Ben Stein Watch: March 22, 2009

March 22, 2009

Business trips: they’re horrible things. "An incredibly heavy burden of work lies on the shoulders of those who attend", says Ben Stein in this week’s column:

At the gatherings I attend, men and women fly coach, stay in immense, boxy hotels, start their meeting days at breakfast at 7 a.m. and work through the day until far later than seems reasonable to me. Then they do it again the next day and the day after that, finally enduring the torture of waiting at the airport, next to screaming children, in order to get home.

Truly, the lot of the business traveller is a gruesome one. Wouldn’t we all be better off if we just did away with these ridiculous excursions altogether? As Stein himself says,

it’s hard to see what business purpose is served by punishing the most productive employees at a company, who are often the ones at business gatherings.

The astonishing thing is that Stein seems to think that this is an argument for having these meetings. Ben, you can’t have it both ways. Either going to the meetings is some kind of punishment, in which case it surely makes sense that we’re radically cutting back on the things. Or else cancelling the meetings is the real punishment, from the point of view of those who would otherwise have attended, in which case they can’t really be as grim as you’re making out.

Then again, it’s worth remembering that Ben Stein is someone who managed to write, without any visible sarcasm, as recently as last month, that "flying on a private plane is not a decadent act". So maybe he isn’t the most unbiased of observers.

It seems to me that the decadence or otherwise of these gatherings might be gauged by taking a look at their cost. The median price of a single-family home in a metropolitan area is $180,100. With 20% down and a 5% mortgage, that works out at $773.45 a month, or about $25 a night. Meanwhile, the swells at the business conference at the local luxury hotel are racking up bills in the $400 to $500 per person per night range, or more. When two nights in a hotel cost more than the average family’s monthly mortgage payment, I don’t think it’s that hard to see where the outrage is coming from — especially not when it’s taxpayers footing the bill.

Stein lives in a world where flying commercial is always a chore; where few hotels are as well-appointed as his own homes; where every day he spends in a vaguely public place is a day he risks being accosted and held to account for the uncountable gallons of extremely harmful drivel that he has inflicted on his readers and viewers for years. Well, Ben, most of us aren’t like you. We’re actually curious enough to quite like travelling to new places, staying in luxury hotels, and participating in interesting conferences. But doing so isn’t cheap, and there’s no reason at all why the US government should subsidize our boondoggles.

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