Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Punishment of Ben Stein

One of the articles that came up on the opening page of this morning was a lament by actor and sometimes economist Ben Stein entitled “Raising My Taxes Is a Punishment.” The deadpan Stein, known for his Visine commercials and his role as the deadly boring teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, argues that ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, tax cuts Stein has already enjoyed now for six years as the earner of more than $200,000 annually, is somehow a punishment.

To wit, his opening comments:

I am a fairly upper income taxpayer. Not anything even remotely close to sports stars or movie stars or financial big boys. But I am above the level Mr. Obama says makes me rich. So, in the midst of a severe recession, I am to have my taxes raised dramatically. 

I am not quite sure what my sin is.

You can read the remainder of this rant at

Stein knows better than this. He is well educated (Yale Law School) and has worked in at least two presidents’ administration (Nixon, Ford). He knows that it’s not Mr. Obama’s assessment that makes him rich, it’s his income. And he also knows that income is not made in a vacuum, there is a social context which has allowed him to amass his fortune.

Hence, the following response I left at the CBS site:

First of all, Ben, we love your comedy but it doesn’t translate well to serious discussion of economics.

Second, it’s important when discussing public policy to be as honest as possible about the facts. The fact is, no one is raising your taxes. You’re simply being required to again pay your fair share, something you’ve been able to avoid since Mr. Bush decided to place the burden of the revenue system on the backs of the working poor and the middle class with his tax cuts for fellow millionaires. If you wish to be taken seriously, as I presume you do in this article, you must begin with the facts.

Third, if you insist upon framing this discussion as punishment for a sin then consider that your sin is a failure to grow and mature into a responsible adult member of society. What is striking about your article is the use of the pronouns “I” and “my.” This is one of the most self-focused columns I’ve read in a long time, even more than those of my usually narcissistic and self-focused undergraduates. This kind of inability to escape the lens of self is somewhat charming in children. But we do expect more from adults.

You live in a society that has made possible the earning of your fortune. You drive on public highways to work, you work in an industry with federal protections against copyright and regulations which insure your television programs and movies are accessible to willing customers. Your doctors use procedures and medicines approved by federal protocols and trials and your own teachers along the way were educated in public schools.

Had you grown up on a desert island with no contributions from others, you would have no obligations to others. But you didn’t. And so your sin is your unwillingness to honestly confront your own selfish desire to keep from paying your fair share. Time to repent, Ben. There is still a possibility of redemption.

Your mileage may vary.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


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