Ben Stein’s popular fame comes from Comedy Central’s "Win Ben Stein’s Money." Or his TV ads pitching Alaskan fish. But the New York Times still takes him to be a serious economist. Stein’s Op-Ed today in the NYT, "Exxon Mobil Needs a Hug," argues that Exxon’s $41-billion annual profit is no cause for upset, because that profit benefits all of us. I kept looking for the punch line, the wink. Exxon is us? Surely this was satire, a riff on Jonathan Swift’s "Modest Proposal," suggesting that the English should eat the children of the Irish, for benefit all ’round. But no. Stein says, without snicker, that Exxon’s profit:
"…goes into the pension and retirement accounts of ordinary citizens. When Exxon pays a dividend, that money goes to pay for the mortgages and oxygen tanks and in-home care of lots of elderly Americans."
With which oxygen-sucking pensioners is Stein hanging out? As Naked Capitalism blogger Yves Smith notes, most of "us" don’t own shares in Exxon and barely half of Americans have pensions. I’d add that retirees outside Stein’s circle are not clipping Exxon dividend coupons, they’re putting on a fake grin and greeting shoppers at Wal-Mart.
Stein also argues:
"…after expenses, the money hauled in by Exxon Mobil and other companies like it goes vastly more toward exploration and finding new ways of delivering oil and gas to us slobs in our cars than it does to well-heeled oil executives."
Wrong comparison, Ben. What chokes those of us paying $3.50 a gallon for gasoline, and seeing $4.00 around the corner, is that Exxon spends more tens of billions to to buy back its own stock (About $30 billion in 2006 alone) than toward exploration or modernizing aged, ureliable refineries. Or investing in any kind of non-oil future.
Or that Exxon has spent years denying the science of global warming and punish those who dared call it a fact–even getting the White House to do its bidding.
Then again, that fits with Stein’s latest project. The same Ben who did such a great turn as the most boring teacher in the world in "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off" is now the host and star of "Expelled," a religious-right documentary version of Michael Moore (without the sense of humor), on the suffering of academics and teachers who demand the right to teach the updated version of creationism, intelligent design, and deny evolution, in the classroom. See the trailer and Ben’s blog … and the New York Times story on alleged deceptive tactics by the producers–and Ben.
The movie’s promotional slogan is that "Big Science Has Expelled Smart New Ideas From the Classroom." Just like Big Oil expelled science from the global warming debate, maybe. And like Ben Stein expelled inconvenient truths in favor of hugs for Exxon.