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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Hello!!! Read Curt’s comment. Don’t cha know sarcasm when you see it? Plain as the knows on your face. Where do ninnies line-up to get a fresh brain?

Posted by Howard | Report as abusive

I think that Stein makes a good point and pointing to passages where he was being satirical is disingenous if not outright dishonest. As for those poor souls who ask why he is qualified on economic issues; his father was a famous economist, Ben attended Cornell, majored in econonomics and graduated with honors before graduating from Yale law school where he was valedictorian. He is a humble man who is often criticized for speaking what he believes is the truth. What a welcome relief from all of the chicanery, propaganda and misdirection the present administration indulges in every day where there are no absolutes and every time they are caught lying they “walk it back” to try and say (1) they have changed over the years or (2) there is no guilt by association or (3) they must have spoken hastily and it can be a learning experience (for THE OTHERS INVOLVED) or (4) the facts from non partisan groups (such as the C.B.O.) are wrong. Obama promised 600,000 jobs by this summer if we took on what may well be the largest transfer of wealth in our nations history, yet last month alone another 570,000 Americans lost their jobs. How’s that “Hopey Changey” thing going for you Obama supporters now? When you elected the most liberal senator in our country; the least qualified in president in history, a person with no military, business, or executive experience, please don’t act surprised when he and his cronies turn out to be “the gang that can’t shoot straight” with zero accomplishments so far other than blaming others for what they have wrought, along with diplomatic and PR blunders greater than Bush had in eight years. Give me a break. When your world view is simply wrong, then own up to it. Socialism DOES NOT WORK!

Posted by Paganpink | Report as abusive

Ben Stein is the fellow who wept when Nixon resigned. That says it all. As for the economy, it may be turning around in only a year, under Fed policies begun under Bush and continued under Obama, who was always a centrist Senator. The GOP is confusing him with Ted Kennedy and Bernie Sanders. Indeed, the policy on the economy may be the only bipartisan cooperation this President gets.

Posted by srk00 | Report as abusive

“As for the economy, it may be turning around in only a year, under Fed policies begun under Bush and continued under Obama, who was always a centrist Senator.” Committing the nation to an additional $10,000,000,000,000 debt is “turning around”? “Centrist Senator”? Obamaessiah was commonly acknowledged as the nation’s most leftist Senator.

Posted by michael hardt | Report as abusive

You must be joking? In reading this editorial I was immediately put on my guard by Mr. Salmon’s reference to French Galley slaves in the 16th Century. Galley slaves were employed in Ancient Rome and Greece. The French used “pressed” seaman which they had captured from opposing vessels or enemy seaports, even some pressed Frenchmen from Marseilles. But “Galley Slaves”? No.

The rest of the editorial was very suspect after that.

Posted by Joseph | Report as abusive

The enormous cost of attending college seems more bizarre to me when I reflect that anyone can learn a lot for next to nothing using the internet. We should all reflect on the fact that it’s the degree that’s expensive, not the knowledge.

Posted by Bob Pendleton | Report as abusive

I really hate the upper-middle class, Ben Stein’s satire notwithstanding.

Posted by hazmato | Report as abusive

As this (and previous) postings from Mr. Salmon clearly show, once you hate someone you will find something wrong with ANYTHING that person says, no matter how trivial. Obviously Mr. Stein (whom I do NOT hold in high regard) is using exaggerations and satyre to get his point accross, but Mr. Salmon’s is apparently unable to understand those complexities and he only sees stupidity where others will not. Curiously enough, Mr. Salmon doesn’t mention the main topic of Ben’s column which is NOT about sending kids to college but about how having kids doesn’t have the incentives that it used to have in the past and how that is causing more and more people to avoid having kids. Of course, analyzing that would probably be too much for Mr. Stein’s intellect, so he just chooses to quote a few sentences and ignore everything else. Such journalistic standards would get him fired from any reputable publication (interestingly enough, he doesn’t seem to belong to any). Read Ben Stein’s column and see for yourself. If you are a working parent living in a big city you will agree with most of his points (but only if you have an intellect a bit above Mr Salmon’s and are able to get past the satyre).

I wonder if Mr. Salmon himself has kids. From the tone of his writing I highly doubt it. If he doesn’t, it would make his posting even more ridiculous: any parent (yes, including me) can tell you that you know NOTHING about being a parent until you become one.

Posted by zam | Report as abusive

l’ Upper Middle class c’est moi

London? London… lived there. Weather sucks, pretty much most of the time. Been several years though, might be improving with global warming. I hear chicken tikka masala is now the national dish. That would be an improvement as well.

Anyway, I sent my upper middle class kids to the local far suburb public schools, they got admitted to very good public universities, got degrees in law and science, and jobs, even in a bad economy. My wife and I were very tired of soccer by the time they graduated tho..

Anyway, we put the money we didn’t spend on ed into retirement accounts and eventually retired early, so public education works fine for me.

@felix should try some of that because Ben S IS TRYING TO GET A REACTION BY BEING PROVOCATIVE BECAUSE IT INCREASES HIS READERSHIP. Seems to be working too, sort of like Obama and Rush Limbaugh.

Posted by ARJTurgot | Report as abusive