Ben Stein and the plight of the upper-middle-class parent

By Felix Salmon
September 2, 2009
Fortune, of all places. (I'm not sure that "thank" is the right word, but I found out about this from Dan Gross.)

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Now that he’s been fired from the New York Times, Ben Stein has popped up as a “contributor” to Fortune, of all places. (I’m not sure that “thank” is the right word, but I found out about this from Dan Gross.)

Stein’s first column there is a doozy:

Thanks to a variety of factors, often parents have to struggle like galley slaves to get their offspring into private schools and pay for them…

Then there is college and a real course in horrors getting the darling in somewhere that won’t embarrass you in front of your pals at the club. That’s before paying for the school, which is a stunning slap in the face. Total college costs at a “prestige” school can easily touch $70,000 a year, real money for most people.

Words fail me when it comes to Stein’s description of $70,000 a year as “real money for most people”. But apart from that, he has a point. The plight of today’s upper-middle-class parent is exactly analogous to that of a 16th-Century prisoner in France, condemned to a decade or more of working in the nation’s war galleys.

Hell, the galley salves of old had it easy: they didn’t need to worry about “ballet, horse, and music lessons, math tutoring, and chess club”, let alone “the ‘play dates’ that lurk like unanesthetized colonoscopies in modern life”. (Note the utter horror embedded in the term “play dates” — Stein can only bring himself to use it when it’s encased safely in a prophylactic set of scare-quotes.)

This is an old theme of Stein’s: back in his NYT days, he spoke of himself as a latter-day Willy Loman (apparently they have “heavy bags” in common):

“ `Attention must be paid,’ as Arthur Miller said. So start now, and make it a habit to be grateful to your parents. Say you’re grateful and mean it. Do it now, however young or old you are. Do it on Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, every day.”

Stein is clearly not a happy parent, the evidence of his book on fatherhood notwithstanding. But even a man as narcissistic as Stein must surely realize that kids never beg their parents to work harder so that they can go to private school or ballet lessons; and they surely don’t fret about whether their choice of university might embarrass their father in front of his “pals at the club”. (Some pals Stein has.)

Any parent who so chooses — especially any upper-middle-class parent — can at any time opt out of private-school rat race, spend a fraction of those tuition fees on books and travel and fun, and work less hard, if they want, now that their annual expenses have dropped sharply from private-school territory. (Working less hard, of course, means spending more time with your kids, which is also a good thing.) No child will ever object to any parent making such a decision.

Yet somehow Stein has convinced himself that all parents who choose otherwise somehow deserve their children’s unending gratitude for making that choice. Indeed, he doesn’t seem to think that it’s much of a choice at all, and that the costs of private school are so high that would-be parents of a certain class are actually choosing to get German shorthaired pointers instead. (Of course, it says everything about Stein and nothing about today’s parents that he thinks that dogs can and do replace children.)

Stein even ends up declaring that this whole working-hard-to-pay-school-fees phenomenon is so dreadfully pervasive that it bodes ill for the entire future of the country:

It’s happening right now. The native-born upper middle class barely replace themselves in America, if they do at all. In a way we are committing suicide as a class, possibly in part because of the burdens of child rearing in modern life.

I love that idea of “committing suicide as a class”, as though there’s any evidence at all that the “native-born upper middle class” is shrinking. (It isn’t, and why does it matter anyway if a member of the upper-middle classes is native-born or not?) It used to be that the American Dream involved being born poor and making it rich: clearly for Stein that doesn’t really count: all he cares about is the people who are born rich and succeed in breeding rich offspring.

Maybe, if those offspring are spectacularly successful, they too can be described in Fortune magazine in tones like this:

Ben Stein is an actor, lawyer, writer, and economist who also appears in commercials as a spokesman for various companies.

You go, Fortune. Now that you’ve disclosed something so vague as to be utterly meaningless, there can’t be any conflict of interest over the fact that Stein is a paid shill for an evil and predatory company. Maybe you should sign up the Cash4Gold guys next.

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