous la parole d'un Rosenthal ou d'un Marechal?" asks Erich von Stroheim of a French aristocrat who is a POW in a WWI German prison camp along with a wealthy Jewish fellow named Rosenthal.

The aristocrat says something like, "Ca vaut la même de la mienne," which means, "It's as good as mine." I know I have the French wrong. Maybe some kind reader will correct me.)

However, the voice was at Houston George H. W. Bush airport, not in Europe on a battlefield.

A capable driver whisked me to the J. W. Marriott Hotel in downtown Houston where my pals Joe and Ray Lucia were waiting for me. We went off to a restaurant called Del Frisco. We had a fairly good meal. I noted with great pleasure that the clientele at this very expensive restaurant was extremely racially mixed. Everyone was getting along with everyone else and it was swell.

When I was a child growing up in Maryland and D.C., it was unheard of to see African American customers at high-end restaurants. Come to think of it, it was in New York, too. It makes me happy indeed that blacks and whites enjoy the restaurants together and all in a great mood. This is amazing progress that never gets talked about.

Then back to my room to ruminate on the economy. I am speaking about it in the morning. I had to navigate through an immense crowd of Syrian Maronite Christians, who are a presence in Houston. They had been having a big party at the hotel. They were well dressed and pleasant, and why not? Finally, I got to my room and started writing. I find I think better as I am writing.

A few thoughts on the economy:

1. The recession was caused by human error, by the banks, by the borrowers, by the Fed, by the Treasury. Despite overwhelming evidence that you must never let a large bank fail in a crisis, Bernanke and Paulson let Lehman fail. This was as big a mistake as has ever been made in finance. There are still a lot of confused humans out there in positions of high power.

2. The recovery was swift in the finance sector, and TARP was a great piece of work. Credit where it's due, to Paulson and Bernanke, who thought it up and put it into play. I am well aware that many of the same people with whom I share beliefs about the sanctity of life and about Mr. Obama's contempt for the Constitution loathed TARP. But I am not running for office and, with great respect to those fine people, TARP was an immense success. It stabilized the whole financial system at trivial cost to the taxpayers.

3. The Obama stimulus plan has had questionable results, at best. An immense sum spent for little observable result.

4. The bailout of the auto industry was ethically dicey but worked out well in practice. A United States of America without a robust USA-owned auto and truck sector is not a true industrial power. As a matter of national defense, it is also vital to have such entities.

5. The banks are not lending for housing the way they should be. Once burned, twice shy. If they would start lending for housing again, the economy would recover faster. The possible demise of Fannie and Freddie is a looming disaster for housing and should not happen. It is possible to greatly tighten up lending standards without killing government aid to housing.

Nations are more stable when they have more homeowners. That's important. Not to be trifled with. If Mr. Obama and others think America as a nation of renters is the same as America as a nation of homeowners, they have a lot to learn.

6. The whole idea behind Keynesian stimulus -- that a dollar of government spending will generate more than a dollar of economic activity, or provide more stimulus than it costs -- was always just a hypothesis and has never been proved and probably cannot be, which makes it in a class with...

7. Supply-side economics, which says that cutting taxes by a dollar will generate so much economic growth that it soon produces more tax revenue than it loses. This never had any data to back it up and still doesn't. It has thrown the whole Republican Party out of the arena of commonsense Eisenhower Republicanism, and this is a bad thing. It leads us Republicans into all kinds of dangerous neighborhoods we don't want to be in. It has been an immense contributor to the scary deficits we now face.

Nevertheless, we seem to be having a recovery.

As I sat in my neat hotel room eating toast and thinking about all of this, I realized once again how little we economists know about economics. I am beginning to question whether even the greatest economics genius of all history, Adam Smith, had it right when he said that human beings tend to try to maximize their own utility.

If that's true, why do we have so many alcoholics? Why do we have so many drug addicts? So many high school dropouts? Why do we have so many severely obese people? I wonder if we would be closer to the truth to say that "the ideal" person tends to maximize his utility, but there are few ideal people on this earth.

Well, enough of that. Time to sleep.

I am out in our house in Malibu. I flew home yesterday after my speech in Houston. The flight was a nightmare. It left an hour late. The man in front of me kept putting his seat so far back his head was in my lap as if I were his barber. He was a pleasant fellow but he had zero regard for little me. (Maybe that's normal. I guess it is.)

Across the aisle from me was a stout woman with extremely thick black hair. She kept playing with it and fluffing it and twisting it. In my mind, she was sending horrifying clouds of dandruff into the air. Yuck. I really felt ill, no, not ill, sick, watching her. Just as I was about to summon the courage to beg her to stop contaminating us with her incredibly thick hair, she turned to me and told me how much she loved me on TV. So, I held my tongue.

The flight from Houston to LAX took about 4 hours and 20 minutes, which is roughly what it takes from Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C. to LAX. How can that possibly be? What was that pilot doing?

Back in L.A., wifey and the dogs were waiting for me with delicious leftovers and that was nice. Too cold for a swim, but otherwise great.

Anyway, as I started to say, tonight I am out at our house in Malibu watching the Oscars show. Who are these people who are the host and hostess? Anne Hathaway? Who the heck is she? Who is that young guy with her? They are occupying the position Bob Hope used to occupy? They are like small children playing dress up, and their parents' clothes don't fit at all.

Other than that, the show went well. Well, not really. Poor Natalie Portman gave a well-intentioned speech in which literally every other word was "ummm" or "y'know," as if she were a valley girl. Maybe she is a valley girl. I don't get her at all.

The real problem with the awards though was the usual: THERE IS A WAR ON! WAKE THE HELL UP, HOLLYWOOD. There is a war on. In fact, two wars. Remember, last year you gave an Oscar to a highly talented woman who directed a movie about the war in Iraq (at least in a loose way)? Well, that war is still going on, and we also have another one in a place called "Afghanistan." Americans are fighting and dying in those wars. Americans are laying down their lives, their limbs, their futures, their families' peace of mind and they deserve a major league shout-out from the Hollywood powers that be.

How can the people who wrote and produced the show face themselves in the mirror if they don't make the performers thank the men and women fighting our wars for us? How can the people who make movies -- a difficult task, to be sure -- even remotely think that the people who fight our wars do not deserve to be mentioned? How can they even think that for an instant?

Alas, this is getting to be a constant problem. Hollywood does not have much gratitude for the people who are the real stars -- the guys at Camp Garry Owen and at FOBs all over Iraq and Afghanistan...and their families.

We really are pretty far gone.

I was going to stay out in Malibu but my wife said that my ancient German short-haired pointer, Brigid, was missing me and looking sad and falling down, so I packed up and came back to Beverly Hills. The streets were deserted. Everyone was watching the coverage of the post-awards parties. I used to get invited to them when my wife was a high official at Paramount and then at United Artists. Now, we have leftovers with the dogs and cats.

Much, much better.

But I keep thinking that there is something wildly askew when we have our best in freezing tents in terrifying places getting shot at in Iraq and Afghanistan, and here at home, we have televised parties where women wear dresses that cost as much as a non-com makes in six months and no one even mentions the troops. How can that be? How can we survive with such terrible values? What country that ignored its most important citizens ever survived?

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
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.