Mother's Economics 101

Wednesday, 24 Feb 2010 10:16 AM

By Ben Stein

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In the summer of 1959, I was 14 years old. That summer, I was not going to summer camp, not going to summer school, not doing anything except reading books about the Civil War and listening to rock music in my basement.

We lived in a modern house in Silver Spring, Md., then, as now, a suburb of Washington, D.C. My father was research director of the Committee for Economic Development (CED), a powerful group of very high corporate chief executives. He was an economist of some note and helped the executives write position papers on labor law, trade, defense, taxes, and many other issues.

My mother stayed home and worked mostly at administering encouragement, as she would have said, to the other members of the family.

One morning in July, she became angry at my spending the summer “just lazing around and doing nothing.” She ordered me to put on a suit and tie and take the bus downtown that very day and look for a job as an “office boy” or a messenger.

I was terrified of my mother, so I put on a suit and tie and leather lace-up shoes, walked to the bus stop on Colesville Road, took a bus down to the intersection of 16th Street Northwest and K Street Northwest, and alighted in typical fantastic Washington summer heat and humidity.

Somehow, I knew that in some of the buildings in this area were things called “trade associations.” These were Washington outposts of refiners or scrap metal dealers or telephone companies. I could tell if they were big enough to perhaps need a summer replacement office boy by whether they had a whole floor or close to it on the directory in the blessedly air-conditioned lobby.

I took the elevator to the reception area, asked the receptionist if the entity might need a summer replacement office boy, and surprisingly often was asked to fill out an application.

I did this at maybe 10 or 15 offices and then went home. My mother seemed satisfied by that exercise, although I did it for the next few days as well.

No jobs were forthcoming.

This was something of a shock to me. After all, I was a super-good student in ninth grade, had just been labeled a math prodigy in a statewide test in Maryland, and was dressed in a neat suit.

But, despite my apple-polishing ways, despite my braving the cruel Washington July weather, I did not get a job.

Apparently jobs were not just low-hanging fruit waiting to be plucked.

My father, who had been out of town on one of his endless business trips, came back to hear about my enforced job search and was annoyed at my mother.

Reading history, he said, was a perfectly good way to spend a day, especially at 14. (It might be worth noting that at age 15, my father had been a freshman at Williams College, probably as good a small college as there is on the planet, and was putting himself through college by odd jobs, in the Great Depression, some of the jobs involving washing dishes at a fraternity that would not admit Jews.)

However, my father said, if I wanted to see what it was like to spend a day working in an office, his own office boy at the CED was going away on vacation for two weeks, and I could have his job. After all, it was up to my father to pick the candidate.

I took the offer and happily worked mimeographing and mailing and buying office supplies. It was interesting, pleasant work, and I even got to read one of the most important postwar economic works, The Sources of Economic Growth by Edward F. Dennison, one of my father’s colleagues, in manuscript form to do some elementary copy editing.

It has been 50 years since my mother’s fury sent me down on the Federal Triangle bus to look fruitlessly for a job. For decades, I was angry at my mother for her demand that I look for a job without any connections, just off the street. But as time has passed, I have come to realize that unintentionally, maybe intentionally, she did me a huge favor. She taught me about how hard it is to get a job, how money is not a free good, about how vital family and friend connections are.

She didn’t know it, but she taught me to value any way of distinguishing myself from that guy just walking in off the street. She taught me how blessed I am to have had the connections I had, which have borne fruit all of my life.

She also taught me to feel sympathy for the many people who do start just off the pavement, without the connections I had. These are big lessons. They may be the biggest, best lessons I ever learned about money and work on any given day.


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