Of Hedges, Hot Dish, and Hogwash
[UPDATED: I thought I had it until Ben Stein went on the "George Stroumboulopoulos Show" and said "Darwinism can't explain where physics come from." At this point, Stein must be pretending. Nobody can be that stupid! Art criticism can't explain where pigments come from! Science can't explain why 1/7 of all days are Mondays! You know what? This is my last post on Ben Stein. I think I'm going to have an irony hemorrhage.]
Ben Stein can diss Darwin and make his little equations to Nazism all he wants (does anyone remember that the flipping Nazis started that stupid Olympic Torch Relay? I don't see him protesting with the Tibetans, and by the way, Free Tibet!). He's not a scientist, after all - but when he fucks up economics in the New York Times again, I have to ask – nay, demand – why the hell is this snake-handler allowed to have a column in the first place? Writing about economics? And simply being wrong, wrong, wrong? About economics, for which he went to Columbia University?
How does one merit a column in a major newspaper when he is so grossly discombobulated about his own alleged subject? He's either going insane, or a smarmy liar.
Well, I fired off this letter to the New York Times:
Why is Ben Stein allowed to publish his glossolalia in the New York Times with little context supplied from those he regularly accuses of global conspiracies, namely traders and "Darwinists" and all the other assorted evil leprechauns that populate his fantasy world? Why when you publish articles on science you deliberately seek out some obscure crank "dissenter" from evolution, the age of the earth, or global climate change, but allow this increasingly deluded, middling (and fading) celebrity to rant unfettered in print like some homeless man in a park? If you must humor this self-styled "voice in the wilderness," shouldn't you at least offer a counter column in the name of "balance," which is otherwise fanatically, and annoyingly, pursued by your reporters who managed to tease out some pseudoscientific riposte whenever the article in question states, you know, facts?
If you're going to have a columnist speak in tongues at least publish one that can find his. Stein's pious braying, followed by his pathetic attempts at sex appeal and vainglory ("Dog fancier at night"? Well, at least it spares the goats), is simply embarrassing. I don't enjoy finding myself in the distateful position of feeling sorry for him, which I increasingly am. That sentiment does not extend to the New York Times, however.
Why would the New York Times print paranoiac drivel such as his? Here's his latest column, and a sight to behold it is:
My son is just now finishing his first year of college. People ask me what I would like for him to do. I always say, “Whatever the dear boy would like to do.” But in my heart, I would like for him to be a real-life counterpart of a character on my latest imaginary TV series brainchild: “The Hedges of Greenwich, Conn.” (It sounds a bit like “The Bridges of Madison County,” no?)
No duh it sounds like that. Does this man have any identity? “Hey, I’m just like Mel Gibson! I’m the right-wing Michael Moore! I’m Robert James Waller! I’m Moses! I’m Galileo!” (Yeah, and I’m Glenda, the good witch.) Read on:
This is my hypothetical series [sounds like somebody didn't enjoy a lot of royalties from a certain documentary] about powerful hedge fund traders and private equity players in Greenwich, whose wealth is so immense that they can live like maharajahs. But far more important, they have so much money — put up by Harvard and Yale endowments, among others, and then magnified by leverage — that they can plunge world markets into turmoil.
In my first episode, a cagey old trader and wheeler-dealer [played by himself, perhaps?] who lives in splendor surrounded by his German short-haired pointers and his cats, is about to be visited by his mysterious young mistress. [Yep - played by himself, the little devil!] Little does he know [well, that fits], she is about to give him a shot of lead because his private equity fund bought, ripped, stripped and flipped her father’s company in Lima, Ohio, putting her father out of a job and driving her mother to suicide. His son, meanwhile, is plotting to sell short the bonds his father issued, putting his father’s whole empire in jeopardy.
By the way, is anyone else sick of Ben Stein’s incessant characterization of women as whores, nurses, mistresses, models, and selfish money-grubbers?
Well, to be fair, he did bleat a tribute to our soldiers, in which he woodenly acknowledged female “true heroes” (be careful, the version being passed around the Net is not accurate), but I notice that this hypocrite didn’t love the military enough as a young man to interrupt his studies at Columbia and Yale and actually sign up. (Sound familiar?)
It’s all very well to claim to hate celebrities and love Middle America when you yourself are a celebrity (albeit a struggling one) who is safe from tractor-pull/high-school-bullies/McGlynn’s-doughnuts-and-Folger’s-coffee culture. I doubt this poseur Stein has ever eaten an elementary school pizzaburger (we simple folk call it “Barf on a Bun”) in his mincing, privileged life. And it’s so easy to “celebrate our heroes” as long as you don’t personally know anyone who is or ever was in the military, and weren’t in it yourself.
And what’s this “I have no freaking clue who Nick and Jessica are” in his other ode to the virtues of the simple folk? Sorry, I don't believe that. In order to write that sentence, you (and your audience) have to know who Nick and Jessica are. What a phony.
But I digress. (That’s easy to do when talking about Stein, whose idea of an argument is akin to buckshot fired at a clay pigeon.) Here we get into the meat of what’s ailing the economy, and guess what, it’s those dastardly Darwinist traders!
You see the many directions in which my febrile brain goes, and all because nice people have asked me why the high price of oil does not act the way that Econ 101 says it should: by suppressing consumption, bringing on new supplies and lowering the price. Here’s why: the Hedges of Greenwich.
Look at oil and gasoline and natural gas. They have immense uses as consumer products. They power our cars. They heat our homes and our swimming pools. When their prices rise here in the United States, drivers, homeowners and swimmers cut back on the use of these fuels.
But there is much more to the story than that. First, the price we pay is denominated in dollars, and as the dollar falls, the price in dollars rises. Buyers who pay in euros or won do not see the same price appreciation because their currencies have been rising against the dollar. Hence, the commodity in question may be higher in dollars — suppressing demand here — but may be barely changed in euros day to day. This is one reason that worldwide demand is not much affected.
In fact, demand for some energy sources is softening ever so slightly in the United States, but world demand continues strongly upward.
This has little to do with the oil companies — usually called the “big” oil companies to distinguish them from the small oil companies we all have in our backyards. [So don't get any ideas about comparing them to the wicked "Big Science" monster, my fellow Americans.] They just float along with the tide, the way we consumers do. They are at the mercy of the traders, as we all are. [See? You can pet the nice lions!]
That’s just hogwash. The day that you get traders, of hedge funds or whatever, coordinated enough to manipulate prices more than a very short period is the day you get gnats to fly in formation at the Minnesota State Fair. It just simply can’t be done. The truth about conspiracies is, 1) yes, they do exist, but 2) their success rate is terrible. (Just look at how well the Wedge Strategy has turned out, for example.)
Felix Salmon ponders what on earth Stein means by his “febrile” mind.
Perhaps he meant “fertile.” That sounds like him. Or “ferial,” although that wouldn’t be my word for it. He seems to really be into feast-days, at least in terms of dishing up bullshit. Or “feral.” Again, that I wouldn’t choose. When we were kids, our idea of fun was whipping little hard green apples at each other – and I’m talking about the girls. I really can’t see Stein handling that, despite his tennis-shoes-with-suit gangsta-paint-can “rebel” attitude.
No, “febrile” seems to be another one of his unfunny attempts at self-depreciation (the man does nothing but seek approval), rather like the back-scratcher moment in Expelled – all it did was made me think of Stein’s flabby, whale-white flesh. Yuck.
The only time I’ve seen this man have an honest moment was when he lost Disney’s money on “Win Ben Stein’s Money.” (You didn't think he actually gambled with his own money, did you? By the stars, this genius couldn’t even get the date for the millennium right, but it gave us a look at him in a truly unscripted moment. His jaw dropped. He argued the results. He fretted and sweated. And there I was singing “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Neinstein may be Michael Moore’s shadow, but he sure is no Tycho Brahe.)
Pardon. Another digression.
As from the fact that the market shows no indication of malicious manipulation, Ben Stein acts like an astrologer in a small town newspaper, forging ahead with his predictions despite the fact that he has been wrong, wrong, wrong all this time. In fact, he’s been wrong more often than many astrologers. He predicted that foreign stock would fall. Wrong. He predicted that the collapse of the housing bubble would be short, and temporary. Wrong. Now he’s essentially claiming that hedge fund traders can stage a sweeping and sustained price fall on securities. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
But there is another hugely important factor now in world energy markets: the pricing of energy as a speculative item. Traders can and do buy vast amounts of energy futures. Right now, there is a worldwide mania to invest in them. In this situation, when investors and traders are pouring buckets of money into thimbles of energy quanta, to use a phrase from my pal Tobias M. Levkovich, chief United States equity strategist at Citigroup, the price is bid higher and higher.
And, as the price goes up, demand does not fall. It rises, because investors and traders think that it will keep rising and they will make money on it in the future. (Oil, gasoline and natural gas can be stored indefinitely.)
It’s like the bubble in Miami Beach condominiums. As the price of them soared, traders did not stay away. Instead, they kept buying, anticipating more or less endless gains.
Gee, there’s speculation in the pricing of energy, my gosh. There’s speculation in financial markets? Call out the army! Off with traders’ heads! Try them for treason!
Honestly, is this news to Ben Stein (or does he think it’s news to Middle America, whom he loves so much, making us loveable morons - or petable lions, like his friends the oil companies)? Does he think that his readers will believe that speculation equals market manipulation? Does he think we're fucking stupid? Speculation is temporary – it has to be – and manipulation, even if it happens, can also only last so long and will be localized. How in hell can one have a market without speculation, anyway?
Yet Stein denies that the economy is faltering (he thinks it’s hunky-dory – just all the manipulation throwing things awry), that unemployment is not really climbing, and that there is no real danger of widespread default on loans (which he is right to say hasn’t happened yet). Ben Stein prefers to wave his “foreign-market-investments-are-bad” flag like it’s his last soggy sheet of salvageable toilet tissue in the woods two hours after bingeing on chipped beef with toast (we simple folk call it "Shit on a Shingle") on Randolph and Mortimer's yacht just before it sank.
Right now, the Hedges of Greenwich are bidding up the prices of hydrocarbons into the stratosphere by buying energy futures. Your switching from a Cadillac to a Prius won’t tilt the balance back to falling energy prices. Your earnest little efforts at conservation mean nothing when compared with the upward push coming from the speculative bubble.
And now the big boys have been joined by you and me. Little folks like us can buy our very own energy baskets of exchange-traded funds and the like, and are doing so in big numbers.
Oh, “you and me.” Pity poor little rich boy Ben Stein. He’s one of us! Yeah, right.
If I were to place this wretched excuse for a commentator (no common tater he, Ben Stein, despite all his efforts) into a mythological pantheon, I’d call him a Trickster, a shape-shifter, fashioning himself as a “superstar” when he wants to be, then “one of us” when it’s convenient for him, a “godly man” when it suits him, a dashing womanizer when he’s feeling really insecure. And people said that Madonna’s image was fragmented! She’s a paragon of psychological centeredness compared to Benjamin (Nein)Stein.
Don’t conserve gas, people! It won’t do you any good – the traders control everything! Don’t switch “from a Cadillac to a Prius,” Middle America! (Somehow I don’t think there’ much danger of many working-class people doing that, Ben. Hello?) And whatever you do, don’t invest in faaarrrn stocks! Gee, that’s great advice, Neinstein. Really responsible, asshole, while the dollar is in free-fall in the void just like Venus, Jupiter, and Mars. (Of course, since "Darwinism can't explain what keeps the planets from falling down," I guess Darwinism can't explain how angels keep the dollar from falling against the Euro in Ben Stein's universe, either.)
(I confess that I still cannot watch this shameless queave of a press conference all the way through. Darwinism can't explain what makes yellow yellow! Uuuggghhhh!)
What else should we simple folk do to make ends meet besides not sell our Cadillacs, Ben? Cut back on caviar twice a month? Great idea. Stay at a friend’s house in the Hamptons instead of booking a hotel room in Stockholm over the summer? I'll consider that. Rough it alongside the other Cadillac owners and stage a tailgating party on Cape Cod every Saturday night, instead of eating at Spago? Stick it to the man, Middle America! Charter a private plane to Disneyworld and thumb your nose at the Northwest-Delta merger! Be a rebel! Wear sneakers and shorts with your suit and see how long you can keep your $9/hour data entry job!
What the fuck is this man’s problem? I really can’t believe how anyone buys his “just folks” posturing, but they do – they must want to, at least when he’s yawping about creationism (excuse me, intelligent divine), but when he deliberately dispenses bad advice, it’s time to cut his publicity umbilicus. The Unabomber was allowed to shoot his wad in a major newspaper once, in order to aid his capture, but Ben Stein is given a free outlet to repeatedly make unsubstantiated claims that, along with his bad advice, stretch that worse-than-Hillary whiney drone around the globe and up my spine, and then he's allowed to run free. Hillary has handlers. Doesn't he?
If Ben Stein wants to find a real conspiracy, here's a true Darwinian horror story staring him right in the face: predatory lending practices and the subsequent sale of these risky loans, which allowed the lenders to skip away after making gobs of money by splitting the high risk loans and packaging them with the high-quality debt for sell-off. That’s how those who were selfish and dishonest enough to grant these loans to the gullible will never have to face the consequences of foreclosures en masse.
The truth is, Middle America, we have lived an inflated life for a very long time, and now this is the new normal. But it’s also true that regulators have been asleep at the wheel while lenders offered crap loans and also made sure that artificially inflated housing values widened the balloon. Yes, regulators were asleep at the wheel and crooks bilked vulnerable people who were a bad financial risk, who to their credit believed in the value of home ownership, and who in order to make what they thought was a responsible investment in a home, signed papers that they didn't understand at all. (Sadly enough, this particular demographic is also prone to buying Cadillas that they really can't afford in the mistaken idea that they also represent an investment.)
In fact, the blame for this is shared (and at some point we have to take a good look at ourselves, too, Middle America, for not understanding more about how money works), and responsibility in a free market is decentralized. Funny how Ben Stein doesn’t talk about that, when heretofore (before he became Mr. Creationism) he had dispensed sound advice about proper handling of credit cards and saving for retirement.
Maybe that's because it would simultaneously sound too much like natural selection and like the “invisible hand of the market” of Adam Smith that he admires so much. That's another inconvenient truth. And shit, man, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Benjamin “America First” Stein has a lot of stocks in Canada, as many smart investors do right now.
We simple folk call this being a “snake in the grass,” Ben Stein.