He turns everything he touches to dross

Ben Stein must be on a campaign to make himself look stupid. Everyone here knows about his association with creationism, but it turns out this former student of economics at Yale is clueless about everything…but he still gets published in The New York Times.

First, let me begin with a first. I have never warned readers away from any one columnist or journalist, but after reading his column this weekend in The New York Times , I feel obligated to tell readers to never read Ben Stein again.

In indicting traders and lackeys in the press for the subprime selloff, Stein offers not one shred of evidence. Moreover, his implication that traders would purposefully tank the subprime market because they are short stock belies the reality that almost every Wall Street firm is getting creamed because they were not short. And traders are getting laid off left and right. Again: because they were not short.

He speaks about a wise brother-in-law who apparently once explained the legal system to him. He mentions a trader he once spoke to about a movement in the price of IBM. And that’s it.

He goes on to raise an eyebrow about the spread between the size of the write-offs and size of the market losses, without mentioning that part of the market losses have to do with the fact that no one knows where these securities should be priced (unknown is the greatest market fear) and, uh, there has been a concern or six about the economy besides subprime taking down prices.

I have seen a lot of bad business journalism in my day, but nothing as irresponsible and so wholly unsupported by facts. Actually, by even a single fact. This is his last line:

“And one thing’s for sure: With the traders running things, it won’t be a good time for amateurs until the traders cry “Switch!” and the market starts to rise.”

Read it (if you promise me it’ll be the last of his work you read) and tell me if this effort is any better than the braying on conspiracy Web sites. It was a shameful effort.


  1. jimvj says

    That Stein idiot also gets to spew moronic
    editorials on the CBS Sunday Morning show.

    Why jackasses like him, Bill Bennett, Buchanan
    (bro & sis) are given such deference in spite of
    committing repeated acts of utter stupidity is
    one of the mysteries of US journalism.

  2. gerald spezio says

    Ben Stein is a lawyer, writer, actor, and economist.

    Three strikes and you is out.

    Ben has four strikes, and slimey Ben isn’t out yet.

    Ben is framing.

    What lawyers and framers posta do.

    Through pepper in your eyes.

    People actually pay real money for the NY Times.

  3. Mr. Upright says

    As someone who lived in the most inflated part of the housing bubble, Palm Beach County Florida, I can say that Stein is full of shit. The subprime market didn’t crash because traders were short. It crashed because, like the tech bubble before it, the houses that backed the crazy loans were overvalued. They were overvalued because banks came up with ridiculous loans that allowed people to spend way beyond their means.

    We bought our house in 2000 for $135k. We sold it, in 2006, for $275k. That’s after dropping the price from an initial list of $300k. We bought it at market, priced it at market, reduced it with the market, and sold it at market. The whole time we wondered, “who can afford $300k for a 1200 square foot house?”

    The answer was simple: people who were backed by ARM loans they could only meet when interest rates were at historic lows, but not when they returned to traditional levels. Even worse, many of these rates were initial “teaser” rates. After a pre-set period of time, buyers would be priced out of the home they just bought, but they got the loans anyway.

    This practice inflated the bubble. Banks didn’t worry about defaults, because it was easy to foreclose and resell houses in the bubble. After the bubble burst, all banks were left with are defaulted loans and over-priced assets in a stagnant housing market.

    What did traders have to do with that? If traders are guilty of anything, it is having faith in this fairy tale for far too long. Ben Stein is like the Holiness preacher who blames his snakebite on his congregation’s lack of faith.

  4. CalGeorge says

    Ben Stein is a lawyer, writer, actor and economist.

    And an idiot.

    Way to go N.Y. Times. Giving a soap box to the likes of Kristol and Stein.

    Nice. Going.

  5. says

    Yes, Ben Stein is amazingly clueless much of the time. He’s a classic example of someone lacking the basic intellectual tools needed for honest self-assessment.

    He used to have a column in Penthouse in the 1980s called “Ben Stein’s Day Off” that dealt with whatever was roiling his head at the time. Once I remember him bemoaning the fact that anti-Semitism was rearing its ugly head among the twentysomethings of his income bracket. I almost screamed at him — or rather, at the inert wood pulp on which his words were transmitted — “Well, DUH! How do you think your Republican buddies got to power in 1980? Through appealing to bigots! That’s why they’re joined at the hip with all these racist Bible-bangers like Jerry Falwell and Bob Jones and Pat Robertson! Have you not heard the words ‘Southern Strategy’, or did you think that they only applied to blacks and not Jews?”

  6. Bruce says

    Hold on: you’re saying just because you have no expertise in a given field, an over sized ego, and a hidden agenda that people shouldn’t give you a free ride in the press? I’m searching for some parallels here…

  7. CalGeorge says

    “who can afford $300k for a 1200 square foot house?”

    I cannot. Where I live in California, 300K get you a 1200 square foot crap house on a crappy block in in a crap neighborhood.

  8. Matt Penfold says

    And there was me thinking the sub-prime fiasco was down to people taking out mortgages they could not afford offered by companies who failed to exercise due diligence in deciding who to lend to, all overseen by a regulator who seemed to be having a permanent lunchbreak.

    And if Stein is thinking of what happened to the stock markets last week, maybe he missed the news that at least part of that was down to Societe Generale dumping stock in a desperate attempt to recover from the actions of a rogue trader.

  9. Aris says

    I read frequent laments about the stupidity of our pundit and journalist class, but I rarely see anyone put the blame on those who deserve it: the publishers and editors and producers of our elite media who hire these buffoons.

    There are the obvious idiots, of course, like anyone who has ever written for the WSJ editorial page, the NR and the Weekly Standard, but I can see why the editors of the partisan right-wing press want to publish writers who can advance their ideology in at least a semi-literate manner. But then there are the others, the faux-intellectuals, like Stein, Gregg Easterbrook, Will Saletan, Lee Siegel, and so many others, who’ve published articles that have been debunked so thoroughly and so publicly that they should have joined a monastic order out of embarrassment. Yet, they keep getting hired to write, and not by obscure partisan organs, but by our most prominent, mainstream publications.

    What I’d like to see accompanying any criticism of these buffoons is the name of the editor who hired them in the first place. For example, if the NYT is hiring Stein to pontificate on anything beside studied drollness, it’s doing so because its publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and its editorial-page editor Andrew Rosenthal are both products of nepotism and sponsored mobility; incompetents who are nothing but legacy hires. These are the gatekeepers of our public discourse and they are clueless rich boys with all the right credentials but without any smarts.

  10. says

    So, the short version is that Stein is as bad at economics as he is at science. And since he really can’t act either…

    Ben Stein is William Hung?

  11. jp says

    Ben Stein has a long history of being clueless about economics (among other things). His father, Herb Stein, was actually a well respected economist and Ben has been treading on (and sullying) his father’s good name for a long time.

    He once wrote an open letter to Paul Krugman accusing him of having a “limited background” in economics.


  12. October Mermaid says

    Jeez. Ever since I heard about Expelled, I’ve been hearing really sad stories about him. And each time, I have to sort of stop and say “Wait a minute.. THAT Ben Stein?”

    It’s like the world has gone crazy.

  13. Dutch Delight says

    I find that the reporter to big on evidence, Stein is just proposing a theory, theories don’t need evidence, didn’t he know?

  14. says

    If you look up “stein is a moron” and other such observations using the search engines, it’s kind of a wash whether or not you’ll get more of those comments about his anti-science positions, or his anti-economic positions.

    Of course the next movie made by Ben has to be about how the media, the government, the educational system, and economists are conspiring to prevent anyone from knowing about magic economics. They just want to have the freedom to say that sky pixies will swoop in and save us from the subprime fiasco, and Ben as their prophet will be vindicated.

    The one sure thing is that all of the people who say he knows jack shit about the economy are all wrong, and are merely the Gestapo out to get Ben and other scammers. Let’s hope there will be plenty of dark figures in the shadows speaking of unknown economic experiments and conclusions that are all being suppressed by Big Economics (vs. Big Business, of course, who really are responsible for some of the lies and BS politics out there–doesn’t make economics out to be nonsense, however, nor Ben right).

    Glen D

  15. negentropyeater says

    Ben Stein most probably has always had a very serious deficiency in basic Arithmetics (which is not a strong requirement for Acting, Journalism, TV shows, and Law).

    My experience with people with this kind of deficiency is that they will always hide behind their common sense reasoning (which can be satisfactory), but as soon as things get more complicated, and common sense doesn’t work, they will be completely lost.

    Statements such as “a 14% drop in market value should roughly represent 14% drop in profits” is quite typical of these people who only can rely on common sense and are incapable of understanding how to calculate Net Present Values, Future Cash Flows, the impact of small change in Groth rates, and volatility.

  16. Bob Munck says

    who can afford $300k for a 1200 square foot house?

    There’s one parameter that I’m missing in all this argument about house prices: how much does it cost to build a house? Did that 1200 sq ft house cost $250K to build, giving the builder what sounds like a reasonable profit? Or did it cost $100K, giving him an immense profit?

    There have been about 10,000 new houses built in our area in the last 5-7 years, at an average selling price of maybe $500K. (McMansions all, three or four garages, 5-story front halls). That’s five billion dollars worth of houses. Did the builders make $3B in profits? If so, that’s where a lot of the lost money has gone.

    If a house cost 1/4th as much to build as it sells for, adjusted for inflation, it’s overpriced. Simple as that.

  17. Aris says

    #2 Why jackasses like him, Bill Bennett, Buchanan (bro & sis) are given such deference in spite of committing repeated acts of utter stupidity is one of the mysteries of US journalism.

    There must be a grand unifying theory that can explain why there are such high levels of idiocy demonstrated by those currently in power, from those in control of our elite media, to the heads of corporations. There are the obvious cases of nepotism in the NYT, just as I noted above at #11; but I wouldn’t be surprised if the bio of every idiot editor and producer didn’t reveal a well-connected mommy or daddy and invariably a degree from Harvard or Yale.

    While in college I remember coming across a sociological theory called “the circulation of the elites” by Vilfredo Pareto. He is considered as one of the intellectual architects of Italian fascism, and I don’t care much for fascist thinkers, but looking at the current state of American media his theory doesn’t seem too outlandish: Pareto argued that aristocracies, once established, tend to close up ranks and become very exclusive and inbred. Nepotism, not meritocracy, becomes the way to social and economic mobility. The result is high levels of ineptitude in every realm.

  18. caerbannog says

    I caught Ben Stein on one of those talking-heads financial shows late last summer. At the time, he was waxing poetic about how the subprime crisis was being overblown, and about all the great investment opportunities in the financial sector. “MER and C are cheap; jump in with both feet!”, was Steins advice. Anyone who had taken Stein’s advice would have had a portfolio full of Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, Bear-Stearns etc. at the beginning of last fall.

    It is left as an exercise to the reader to visit cnnfn.com and see how well an investment in those companies would have performed over the past few months. ;)

  19. CleveDan says

    Everyone jokes about Steins role in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off but, I really think that has allot to do with his getting a soapbox lately. It is a push for a good demographic by Fox Noise & Co. If you look at the original fans of that great movie and some of the younger ones who view it as a “classic” 80’s movie……..thats a good demographic to go after. Unconsciously I had a good feeling about him because of that movie. Now of course, his IDiocy has outweighed that feeling. The fact that he spews crap is really irrelevant to todays news networks…isn’t it?

  20. says

    Why jackasses like him, Bill Bennett, Buchanan (bro & sis) are given such deference in spite of committing repeated acts of utter stupidity is one of the mysteries of US journalism.

    Same thing as Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. At some point you’re just known for being known, people listen just to see what sort of nonsense they’re going to spew, no matter if no one believes them. It’s not so much respect as it is to see the details of the train wreck.

    Stein’s as good as any, since he’s sucked in so many areas, from acting to science. After all, aren’t we talking about how bad he is, rather than ignoring him? We’re chattering on with our gossip, and good thing, too, since the young-uns and naive people need to know that Stein isn’t being listened to because he’s an expert on anything (except sucking, etc.), rather because he’s a useful schmuck to oppose and correct. Sort of like 10 pathetic lies before breakfast, corrected by people who are the complete opposite of Ben Stein, iow, they know things.

    Glen D

  21. says

    Aris @ #20,

    It’s probably some morbid application of the Peter Principle working itself out in real time. Everyone has risen to their level of incompetence, and now all we have are incompetent idiots running the show…

  22. raven says

    I first heard of Ben Stein by reading a financial column of his online. It was about a year ago and it was so stupid that I made a special note of his name so as to never waste 2 minutes again reading such drivel.

    Then he turned up as a cheerleader for Expelled and the creos.

    It looks like he is just a zero principled reverse-polymath hustler, pandering to the lowest rung of the masses anyway he can for a few bucks. Like a lot of these guys, Stein’s main interest is Stein and how much power and money he can amass. Not much really, he is on the lunatic fringes of everything he does.

  23. Dunc says

    it turns out this former student of economics at Yale is clueless about everything…but he still gets published in The New York Times.

    You say that like it’s somehow unexpected. Being clueless is a requirement, not a handicap. How Krugman keeps his job is the real mystery.

  24. Quintana says

    Has anyone seen video of the Christopher Hitchens/Jay Richards debate on Sunday? I believe it was moderated by Ben Stein. I’m curious to see how things turned out, but I’ve not been able to find anything online yet.

  25. holbach says

    You are so right PZ about that Beck and Stein interview
    being downright disgusting that I could not finish watching
    it. I wish I could reach into the monitor and pummel these
    two insane cretins. Damn, what infuriating crap, and being
    presented as standard interview fare makes it all the more
    demeaning and worth trashing. There is no end to this
    mindless example of derangement run amock.

  26. G in INdiana says

    In 1998 we bought our 4500 sq ft home for $227,000 and the 10 acres of land on it for $50,000. I spoke with the builder of the home several years ago and asked him how much it would cost to rebuild that same house (mostly to see if my insurance company was full of shit about how much they said it would take.) He didn’t blink an eye when he said over $500,000.
    That was not how much I could sell it for, but how much materials and labor would cost to build it now. Needless to say I did not reduce the insurance valuation.

  27. roystgnr says

    If a house cost 1/4th as much to build as it sells for, adjusted for inflation, it’s overpriced. Simple as that.

    Really? The phrase “Location, location, location” doesn’t sound familiar? There’s a reason why the same size and quality house, which cost the same amount to build, can sell for $100K in College Station, $200K in Houston, and $500K in Silicon Valley.

    I’m not saying that houses aren’t ridiculously overpriced right now, but the prices they eventually fall to will still depend on the land where they sit, not just on the materials and labor that put them there. People will always be willing to pay more for a house if it’s located close to jobs which let them afford to pay much more for their house. ;-)

  28. H. Humbert says

    But Stein balanced some hookers checkbooks and taught them how to open savings accounts! That makes him a financial expert! Well, doesn’t it?

  29. H. Humbert says

    In all seriousness, I would like to add that Ben Stein is the kind of person who loves to feel like the smartest guy in the room. He thrives on other people’s ignorance, because it gives him the opportunity to play the big shot know-it-all who can wisely advise the rest of the folks. That’s why he’s drawn to topics which the public traditionally finds intimidating or confusing, like science and economics. Really, the only thing I’m surprised about is why he isn’t out there hawking sham medicine as well. I guarantee Benny would love to play doctor.

  30. Dave says

    There’s one parameter that I’m missing in all this argument about house prices: how much does it cost to build a house? Did that 1200 sq ft house cost $250K to build, giving the builder what sounds like a reasonable profit? Or did it cost $100K, giving him an immense profit?

    Or perhaps he built the house for $100K, but he had to shell out $150K for the land to build it on, giving him a $38K profit, (after paying the RE agents) IF he sells it quickly, but that profit is being eaten away by carrying costs the longer he holds it. (At a rate Id guess of $1500-$2000/month.)

    Wait a minute, were you just parodying Ben Stein’s grasp of economics? In that case, my bad.

  31. says

    By the way, since the whole Expelled fiasco is once again fouling the air here, this seems a good time to mention that David Attenborough is scripting a new series on evolution which is to come out in 2009, the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth. It was mentioned in a recent issue of Nature.

    So yes, the IDiots are doing with Expelled what should be done on our side (minus the Godwin’s violations, dishonesty, etc.), but it looks like we’ll have another good documentary in 2009 to clear the stench left behind by Expelled. It won’t be too soon.

    Glen D

  32. John says

    Here’s my favorite quote from Ben: “Stated reasons are often not the real reasons.” Oh really, you mean how the stated reason behind intelligent design (“Teach the controversy!”) is not the real reason (“I find it difficult to reconcile my beliefs with reality!”).

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned the old Comedy Central TV show “Win Ben Stein’s Money”, where contestants basically had to beat him on a trivia game show. He was actually quite good at the show, which probably goes to show that a breadth of knowledge really doesn’t go far towards understanding the universe. But I bet he loved the attention…

  33. chris says

    Over at the money blog, The Big Picture, author Barry Rittenholz did away with the word “tomfoolery”.
    He now uses “Ben Steinery”.
    I think Ben slept through a lot of his classes. Worst economist ever.

  34. says

    He was actually quite good at the show

    Meh. He was alright on the show. He really excelled when it came to American history and politics, but he didn’t do all that well when it came to general knowledge.

    I saw a celebrity episode of the show in which Bill Nye was a contestant and was the second to be knocked out. Science questions were few and far between.

    The best part of the show was Nancy Pimental, the host for one season.

  35. jeh says

    For the BS blackboard:


    repeat ad infinitum

  36. says

    I think that most of us would agree that Stein has a lot of facts in his head. But being Jeopardy champion or some such thing doesn’t actually indicate any ability to think in an integrating manner, and I’m afraid that Stein has yet to show any real ability to think theoretically. In fact, on his blog he only comes up with the most trite pre-determined “analyses” and “conclusions” that one could imagine, stuff that a halfway competent college freshman would sniff at.

    And really, what does his involvement with the film suggest? That he’s an easy mark, unable to understand the give and take in science, one who concludes from the most facile “argument” that the fact that pseudoscience is discriminated in science proves that scientists don’t have open minds. No, sorry, the role of scientists is in part to discriminate against pseudoscience, and even against really good ideas which simply don’t fit with the empirical data. Indeed, there are much better ideas than ID which just happen to be just barely more welcome than ID, such as many of the old ideas that JAD dredges up and seems to believe on authority alone.

    All of this escapes Ben Stein, even as he feels sorely persecuted for aping the worst of the snake oil salesmen, cause you know, he can win trivia games. I’m afraid that he’s too long mistaken his collection of facts as an understanding of the world.

    Glen D

  37. says

    Why the hell does anyone give Stein a voice? Last year he was doling out bad financial stock advice right before that big dive. Nice going. He’s about as knowledgeable about the market as an Amway rep, but to debauch himself with the creationists [free tickets to Ken Ham’s homeschoolers!] before the world, too? It’s so embarrassing that it’s obscene! (They didn’t let Ronald Reagan out in public after the Alzheimer’s really hit, so you’d think they’d spare us this.)

    Aris nailed it. What I really wonder is, how much of this dipshittiness is the new preppy. Is this Jesus/conspiracy rot just a fad for some of the supposedly educated elite, or is there something really happening to our nation, even Wall Street? I should think Wall Street would be impervious to Pentacostalism & Co and the Me-Twos, like Stein. At least I hope so.

    I remember reading something about an evangelical push in the “godless” Ivy League schools, to win secular scholars for Jesus. Great, let’s just piss away any greatness that this country has left.

    BTW Stein’s film is now set to be released in April, not February. Probably direct to DVD.

  38. raven says

    And really, what does his [Ben Stein’s] involvement with the film suggest?

    That he is a troll who will do anything for money. I have to give him credit for being an energetic, hustling troll though.

    I doubt if he believes ID one bit. I doubt if he even cares one bit. When you have few talents, this is the sort of scraping around the bottom one has to do. He is good at pandering to the masses with vaporous, low bandwidth nonsense. Sort of like Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh doing Hollywood.

  39. Trader says

    His article was brilliant.

    If you fools think there is no manipulation going on in the markett, thats fine.

    We need moron investors like you to keep shelling out.

  40. Dustin says

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  41. says

    I doubt if he believes ID one bit.

    NYT did report the following:

    he [Ben] said there was a “very high likelihood” that Darwin was on to something — but because he does not accept that evolution alone can explain life on earth.

    So yes, he seems to be quite a cheap sellout. Nevertheless, he still seems to have a kind of right-wing paranoia about “the establishment,” that comes out in Expelled and in other places. You’d have to read his political pieces (like in American Spectator) to recognize how it’s crossing over to Expelled and to the promotions he makes for Expelled.

    Frankly, it’s quite bizarre how he can actually see “Darwinism” as being at least quite a likely answer to evolution, while he complains that crap like ID isn’t considered in science. What does he think science is about, anyway?

    He seems to have an almost inborn paranoia, also fed by his politics (note Nixon’s paranoia, then think of Stein writing pieces for Nixon, as he did), which seems to have no bounds. Then realize that he’s really quite greedy, and I think we have most of the reasons behind his acting as a shill for pseudoscience.

    Glen D

  42. says

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    I am also thrilled by your dedication to the environment and that your shields are made of 100% recycled material (the fact that they smell faintly of baked potato doesn’t hurt either.)

    Please feel free to use my endorsement of your product in any way you see fit.


    Massaging Head of the Golden Perseids

  43. raven says

    Trader should change his name to Moron. There is a whole subclass of “Traders” who lose all their money in phony penny stock scams. Invariably they claim it was all manipulation by “them”. They never take responsibility for their own actions.

    They were manipulated by petty criminals on the pinks/OTC and their own greed and stupidity. Not all penny stock losers are fundie Xians but they seem overrepresented.

    There really is something to be said about a good education, critical thinking skills, and the ability to spot a scam a mile away. Whatever, a fool and their money are always parted.

  44. Zbu says

    I was going to write in about Ben Stein’s awful game shows for Comedy Central, but someone has beaten me to it. Still, it shows that the man is more interested in getting his ego waxed instead of helping anybody. He’s just a shill who people remember from that Ferris Bueller movie and think he’s smart because he said ‘Voodoo Economics.’

    Come on, he had Jimmy Kimmel as a freaking sidekick. That alone should show how much of attention whore Stein is.

  45. allonym says

    Methinks the spokesman for Clear Eyes™ needs something for his cloudy mind. Sadly, he seems immune to the only known cure: rational thought.

  46. dwarf zebu says

    Ben Stein is a lawyer, writer, actor, and economist.

    Three strikes and you is out.

    Ben has four strikes, and slimey Ben isn’t out yet.

    Ben is framing.

    What lawyers and framers posta do.

    Through pepper in your eyes.

    People actually pay real money for the NY Times.

    Posted by: gerald spezio | January 29, 2008 9:43 AM

    This didn’t make sense to me until I read it again, while imagining bongos in the background.

  47. Troublesome Frog says

    The thing about these market conspiracy theories is that they not only require collusion among the players in the market, but that collusion usually comes in the form of a prisoner’s dilemma or some similar game theoretic situation in which it’s in every individual’s best interest not to collude. The idea that they could pull something like that off strains credulity, even ignoring the fact that there’s no evidence that it happened

  48. says

    I don’t know what happened to the guy. It wasn’t that long ago he was funny and intelligent. Now he’s apparently lost his mind. This article, Exposed, and a wonderfully stupid romp as co-host of America’s Most Smartest Model makes me think he’s in need of some kind of intervention.

  49. bacteriocentric says

    Further contributing to the mortgage industry collapse please don’t forget the fact that our government HAD truth in lending disclosure – which was removed from the law I believe during Reagan’s term. This opened the window for unscrupulous lenders and overvalued properites based on nothing but hot air, cash-loaded happy lenders and over commissioned real estate agents. Just like the rest of greed driven economics that permeates our mostly unregulated economy, it is all destined to fail until we begin building an economy based on sustainability, as it is in the real world of nature.