Friday, April 25, 2008

Win Ben Stein's Opinions


Ben Stein has long been one of my favorite "characters", but I never met the man himself ... until today.

I loved the game show "Win Ben Stein's Money" and enjoyed the mindless "America's Most Smartest Model". I knew Stein's background involved being valedictorian of his class at Yale Law School, a reported genius, and a well-known economist who dabbles in political commentary ... So, when offered the opportunity by Dann Van Der Vliet, the Director of the Vermont Business Center, to hear him speak and attend a reception for him, I jumped at it. (Thanks, Dann!)

It was too much fun. Parking at UVM is always a challenge, so I cheated and tucked the little blue car in an executive spot behind the Ira Allen Chapel, turned on the cloaking device, hoped for the best, and headed in.

I surveyed the room and found a familiar face -- Tim Smith, the Executive Director of the Franklin County Industrial Development Corporation (I'm a shameless name dropper, as this post confirms) ... Soon, Rocki-Lee Dewitt (the Dean of the UVM Business School who I met when I earned my certificate from VBC), took the stage to introduce UVM President Dan Fogel (who I met at a dinner he hosted in hopes of signing my older daughter to an academic UVM scholarship) who then introduced Ben Stein. DeWitt's intro of Fogel was short and sweet ... Fogel's intro of Stein was fun and fitting -- as Fogel's wife's sister's husband was Stein's undergraduate roommate at Columbia back in the '60s (see, I'm not the only name dropper!) ...

Stein's talk was the intellectual equivalent of crossing a stream by hopping from rock to rock. Jokes. Economics. Stories. Politics. Sips of honey-water. Evolution. Name dropping (he menitoned he lives near Barbara Striesand). Anecdotes. Transistions cleverly disguised as non-sequitors ... A very interesting, enjoyable hour. Highlights?
  • He's frustrated that the top 300 thousand wage earners in the US earn more than the bottom 200 million and that 1% of the people in the US own 50% of the assets in the country (agreed, the trick is how to change that appropriately);

  • He holds great concern about the unbridled power of Hedge Funds and their subsequent influence on the US economy (he lost me there as I don't even truly believe in economics as a genre);

  • Martin Luther King, Jr, is the man he respects most from the 20th century (could well be my choice as well);

  • He's thrilled a woman and a black man are running for President, but wishes the man was Colin Powel (agreed) and the woman was Condi Rice (likely better than Hillary, but I'm not sure how much better);

  • His new movie "Expelled" challenges the educational world's approach to Darwinism with Intelligent Design (in a way that is beyond me, but I've yet to see the movie) and he fielded a couple questions on it from both sides (that dripped with emotion from the asker in ways that were also beyond me);

  • When asked about the impact on families of jail sentences for non-violent drug offenders, Stein turned it, and postulated perhaps it was the drug use itself hurting the families moreso than the prison sentences (agreed), but went on to say he'd likely favor eliminating criminal penalties for posession of small quantities of drugs (I disagree in the vast majority of cases) ...

All in all, a highly entertaining eclectic session that was less like a stuffy executive lecture and more like idle chatter on long a road trip between thinking friends who actually read the newspaper ... An afternoon well spent.

Then, I met Ben.

I'd been invited to the reception and wanted to meet Stein, but am a bit of an anti-social hobbit and it was a Friday afternoon and I wasn't sure I'd actually get to talk to him, so I was waivering about heading over to the Fleming Museum for the event. I decided to check on the car so I headed back to where it was illegally cloaked -- and Stein, Fogel, and DeWitt emerged from Ira Allen's side door! Opportunity knocks!

I adjusted my pace so our perpendicular paths would cross as they came off the stairs and made eye contact with Ben Stein as he stepped onto the bricked walk.

"Mr. Stein, thank you for you time today," I said. "I really enjoyed your remarks. It was a highly entertaining, interesting afternoon.

"Thank you," he said with a big smile, extending his hand to shake mine. "And what is your name?" he asked.

"I'm Jonathan Billings," I said.

"Billings?" He asked and stopped his stride as our hand shake broke and we commenced walking again. "Is this your building?"

"Ah, no", I said with a laugh as we stood just outside UVM's Billings' Student Center. Born of a different mother. "This one belongs to UVM."

A bit of laughter, mutual headnods, and we each continued on our way. Priceless ... To top it off, the cloaking device worked perfectly and the little bluc car was safe and sound (and ticket free) when I returned to it.

Haha! All in all, a most enjoyable afternoon. Thanks again, Dann!

2 comments:

dvdv said...

Great post Jon and I'm glad we could help out with the ticket. I thought despite Ben's raspy voice (he was equallly vocally challenged the night before on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson)he presented a well balanced diatribe of Conservative and Liberal points. I have not seen "Expelled" either, but from the questions and responses, I can understand what the main themes of the movie must be. I am always a little amazed when emotions so quickly overtake open discourse. Science and opinion are so cleverly mixed at times...but isn't the university where people are supposed to be open minded and curious?

Sorry I missed seeing you and glad you had the opportunity to shake his hand. I look forwasrd to meeting up again.

Regards,
DVDV

Staart Gallery said...

I wish I could have gone! He can always make me agree with him even if I don't. (Except for intelligent design)