Ben Stein's Diary

I’m Being Tested

A recession survival guide from our indispensable monthly Diarist.

By From the December 2009 - January 2010 issue

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FRIDAY

D-day. After many weeks and even months of resisting my doctor's urgings to get an angiogram, off I go with said doctor, Paul Grodan, MD, to get the damned test. I am having my driver, Mr. Milkey Imtiaz, drive me down there to a hospital in a faraway neighborhood called Torrance. I am scared but I have taken Valium and it helps a lot. Plus Dr. Grodan is talking nonstop so that's distracting.

The test comes after a long period of breathlessness. Now, this breathlessness comes and goes. I felt totally breathless when Irving Kristol died. I felt as if I would die from lack of oxygen when Bill Safire died. But if I swim for an hour (well, maybe half an hour), I feel great. Actually, since my other great doc, Bill Skinner, MD, gave me Singulair, I have felt a lot better. But Dr. Grodan thinks I may die of heart disease at any second so I am having the test. He actually sent me a letter warning me I was about to die.

I love my life and I am not eager to die right now, so I am doing this test. I think the idea is that if I show signs of blockage, they will put a stent in me within a day or two. I promise I will not like that at all. But, as a brave old soldier, actually, a total whining crybaby, I am having the test.

What they do, see, is they lay me down and shoot a radioactive contrast dye into my big juicy veins. Then, thanks to General Electric, we have a powerful CAT Scan 64-slice thing take millions of microscopic images of my heart and its adjacent arteries. The part that scares me is the needle. I HATE NEEDLES. I always have hated needles and feared them. I do not like anyone at all shooting radioactive dye into my veins. Or taking anything out of my veins.

However, the capable people at this lab froze my skin at the elbow with something so I didn't even feel the needle and I actually felt quite good throughout. I prayed to God and thanked God for my parents, for Nixon, for my sister, and for Alex and the dogs and Tommy, and I sang the Montgomery Blair fight song to myself and soon it was over. There were loud huzzahs from the room where the images were being read, and soon everyone was telling me how great my arteries looked.

Well, not great, but good enough. Little bits of plaque. No imminent heart attack. YAY!

Dr. Grodan, Mr. Milkey, and I zoomed off. Dr. Grodan and I stopped for a modest sandwich in Beverly Hills. He told me about his parents, both Holocaust survivors, mom just died at age 92. Wow, wow, wow. And now we are in Beverly Hills with our arteries fairly clear. I am HAPPY, HAPPY, HAPPY. God has been so unbelievably good to me. Beyond good. His blessings are beyond measure.

I got home and took a nap with my Brigit and my Cleo and felt happy. My wife is in Martha's Vineyard visiting her friends Linda and Justin, so I have the dogs to myself. (The downside is that I also have the kitties, who are cute but disgusting, too. The male kitties urinate in inappropriate spots.)

Then I swam and I felt great. Really, really great.

THURSDAY

Well, now it's not quite as great. I was headed for LAX to go on a long speaking trip when what should I get but a call from the doctor who runs the GE 64-slice center. He's been studying my pictures. Turns out I do have some blockage in one artery, but, as he says, it's not a very important artery, whatever that can mean, and it's not much of a blockage. He assures me I am not about to have a heart attack, but I do have to take Lipitor.

This is a bit of a downer. But what can I expect? I eat too much food, way too much fatty food, and I have bad heredity. Thank God for Big Pharma, who make these great drugs that keep me alive, fend off old age at least somewhat, and keep me a lot calmer than I would otherwise be. Thank God.

Anyway, I got on the Alaska flight to Seattle and fell asleep. At the Fairmont, the kind night manager gave me a spectacular suite. It was HUGE and I loved it and fell into a happy sleep.

FRIDAY.

Oooh. a big, big day. I have a whole day with a lovely bunch of conservatives at the Washington Policy Center. We had an event at a club I liked a lot. It's called the Rainier Club. Lots of paneling and marble. I like it. A great group of men and women who get the threats to America represented by the current political class. I loved those people very much.

Then a nap and then more talking, many, many, many, many photos, along with my old pal, Steve Moore from the edit page of the Wall Street Journal. He and I do not agree on much, but he is about as likable a man as I have ever met. He is also the most politically gifted person I have ever met in my whole life. He has U.S. senator or maybe even president all over him. I hope he gets over some of his economics beliefs by then, but probably he won't. I like him anyway. Life is personal and not political, as Wlady says. The whole Washington Policy Center group were a great bunch and I wish I lived in their midst.

Then dinner and I gave a speech to a rousing reception. Back to my room, to a scoop of chocolate ice cream at a palatial dining table, and then back to sleep. I have miles to go before this trip is over. MILES. In the morning, off to Colorado Springs. Yippee. The Broadmoor. One of my faves.

SATURDAY

Oops. This is another problem day. I spoke to a fine group of men and women who work in ocean-based industries and enjoyed myself except for a question by a man who thought I was one of those Hollywood stars opposed to offshore drilling. I explained to him repeatedly that I actually made fun of those people and was all for offshore drilling -- that it was, in fact, a necessity. I am not sure he ever got it.

Anyway, this lovely Broadmoor, one of the nation's premier resorts, is at about 6,200 feet of elevation, or so I am told. In other words, the air is thin. I am having a LOT of trouble breathing. Plus, I am tired from travel. But it's mainly altitude. "In the mountains, there you feel free," said T. S. Eliot, but in the mountains I feel asthma.

I stood in a steamy shower for a long time and that helped but I still felt alarmingly short of breath.

I lay in my bed and put a heating pad on my chest and tried to distract myself by making a list of interesting points about the economy. They actually are a little bit interesting so I will share some of them with you, since you can see that I survived the night:

1. This is the first major recession caused by a series of immense blunders by the private sector, and only some by government. The government encouraged making too many unsound loans, but they did not compel the level of risk undertaken. The government also failed to regulate risk on the financial front in any meaningful way.

But the really devastating mistakes were made by the private sector in collateralizing so many unsound mortgages and then selling them into the world's financial bloodstream, as if they were tuberculosis germs. The private sector greatly multiplied risk by then adding colossal wagers upon the mortgage market in the form of credit default swaps. These were supposed to be insurance policies on mortgage-backed bonds that would pay off the owners of the bonds if the bonds failed. Instead, they became ghoulish wagers on the housing market only multiplied dozens of times because the buyers of the wagers did not need to have any interest in the underlying bond. Thus any amount of CDSs could be sold.

When they had to be paid off, it turned out that the "insurers," such as AIG and Lehman, did not have even remotely the resources needed to pay them off.

Who wound up paying them off? Well, if the creditor was Goldman Sachs, the taxpayers paid them off at 100 cents on the dollar. If the creditor was someone else, it was just what the parties could negotiate.

In a way, when the taxpayers paid off Goldman's $175 billion wager with dying AIG, it was the biggest private raid on the Treasury of all time. And this was done by Obama! The Democrat!

Plus, of course, the government showed wild favoritism with catastrophic results by bailing out various entities that were pals of Goldman's, like Bear Stearns and Bank of America, while allowing Lehman to fail.

So, this recession was basically caused by super bad private mistakes and just plain wagering, made worse by government action and inaction.

2. Why isn't it getting better sooner? The banks made such disastrous mistakes in their lending and wagering that they are now gun-shy about any lending at all except to the federal government. And the feds encourage this. The feds will lend to the banks at almost zero -- and then borrow the money back at 3.7 percent. If the banking sector does this in the trillions, as they do, they make a lot of money. Why bother taking the risk of lending to small business when you can do so well just buying Treasury bonds? Yet without credit going to small business, there will be no recovery.

3. Then there is the problem of Mr. Obama introducing so much uncertainty into the markets by creating so many new programs and changes in health care and energy. Growth requires lending and some stability and we have neither.

4. Then there's the problem of the changing labor force...changing in composition and productivity, which is a huge problem....

Oh, well, now I felt sleepy and could breathe a bit....

In the morning I will be in Iowa, at Morningside College in Sioux City, and I will be able to breathe again, down there at sea level, with the world's kindest people.

Good night.

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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.