Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ben Stein FAIL

Remember when Ben Stein was the endearingly droning voice in a John Hughes movie, saying "Bueller? Bueller?" over and over? And remember when he was the lovable and funny host of Win Ben Stein's Money? Back then, the fact that he had been a speechwriter for Richard Nixon was just a fun bit of trivia.

In the last five or six years however he has re-embraced his Republican roots with a vengeance, taking advantage of the Fox News / right wing media universe to shoulder his way into the orbit of Glenn Beck and comparable bloviators. Most significantly, he wrote and produced a documentary titled Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, an apologia for Creationism dressed up as a critique of closed-minded left-wing university classrooms.

I've always liked Ben Stein, sometimes against my better judgment, and I wish he'd show some of that academic pedigree he boasts of (degree in economic from Columbia, law degree from Yale, a respectable early law career and work in both the Nixon and Ford administrations) ... but instead he seems to want to be the clown, and produce such tendentious and shallow crap as Expelled.

Then he goes and writes things like this about the current state of the U.S. economy:

The people who have been laid off and cannot find work are generally people with poor work habits and poor personalities. I say "generally" because there are exceptions. But in general, as I survey the ranks of those who are unemployed, I see people who have overbearing and unpleasant personalities and/or who do not know how to do a day's work. They are people who create either little utility or negative utility on the job. Again, there are powerful exceptions and I know some, but when employers are looking to lay off, they lay off the least productive or the most negative. To assure that a worker is not one of them, he should learn how to work and how to get along—not always easy.

This little gem of wisdom comes, it should be noted, after he observes that the current recession is the worst he has ever seen and that "many of my friends, who thought they were rolling in real estate equity, find themselves without work and also upside down on their homes, with lofty mortgages to pay, and no ability to sell their homes." So apparently many of Stein's friends have "poor work habits and poor personalities"? Who are you hanging out with, Ben? Oh, right—you live in Hollywood.

But seriously—the "poor people are lazy" meme doesn't tend to get so baldly stated any more, at least not in a crappy economy caused by some of the wealthiest people in the U.S. Before the meltdown, unemployment hovered at just below 6%; it has since jumped over three percent, peaking out here and there in the double digits. That translates into millions of Americans unemployed all at once. Sure, Stein allows, there are exceptions. But in a column where he makes some otherwise good observations about prudence and austerity—noting that those who survived the meltdown more or less intact had kept their money in unspectacular but safe investments—it is very nearly criminal to focus so specifically on the victims of the bad economy and say "really, it's your fault for being unemployable to begin with" as opposed to skewering the high-rolling Wall Street types who played fast and loose with billions of dollars of other people's money and lost spectacularly.


Fred said...

That the lazy get the boot from employment isn't really a new idea. Those, lazy, shiftless hordes have always appeared from Romans waiting for bread and circuses, to the unwashed millions who inhabited London and Dublin and so many other cities in the mid-nineteenth century.

So now we go back to the old standby of "lift yourself up by your own boot-straps." I'm sure we'll hear that at the next Tea Party. At least it will replace the "Drill, baby, drill" chant.

Fred said...

I thought given a little time, a more reasoned opinion would be warranted. So:

While Ben Stein’s commentaries in the past have emphasized basic economic beliefs, the desire to popularize these beliefs requires associating them with known memes readily understood by most of the public—often “most of the public” means white, middle class and non-Latino, though the veracity the general public holds them in is debatable. Nevertheless, the memes convey a distinction involving those who see the evident veracity of the memes (much like Descartes’ assumption of evident truths) and for those for whom the memes offer little guidance in daily life. Ben Stein’s coding of “lazy” links both interpretations of the same memes of economic beliefs, and hence defines the political identities of Americans. The argument Ben Stein is making is one within American culture, and as such embodies the nature of American exceptionalism and its historical distinction from the European situation.

Stein’s depiction of “lazy” harmonizes with novels by Horatio Alger and the American Dream, which by itself does not obviate awareness of class, race, nor pure luck (in fact, one element in Alger’s stories is the role of pure luck, a point elided over in the modern retelling of Ben Stein’s “lazy”). The alternate view, which might be espoused by individuals such as Michael Harrington, who questioned the sentiment of social Darwinism. The one side highlights what people can achieve, while marking off masses as falling into poverty. The other side advocates a core of memes which frame an America embracing ideals of free speech, individualism in which each person is morally responsible to a divine Being: economic memes are only the bedrock underlying free speech, individualism and morality. To be “lazy” is not just un-American, nor amoral, but it is to be European (socialist, Christian Democrat, totalitarian). From the many “How to Ruin …” self-help books Ben Stein has published, who doesn’t see a Benjamin Franklinesque approach to them, homilies of the most evident sort to correct and straighten out the reader’s life—but we must not consider the disconnect between this familiar Ben Stein and the Ben Stein whose honours studies in economics likely involved some of the most abstract theorizing and mathematical erudition so distant from the everyman who is his reader.

Fred said...

And a bit more ...

The Ben Stein article gets to the heart of American culture—that America is not Europe, it is not Greece, nor Spain, nor Ireland; and that its people are different, a point made by Alexis de Tocqueville. Of course, Ben Stein did pen the New York Times piece, “Has Corporate America No Shame? Or No Money?” But this is still part of the same thing: the deficiencies of individual inner moral strength by executives, of bankruptcy laws (and hence of government), all of which add to the ruin of America. It is the civil body which is ailing, and for both ends, its intellect which acts to exploit individual share holders, and its soma which falls into idleness. (Geographically, this distinction models Europe in American eyes: the northern regions overly intellectualized, while the southern regions given to idleness).

But then, so too, does Michael Harrington’s vision of America embrace an identity that is distinct from Europeanisms. Unlike his European counterpart, the American worker was an individualist, and his revision of base and superstructure found democracy appealing as a means against bureaucratic collectivism. American pragmatism marks off Harrington from his European counterpart, Louis Althusser. The distinct advocacy of American pragmatism in the American Left both sets it apart from European Marxism, but also firmly finds its meanings of identity for individuals in an American identity based on memes such as those described here.

In many ways, Ben Stein’s commentary on “lazy” is a cultural idea that would find little sway outside the United States—in Canada we have our own notions of “lazy” but often without the economic truck associated. Perhaps our reactions against Ben Stein’s comments is more a fear of infection, or cross-over, in this day of Stephen Harper, the feeling we are being Americanized if only through a strong meme. However, most Canadians likely have no such feelings, relishing the success of our financial system, and upholding the beacon of the Canadian social system. Instead, we look to the U.S., see the storm and turmoil of recent years, and call most Americans “foolish” for having over-leveraged.