For the past 37 years, more people around the world have learned about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act from one source above all others.
The source, of course, is Ben Stein, delivering probably the most memorable economics lecture in movie history, in the 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. While anyone with a passing exposure to basic cable has seen the scene, very few know that Stein actually improvised his lines. The film’s director, John Hughes, knew that Stein was an economist with a degree from Columbia University, and the only instructions he gave to Stein were for him to go in front of the chalkboard and drone on about a subject he knew well.
Stein could have just as easily and expertly riffed about presidential politics, supply-side economics, market timing or game shows.
And now, the 68-year-old native of Washington, D.C., is coming to town on Nov. 5 to perform at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Main Event at the Hilton Philadelphia City Avenue.
Stein has led an eclectic life: He has worked as a poverty lawyer and a speech writer for Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He has hosted simultaneous eponymous shows on Comedy Central and been a pitchman for Clear Eyes. And he’s still writing opinion pieces for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and is in demand as a cable news pundit.
Regardless of which career he is focused on at any one time, Stein has always maintained his dedication to Jewish causes, which, according to co-chair of the Main Event, Ellyn Golder Saft, made him the ideal choice to entertain the expected 600 attendees at the fundraising event, which this year is honoring past presidents of the Federation.
“It was really quite simple,” Saft said. “With a huge event like this, you look for a speaker to appeal to the broadest audience, and we felt he really appealed across the board. He is very Jewish and very family- and community-minded — it ended up being the perfect marriage.” Indeed, Stein’s appearance will focus on families.
During a phone interview conducted less than 12 hours after the end of the government shutdown and the accompanying threat of default, Stein took time between cable news appearances for a wide-ranging discussion. The following are excerpts from that interview.
You have so many titles and areas of expertise — what order do you list them in on your business card?
I don’t have a business card. If I did, it would say, “Ben Stein: Overweight.” I’ve done lots of things, but I think mostly I’m an observer and commentator of what I have seen.
What have you observed recently that has stirred you to comment?
The main thing I want to say: The Jewish people are always having one kind of problem or another, and most of them are caused by people jealous of our success and achievements. So today it is more important than ever that when we have a president who is wavering in his support of Israel, we work together to shore him up and get his courage going about standing behind Israel. They face their most existential threat since the Holocaust, with Iran getting closer and closer to getting a nuclear bomb. Mr. Obama doesn’t quite seem to get that Israel’s life is on the line. That does not seem to have been explained very well at all to American Jews — they are needed more than ever.
What are you basing that on?
This is what I’ve read — I’ve not spoken to Mr. Obama about it. He is continually discouraging Israel from a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Second, Mr. Obama has shown what a friend of mine calls Islamophilia — he is attracted to Islamism. But mostly, he seems to be taking the peace initiatives from Mr. Rouhani much more seriously than they deserve. I haven’t seen anything the Iranians are doing to indicate that they are giving up their mission to develop nuclear weapons.
What is your take on the government shutdown debacle?
I don’t think it was a debacle. I think it was a way that a great many Americans were able to express their frustration about the way the government is run. People in Middle America were able to say, “We are sick of entitlement programs bleeding America white — we are willing to push things to call attention to the dilemma.”
What I see as the real other side of the problem, which is not being discussed by the Tea Party, is the crisis was caused by lowering taxes. We are a high-entitlement/low-taxes society, and that cannot continue — or at least it cannot continue for very long.
What do you think will be the long-term implications of the shutdown?
There are no implications. We are just at the intermission of the drama that will last for years and maybe decades, and which will end at some point with the U.S. having to devalue the national debt, or else we have to drastically raise taxes.
One of the reasons you are so in-demand as a pundit is because you say things that set off both progressives and conservatives. Why have you chosen to be so outspoken?
I’m old. I’m allowed to say what I want — people just think I’m a crazy old person.
IF YOU GO
Federation’s Main Event
Hilton Philadelphia City Avenue
4200 City Ave., Philadelphia