There's No Crying In Nieman Marcus
My screed about Ben Stein apparently gave Tyler Cowan quite a fright:
I read about this guy and his pitchfork and it genuinely scared me, especially his description of Ben Stein and his intermingling of the political and the aesthetic.
I think that's fairly hilarious, not just because of his apparent literal fear of pitchforks, but because he says I'm the one who has intermingled the political and the aesthetic.
Let's take a little trip down memory lane shall we?
Stein achieved fame, but not fortune, in December of 1987, when he published a column in GQ under the pseudonym of "Bert Hacker." The author—who began his piece with the line "I have known Joan Rivers for more than twenty years"—wrote that he'd had dinner with the comedienne ten days before the suicide of her husband, Edgar Rosenberg. Later, he said, he went to her home to sit shiva for Rosenberg.
There were problems with this piece, all of the hallucinatory nature. Stein had never met Joan Rivers, much less been invited to her home to grieve with her. But now it appeared they would meet, in court—Rivers filed a $50 million libel suit against Stein and Condé Nast Publications.
With that, Rivers says, Stein's lawyer contacted her to deliver a threat: If she didn't withdraw the suit, the world would soon know she was a lesbian who gave her husband the pills he used to kill himself. Rivers says she challenged Stein's attorney to go public—and told him how much she was looking forward to announcing that it was Stein's wife who lured her out of the closet.
Stein had no comment until his appearance on the CBS This Morning show in February of 1988, when Kathleeen Sullivan suggested his reporting techniques leaned heavily on hearsay. Not at all, Stein said—his reporting methods were the norm. "The entire Watergate coverage was based on hearsay, and they gave the people who wrote that the Pulitzer Prize," he told his astonished interviewer. "If you look at any day's front page of The New York Times and The Washington Post, the huge majority of what is reported is hearsay."
(From Highly Confident, the Crime and Punishment of Michael Milken, by Jesse Kornbluth)
Ok, that was a while back. He's was just a kid of 44 or so at the time, just getting started. He went on to appear in some films, host a game show and produce a film about creationism which blamed the Holocaust on Charles Darwin. Oh, and he also called himself a conservative pundit and economist (despite only having a BA degree in economics) and wrote a column in the business section of the NY Times, from which he was recently "let go":
Ben Stein's TV ads for a scuzzy "free" credit product have finally caught up to him: The New York Times has fired Stein as a Sunday business columnist for violating ethics guidelines.
Stein was pilloried online for his endorsement of the bait-and-switch operation, which offers a free credit score but charges an outrageous $30 per month to see the credit report behind the score. As Reuters blogger Felix Salmon pointed out, consumers can get a free online report under federal law.
The Times' issue, though, is that Stein has violated its ethics policy, which states "it is an inherent conflict for a journalist to perform public relations work, paid or unpaid."
Someone with Stein's ethical standards publicly asking what his "sin" might be is just asking for trouble.
But Cowan's argument isn't really about this. It's about whether or not people have a moral right to complain about money if they are better off than some portion of the population and I'm sure there is an interesting philosophical argument to be had about that. But that's not really the point. Perhaps these people do have a right to complain without issuing a disclaimer that there are others who are worse off than they are. But regardless of where you come down in the moral argument, I think there's little debate among decent people that it's just plain tacky for people in the upper one percent to publicly complain about the fact that after saving 60k a year, paying for their million dollar home, fancy educations and servants that they don't have much money left over for their well-deserved $200 dinners, much less taxes. Not to mention that it's also just plain stupid to rub salt in the wounds of millions who lost their jobs and homes and futures in this stalled economy. The arch comment about pitchforks was meant to convey where this level of arrogant stupidity leads.
This is one of the things that's puzzled me the most in the last couple of years. It's one thing for the wealthy to lobby the government on their own behalf. There's nothing new or even controversial in that. It's always been the case. But it's quite another for them to lobby the public with endless plaintive wails about how hard they have it in a time of economic crisis. They are in better shape than any time in history. Their tax rates are the envy of wealthy people all over the industrialized world. They have the leaders of both parties tied up in knots trying to keep the metaphorical pitchforks at bay. And still it's not enough. They seem to need sympathy from the proles --- their millions just aren't enough to keep them warm at night.
If they'd kept a low profile and worked the politics solely behind the scenes, they'd probably get off with a modest tax hike, as few regulations as possible and they'd be back in business collecting their vastly outsized portion of the nation's wealth with little notice. If they'd thrown a couple of sacrificial lambs to the slaughter and gone on a Celebrity rehab Mea Culpa tour, even better. Instead they keep whining and shrieking (and lying) about how unfair it is for them to pay slightly higher taxes on their bloated wealth, while the average worker is experiencing a huge, probably unrecoverable, contraction in their fortunes and expectations. It's unnecessary and shortsighted and it only provides more evidence that the failure of the financial system wasn't a fluke --- it was because the wealthy elite aren't as smart as they think they are.
This is a simple equation: when the majority of the population is hurting economically and your biggest problem is being unable to keep up with the Hiltons, it's the better part of valor to STFU and suffer in silence. If you want to know why people have no faith in the elite institutions, this is exhibit one: those who run them seem to have the emotional maturity of 15 year old kids.