You know things are going awry when the diehards start expressing doubt. And in the annals of diehard, hardcore, to-the-dying-breath Republicanism, Ben Stein ranks right up there.
Yeah, that Ben — the dorky dude who carved a niche in film notoriety with his role as the terminally boring, monosyllabic teacher in the teenie movie, “Ferris Bueller's Day Off.” It has been ranked one of the 50 most memorable movie scenes.
He parlayed that shtick into a very successful career in movies and TV, including many commercials.
What not a lot of his younger fans know (or care) is that in a previous life, entertainer Ben was an economist, a Columbia and Yale Law grad who wrote frequently for the Wall Street Journal and other publications. The son of distinguished economist Herbert Stein, who headed President Nixon's Council of Economic Advisors, Ben himself did a stint as speechwriter and lawyer for Nixon and then President Ford.
Then, mid-life crisis or whatever, he decided to chuck it all, head to Hollywood, and seek a new career in show biz. Success followed success, culminating in his popular TV game show, “Win Ben Stein's Money,” which garnered seven Emmys.
But he didn't throw all that economics training out the window, continuing to write for the Wall Street Journal, do issues commentary on the networks and cable channels, and write 16 books, including several on finance and ethical/social issues.
So, surprise then, Ben's recent column for the Yahoo Finance Web site, in which he states, “This country is in terrible trouble.”
Noting that the U.S. is a major debtor to the rest of the world, borrowing $1 billion per day just to buy oil, and that our debt to the rest of the world is nearly $3 trillion, he says, “We'd have real trouble financing our lavish standard of living if we didn't have the rest of the world to lend us money.
“Inevitably… this means foreigners will want to hold less of our currency and bonds,” he says, which will push down the value of the dollar and make oil, gas, and other commodities more expensive in dollar terms. The immense debt to the rest of the world will also increase interest rates and the cost of living.
If that's not scary enough, Stein says, the cost of Medicare obligations through the end of the century “is a number so large that it exceeds the total wealth of the nation — if you liquidated every farm, factory, home, office building, oil well, port, warehouse, apartment building… it would not be enough to pay off our future Medicare liabilities.” And that doesn't include the new Medicare prescription program.
It's “a terrifying scenario,” he says, warning that many of today's workers will face “genuine poverty” in their retirement years unless they assiduously save money and invest wisely.
Yet, the administration and Congress continue to spend our money as if there's no tomorrow, with a national debt now nearly $8.5 trillion and climbing, and trillions more in unfunded liabilities.
Even non-economists can see that such a scenario is fraught with peril.