The Washington Monthly: Dear Ben Stein ...
Ben Stein has a truly unbelievable column in today's NYT (h/t). You should stop reading this post right now, and after you've made sure that you won't get Diet Coke all over the keyboard once you start laughing, click through and read it.
For those of you who didn't take my advice: he starts by telling us a tale of woe. A woman he knows has an interest-only mortgage on a house that was worth $2.7 million when she paid for it, and costs her about $12,000 a month. She gets $20,000 a month in child support and alimony, half of which will stop this summer.
"She has a wealthy beau who pays her credit card bills and other incidentals, but she is thinking of telling him she is through with him. She has no savings and has refinanced her home repeatedly, always adding to indebtedness and then putting the money into a shop she owns that has never come close to earning a dime. Now she is up all night worrying about money. "Terrified," as she put it. She wanted me to tell her what to do.
Ben Stein has, he says, known this woman since she was a teenager. The time for financial advice was a long, long time ago, before the housing market went down and her chances to sell at a profit shrank dramatically, before the economy tanked and her prospects for gainful employment went glimmering. On the other hand, it's not entirely clear that someone who has, apparently, lived her whole life on someone else's dime, without asking herself whether this arrangement was sustainable until quite recently, would have listened.
Then there's Ben Stein's son:
My handsome son, age 21, a student, has just married a lovely young woman, 20. You may have seen on television the pudgy, aging face of their sole means of support. (...)
I wish I could teach that work ethic to those close to me. I wish I could teach them that money is a scarce good, worth fighting for and protecting. But I very much fear that my son, more up-to-date than I am in almost every way, is more of a modern-day American than I am. To hustle and scuffle for a deal is something he cannot even imagine. To not be able to eat at any restaurant he feels like eating at is just not on his wavelength. Of course, thatâ's my fault. (I have learned that everything bad that happens anywhere is my fault.) And I hope to be able to leave him well enough provided for to ease his eventual transition into some form of self-sufficiency.
Ben: your friend has already made enough disastrous choices that she probably has few options that do not involve selling most of her worldly goods. But your son is a different story. Supporting him while he's a student is fine. Supporting him in such a way that "to not be able to eat at any restaurant he feels like eating at is just not on his wavelength" is a different story. That's not necessary, and it's no favor at all to your son.
I know whereof I speak. When I was a kid, I had no conception of money at all. It did not occur to me until some time in junior high that people took jobs for any reason other than because working was interesting, and because one should try to be of some use to the world. It never really occurred to me to wonder how my parents came to have a house, or clothes, or the money they gave me for my allowance.
However, I did know one thing: that to rely on my parents for things I could do myself, let alone to simply expect the world to somehow produce whatever I wanted, was somehow shameful. I was aware that there were kids who were spoiled -- I even knew some -- but I never particularly wanted to be one of them, however much I might have wanted this or that particular toy. It wasn't that I looked down on them or disliked them. It was that I was puzzled by something like their lack of self-respect. (This is, of course, how I put it now. Back then I would not have been able to say what bothered me about them. But something always did, and it wasn't something bad about them; more something sad.)
This way of thinking has always served me well. Where, I wonder, could I possibly have gotten it? Might there have been some, well, some adults who were in a position to have influenced my thinking when I was a child, and who might have given me this idea? Like, maybe, I don't know, my parents?
I don't want to say that everything is all Ben Stein's fault. His son is an adult, and adults are responsible for their actions. I do, however, think that saying "I wish I could teach that work ethic to those close to me" about your own children is a bit peculiar. Some people do manage to teach their children about the importance of fending for themselves. Luckily for me.
However, what's done is done. If I were Ben Stein, I think I'd revisit the nature of my support for my son. If the idea that he might not be able to eat out wherever he wants any time is alien to him, he either has very, very, very simple tastes or is getting way too much money. That should stop. Moreover, if I were backing any of my son's credit cards, or in any other way enabling him to rack up debt rather than living on a budget, I would stop that as well. I'd also figure out what I was prepared to do for him once he graduated, and make that very, very clear well in advance. Then I would stick to it. And "what I was prepared to do" would not be "support him and his wife indefinitely."
Of course, this is a lot easier if you've already taught your kids that self-respect requires self-reliance. In that case, given a modicum of luck, any arguments you have about money will go like this:
Parent: Wait, why didn't you tell me you needed money?
Kid: Um, er ... (shuffles feet and looks at floor.)
However, better late than never. You will be doing your son a favor. You'll know you're on your way if, the next time you write a sentence like "The age when money was a free good, available in unlimited quantities just for signing a note, may well be over", he looks at you, rolls his eyes, and says: "Money was free? Really? When exactly was that, Dad?"
And if, on reading a column like this one, your son asks you why you're focussing on someone who managed to get deep in debt while living in a $2.7 million dollar house and getting $240,000 a year in alimony and child support, and not on people who are poor or middle-class, then you can rest easy and congratulate yourself on a job well done.