Ben Stein's Diary

Recession Diary

The wages of sin on a Labor Day weekend.

By 9.9.10

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Sunday
Now, this is almost funny but not really. It's Labor Day weekend. I am up in Sandpoint with my wife and my pal, Phil DeMuth. I am feeling extremely unwell and have been since I got back from the American Legion Convention in Milwaukee on Wednesday. I was a speaker there and privileged to introduce Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to the convention for a speech on Iraq, Afghanistan, and defense policy (a superb speech) and also privileged to speak of my own gratitude to these fine men and women.

But just before I left, Phil facetiously told me I should be careful not to get Legionnaire's Disease. The joke, although it's not really funny, is that now I have a vicious pulmonary disorder that's tearing me to pieces and as I read on line about Legionnaire's Disease, the symptoms are painfully similar.

I do not in the slightest blame the Legion for this, but the hotel was a bit suspect.

Anyway, yesterday I should have stayed in bed all day but I didn't. Instead, I idiotically took some people on a long ride down a very choppy Pendoreille River to get a dreadful meal, enlightened only by an adorable young singer named Joanie who appeared at our table and sang her little heart out. By the time I got back I felt 99% dead.

Well, now it's Sunday and I am having lunch with five local people who bid for lunch with me at a charity auction and won.

These are five simply great people and what they are telling me is making my head spin.

One of the guests is a woman who does psychiatric social work with kids in bad situations in Bonner County. These are the children of meth addicts, alcoholics, and so forth. Her stories of tiny tots left to fend for themselves while their parents go on long benders are heart breaking -- but then she got to the part that made my jaw drop.

"What's really making it worse," she said, "is this 99 week thing. Now that people who are unemployed can get paid for doing nothing for almost two years, some of them just stay high as long as they can and don't do anything else."

"An unintended consequence," said I, "of compassion."

"Yes," she said, "but a consequence for sure."

The man sitting next to me, who used to run a large sawmill near Coeur d'Alene, had another story to tell.

"We had a heck of a time getting workers even at the peak of the boom," he said. "No one wanted to work. No local people wanted to work unless they were already there. The Mexicans would come and work all day but the whites just would not work. Now, they can't get work even if they want it and a lot of them don't even want it. They just want to be paid to do nothing."

It was all very discouraging. On the other hand, these were some of the most interesting, pleasant men and women I have ever met in my life. I don't think I have ever had this interesting a conversation in Los Angeles.

But by the time it was over, I was burning up. I went back to our condo for a nap, felt worse. My wife said she felt terrible, too. So, we dragged Phil along and went to the Bonner General Hospital emergency room a few blocks away. They treated us great. Flawlessly. They gave us medicines, wished us well, and off we went to go home and die.

Tuesday
Wifey and I spent all of Labor Day resting. Sleeping. E mailing, more sleeping. Listening to Warren Buffett's trains roar by. Then a modest dinner at the Trinity Café and then back to sleep.

Today, I did various errands. Summer is really and truly over. It is cold and gray here. I still don't feel well. Plus, I had a deeply unsettling evening. I went out to get some films developed at Wal-Mart. (Yes, I still once in a while use film and I love it.) While I was waiting for the developing, I wandered to the men's room. Next to the rest rooms was a bank of three computers with a sign above saying something like, "Wal-Mart Hiring Center."

Sitting in a chair hunched over a keyboard was a very old man, at least in his 80s, with matted gray hair and beard, struggling to use the set up to apply for a job. A younger woman was very kindly and gently helping him.

I pulled her aside. "Is this man applying for a job here?" I asked.

"Yes," she answered.

"Didn't he work as a greeter here a long time ago?"

"Yes, but now he needs a job again," she said.

At first I felt horrible, and then I thought how great it was that Wal-Mart would probably be giving him a job. What other company in this whole country would do that?

I went home to whine and complain about my life generally and then I got an e-mail that really rocked me. A woman who used to be the girlfriend of a wealthy man, then of another wealthy man, and had recently done some bits of work for me for very good pay, asked for more money. I told her I could not give her more. She said, in essence, that she would then have to become a call girl. I didn't respond. What could I say?

The sad, indeed, horrifying, thing about this is that she might be the fifth or sixth woman I know who has, in recent times, told me calmly that she is about to become a call girl to keep up her life style in the absence of a well paid career -- or maybe just in the absence of any sense of self-respect or work ethic. However you slice it, it is deeply upsetting.

On the other hand, there is that elderly man at Wal-Mart with the guts to still seek to be self-sufficient through his own exertions.

What a world. And then there are the soldiers, shining high above all of it. And the Legionnaires, whom I love so much. What a world.

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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.