Ben Stein's Diary

Sweet Home Americana

A very busy week in Alabama and at The American Spectator. But a poisonous end, thanks to the Times.

By 10.28.13

I awakened in my hotel room at the Marriott Shoals resort and conference center and looked out my window. What did I behold there but a huge river, which I guessed to be the mighty Tennessee, with a gigantic dam running across it. It was the Wilson dam of the TVA. I hastily ate my breakfast, got dressed, and walked on a sidewalk over the dam. Next to the sidewalk was a two-lane highway and cars and trucks wandered across sporadically.

Occasionally a driver would lift his forefinger off the steering wheel in a country salute. My wife, a country girl at heart, often talks about how her Big Daddy in Idabel, Oklahoma, her grandfather, would greet his friends and neighbors that way in his old Chevrolet pickup in the 1950s and early 1960s. I felt as if this gesture by the passersby on the Wilson Dam conveyed to me a sense of belonging in “Sweet Home Alabama,” or “the freedom of the neighborhood” as Fitzgerald would have said.

I hiked until about the middle of the dam, a long way for an old man, and then I walked back, as more people lifted their finger off the steering wheel to greet me.

Then, some lunch. I had the Shoals’ incredibly delicious rolls. I don’t know how they make them, but they are fabulously good. They’re not cornbread but some kind of other bread that just is heavenly. Maybe if someone at the Shoals Marriott reads this, she can let me know.

Writing a few tweaks on my speech for this evening, then off to the event, which was conveniently at the Marriott Conference Center. The audience were lovely, pleasant people, including a woman who remembered George Wallace well. We laughed and joked and then I gave my speech, to a kindly reception.

Then, back to the café at the Shoals hotel, where a musician was playing Beatles songs. A plump woman, well into her cups, asked me if I would dance with her. I politely declined but she insisted and I kept declining. It reminded me that the night before, two different women, both fantastically drunk, asked me to dance with them and I declined then, too.

Long ago, I was a wizard dancer, pretty much through college, but it has all fallen away, like many of my other youthful abilities.

Then, sleep, that most blessed of states.

My driver, the redoubtable Maurice, picked me up at about 2 and we headed for Huntsville. Maurice is a strong-looking black man. He told me about his career as a high school wrestler in the 215 weight class. He had won hundreds of matches and only lost a couple. He said he had just picked it up and was just strong, never did any weight lifting or other exercises. Just naturally strong.

His comments reminded me of our son, who was a championship wrestler in junior high, but gave it up, alas. I remember taking wrestling in gym class at Columbia, I was then a weight lifter and I could beat most of the kids in the class, but one man beat me.

What was his name? Waters? Carl Waters?

I asked my driver, Maurice, age 32, if he had ever in his life felt that he was being mistreated because of his race in Alabama or anywhere in the South.

“Never,” he said. “Not once.”

As I brooded on this, he added, “But when I was selling coupon machines for grocery stores, some people in a small town in Oregon told me I had better be out of there by sundown, so I headed back across the mountains to Portland.”

Interesting. Not surprising. Some of those small towns in the Northwest can be a bit interesting.

A little farther down the road, we saw a high school emptying out. By total chance, it was Brooks High School. By total further chance, I had seen a story in the local newspaper about the Homecoming Queen at Brooks High School. I asked Maurice to pull in, and he did, and I walked through a throng of students to see the principal, a very smart man, and his many colleagues. I grilled them on what their students were reading in advanced English. The responses were wonderful: Fitzgerald, Faulkner, other great names. I was really impressed.

I told the principal that I would come back and sit in on some classes, and I will. What a heady experience it would be to see students actually learning. I forgot to mention that as I walked into the principal’s office, I saw a girl with blue hair reading Animal Farm.

“That’s a great book,” I said to her.

She looked at me as if I were an alien and went back to her book. So much for celebrity.

I really liked Alabama and plan to spend time there.

The flight from Huntsville to DCA was almost perfect. There was not a soul in first class except for me and one other man. The cabin was dark and silent. I thought, “This US Air flight is the best flight I have ever been on.” Then, in the last ten minutes, two goofy stewardesses started gabbing in the galley, waking us up. Don’t they have any idea that passengers like to sleep on planes? Maybe not. Maybe they think the plane is their own private playpen.

The Annual Bob Bartley Dinner of The American Spectator. It was at the J.W. Marriott at 14th and Pennsylvania. It was packed. I was M.C. The guest speakers were Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Gary Sinise and the regular speaker was our lifelong copain, Bob Tyrrell.

All of the speeches were good, but I have a bit of a bone to pick with Senator Cruz, whom I basically like a lot. The fine solon spoke at modest length about the ongoing budget crises in the capital and in the nation. The solution, he said in a likely way, was to have more growth. “Just one stinking per cent more growth...” as he put it, would solve many of our problems.

He gave out a list of numbers, many of which I recognize from the Wall Street Journal’s many pieces about “dynamic scoring,” referring to the hoped for effects from lower taxes. If these numbers are right, then all of our problems are solved.

The giant problem is that as far as experience has shown, those numbers are not right. When we cut taxes, we get bigger, not smaller budget deficits. There simply has been no evidence that -- apart from other factors -- lower income taxes produce higher revenues and lower deficits. It just isn’t there. The data that lowering taxes brings in -- at least over the medium term -- lower revenues -- is quite clear.

Plus, and just as important, when the economy is growing at maybe 2 percent, raising growth to 3 percent is raising it by 50 percent (from 2 to 3). That is a gigantic exercise.

Dear Senator Cruz, we had in place a system of running the economy which I would call the Samuelson/Keynesian model. It said that it was a good idea to match taxes with spending, to have a big government that provided an “automatic stabilizing” effect on the business cycle, and that a responsible people ran a surplus in good times and a modest deficit in bad times to stimulate the economy.

Somehow, by a confluence of the impressive but wrong Friedmanite idea of “starve the beast” anti-government tax reduction and some wacky kind of totally unproved Lafferite, Wanniski-ite idea that lowering taxes would automatically raise economic activity and thus revenues by a meaningful amount -- enough to offset the tax cuts -- we got “supply side” as GOP policy.

It does not work. It does not increase revenues and it does not automatically raise economic activity. That idea was just plain wrong. It was, as someone like Hoover said, “an experiment noble in purpose,” but it did not work under Reagan or Bush 43.

The reason we have these chronic budget crises is PARTLY that taxes are just too low. That was where the crisis started in 2002. The other part is that entitlements are too high. We have one huge block in the nation that wants huge entitlements. We have another smaller but highly influential block that wants lower taxes. As they both get what they want, the gap between them is measured in the budget deficit. It is enormous, terrifying, overwhelming and both sides have got to give here to get the problem solved. We need higher taxes and lower entitlements. It can be done.

Well, enough on that. I know that maybe one person who reads this will agree with me. Maybe not even one. But I am right anyway. My father pointed this out for decades and so have I, but I doubt if my son will have any interest in the subject.

After the dinner, my driver, and pal, Bob, and I had sushi at Hamilton’s, an immense restaurant owned by the people who started Clyde’s in Georgetown, where Cathy Rasenberger once worked as a hostess. Or was that Nan Graham? Someone young and beautiful.

Hamilton’s occupies the ground floor and the basement of what was once Julius Garfinckel, a high-end clothing store of about eight stories, my mother’s favorite place in the world, long gone now. How she loved that store. Breaks my heart thinking about it. She was rarely happy but she loved her time at Garfinckel’s. I once saw John Sparkman there trying on a suit. Senator from Alabama. Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in 1952. Handsome man.

I slept in my gorgeous apartment at the Watergate. I cannot afford it any longer but I am happy there. Wifey has gone to some charity thing in Massachusetts, so I am just there with my memories and my music.

Oh, and of course, The Great Gatsby on DVD but I have pressed some damned button on the remote control and subtitles in English keep coming up and it drives me insane.

Back to LAX from DCA on a tiny little American Airlines 737. The checkers at TSA are incredibly friendly. But my seat mate was a woman who told me I looked as if I were 88 (I am 68), told me I was too fat to have a cookie, told me she was from a fantastically rich Jewish family (they owned Clairol) and generally made my life hell on that plane. I don’t think I have ever had such an unpleasant person sit next to me. She probably thought she was being helpful.

Ah, but when I walked in the door, there was Julie Goodgirl, the love of my life, the girl of my dreams. So, all is well.

Well, not quite. After a long snooze and work, I looked at Sunday's New York Times. The leading front page story on the right side of the page was about how inflation helps profits, helps borrowers, is a boon to everyone. Retailers can raise prices. Borrowers can pay back more cheaply. So, inflation is a good thing. This, supposedly is the viewpoint of Mrs. Yellen, the new nominee for Chair of the Fed.

Nonsense, and I do not believe for a minute Mrs. Yellen believes it. Inflation raises prices for the retailer, raises repayment costs for lenders, tortures people on fixed incomes.

In the days long ago of Harry Truman, many economists believed, perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly, that inflation showed healthy demand and that was good. But inflation by itself is a bad thing. Saying it's a good thing is like saying sweat is a good thing, independent of whether or not one is exercising.

How can the New York Times have such shoddy work? They have a genuinely well-educated economist by the name of Krugman working for them. They could have checked with him about it. To run a story showing this much ignorance shocks the conscience.

Then on the left lead, there was a story about how great legalized marijuana is. Brings in tax revenues, discourages drunk driving, great stuff.

What total vicious lies. Take it from a man who has seen the lives of the dearest in his life devastated by powerful legal marijuana, who has seen his friends die or turn to zombies from legal marijuana: marijuana is POISON. Just plain legalized poison. Addictive, trance inducing, devastating.

The people who wrote that article and edited it have obviously got no sense at all of the subject. It is as if they were discussing human slavery and pointing out what a great business it is without regard to the moral vileness of the matter. Drug addiction is a form of slow slavery and suicide of oneself and homicide of the people around one. For the Times to be cheerleading something so vicious, with so much enthusiasm, is not just nauseatingly stupid. It is immoral. 

What do we have here? Pornography is legal. God is illegal in schools. Murder of babies is legal. God is becoming illegal in the military. Who won the Cold War? Godless, materialistic Bolshevism or the United States of America as we used to know it?

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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.