The Magazine

Mr. Stein’s Lessons

There’s more to learn here than the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.

Sep 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 02 • By ARAM BAKSHIAN JR.
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What Would Ben Stein Do? is not so much a short book as the kind of extended conversation a savvy but humane old uncle might have with favorite nieces and nephews as they strive to come to grips with education and adolescence, work and adulthood, family and finance. Some of the advice is superficial. Spreading joy and boosting personal prestige by tipping generously, or making friends and boosting self-esteem by driving a flashy car, may not involve deep thinking, but they are practical applications of the biblical assertion that “he that is of a merry heart hath a continual feast.”

Fortunately, there are plenty of lyrical moments as well, when everyday things, simply described, lead to a powerful truth-and-a-half:

[L]ast night, after a fine sushi dinner with my wife; after a long nap with my precious dog, Brigid, lying on my chest, with her big, heavy old head right in front of my nose; I got up and swam in my pool. .  .  . It was about midnight. The moon was about half full. It was rising above a trio of tall palm trees. The moon painted the palm fronds a silvery blue. All around it were glittering stars, planets, and satellites. A jetliner taking off from LAX made a glowing contrail nimbus across the moon, and then another one came by, and then another .  .  . like strings on a stellar, nocturnal guitar .  .  . I thought, “At this moment; not my pal, Warren Buffett; not John Paulson, the spectacularly successful speculator; not anyone on this earth feels as good as I do. I am HAPPY.”

Then, Ben continues, “I realized—as I have many times—that to be happy is to be rich. It does not work the other way around.” The maxim? “To be arithmetically rich is not to be happy. But to be happy—to be content with what you have—that makes you instantly rich. There is no tax on it (yet). There is no way anyone can steal it from you unless you cooperate.”

Kitsch? Chicken fat for the soul? Maybe. But also something worth knowing, and worth being reminded of. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a wise old uncle like Ben Stein. Everyone can, however, enjoy the next best thing by dipping into What Would Ben Stein Do?

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan, and writes on politics, history, gastronomy, and the arts.

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