Opinion

Felix Salmon

Ben Stein Watch: March 29, 2009

By Felix Salmon
March 30, 2009

Ben Stein counts Jim Cramer as a friend. And millions of people watched the showdown between Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer on The Daily Show. But judging by his column this week, Cramer’s friend Mr Stein wasn’t one of them:

As you may know, Mr. Cramer appeared earlier this month on “The Daily Show,” where Mr. Stewart yelled and cursed at him.

No, Ben, Jon Stewart does not yell at his guests. Cramer is the yeller, not Stewart. And in fact there was surprisingly little cursing, by Daily Show standards, on either side.

This was a substantive exchange — yet Stein still insists on characterizing Stewart as "a comedy guy from Comedy Central". And he also seems to think that Stewart’s only criticism of Cramer is that Cramer’s predictions were wrong. And so he launches into a long explanation of how "we as humans cannot tell the future"; in fact, in the space of four paragraphs, Stein manages to use the word "human" or "humans" no fewer than six times (and "mortals" once), each time making the same point about fallibility.

Defensive much? Well, yes:

I would be remiss if I did not add that I have succumbed to this temptation to speak as if I could tell what the future holds…
The most that economic seers can do is apply broad, generally acceptable principles to current situations and try to go from there. When I stray far from that, I hope that thoughtful readers will call me to account.

Ben, you’re a Hollywood hack, not an "economic seer". But in any case, if you’re genuinely interested in people calling you to account, feel free to browse through the archives here. You’re welcome.

And of course you don’t disappoint in this column when it comes to hackery:

Just two years ago, how many people would have confidently predicted that we would elect our first African-American president in 2008? Who would have imagined that Citigroup would trade for a time under $1 or that General Electric would trade for a time under $6 or that Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers would virtually vanish, or that a graduating class of law students would be unable to get jobs or that high-end M.B.A.’s would be unemployable?
And who would have guessed that we would have a fall of more than 50 percent in the broad stock indexes or that oil would triple in price and then fall by more than $100 a barrel? Some people might have seen parts of this pattern, but all of it? Again, life is far too complex to be predicted with any consistency.

Let me see: you’re pointing out that no one predicted, two years ago, that Obama would be elected president and where Citigroup would trade and where GE would trade, and that Bear would vanish and that Lehman would vanish and that law students would find job hunting difficult and that MBAs would too and that stocks would fall more than 50% and that oil would go up a lot and that oil would then go down a lot. And you conclude that since no one managed to get all of that right, then hey, that just shows that life is terribly complex.

If all of these things had a 50% chance of happening, the chances of them all happening would be less than one in a thousand. Stein might as well have thrown in a few real outliers too: who on earth would have predicted that Natasha Richardson would die after a skiing accident? No one’s asking for all predictions to be right. They’re just asking that people like Ben Stein quit with the brainless boosterism and pay attention to reality once in a while.

Alternatively, Ben, you could simply quit with the punditry: all those TV appearances and books and newspaper columns which are predicated on the idea that you do know what’s what. It’s much easier to simply keep quiet than it is to be wrong the whole time. And then you won’t have me or anybody else calling you to account any more.

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