How to Split the Dinner Bill: Should Millionaires Pay More?

Recently I was listening to an episode of the Slate Money podcast where the hosts had an argument that really caught my attention. It was about who pays for dinner in a mixed income group, and it went something like this (very paraphrased):

Felix Salmon: You expect your friend to pay for dinner because she’s rich?

Emily Peck: Yeah, she has like 500 million dollars! Of course she pays. I offer to pay if she’s OK with going some place more affordable.

As I listened, at first I was a little surprised at Emily’s confidence in flouting what is an unspoken taboo at most dinner tables. Yet Slate Money’s extreme example of millionaires with thousandaires was actually one I have found myself in, and so it seemed worth taking a second look at my thinking and the beliefs underlying it.

In New York City, proximity creates cross-class interactions in every-day life. With Section 8 government housing opposite million-dollar mansions, and millionaires taking the subway with working Joes, we are organically a part of each other’s day-to-day. I’ve met every kind and class of person in the City, and have had the pleasure of meeting a few people in the “Two Commas Club” that have become good friends. And when I go to dinner with them, I want to pay for myself. Why is that?

Splitting the bill equally vs. equitably

On an interpersonal level, I don’t want wealthy friends to feel imposed upon or used. But Emily has forced me to ask, is a friendship really about equality, i.e. everyone paying the same, or equity, where each person contributes what they uniquely have to offer? If the latter, then in the dinner scenario that is purely about dollars and cents, shouldn’t the wealthier person pay more in proportion to their income? I’m surprised to find myself uneasy with the idea that my rich friends should pay more of the dinner bill when I have no problem with the idea of them paying more in taxes.

Source: Interaction Institute for Social Change

Dinner bill math as a microcosm of economic policy

Our current unease with wealthy friends picking up more of the dinner tab translates directly into the Republican line of thinking: that each person should look after themselves, and if they can’t afford to eat out, they should go without. Simply put, everyone should pay for their own dinner. This argument ignores context: it’s easier to pick yourself up by your own bootstraps if everyone has similar incomes and similar access to opportunities. Thus, it’s easier in single-class circles for each person to pay their own dinner bill. But that’s not the scenario many people find themselves in in New York City.

Getting comfortable with the idea of the wealthy paying more for dinner requires a more liberal paradigm. From a liberal perspective, there are different levels of economic responsibility for public goods, depending on your wealth. And sharing a meal with friends is, arguably, a public good, a microcosm of pro-social economic policy. At the dinner table level, the wealthy paying more for meals would lead to more diverse life experiences through cross-class friendships. These benefits, one could argue, ultimately pay for themselves in the form of a more functional society.

The alternative for the wealthy is relative social isolation — which under our current paradigm is the path most often chosen. The rich feel more socially isolated today than ever before as income inequality has increased. On the flip side, the positive externalizes of the wealthy paying more for meals have actually already been measured: namely, through free school lunch policies. Free breakfast and lunch leads to stronger student performance and, thus, stronger long-term productivity for the economy.

Systemically better results

One might argue that there is a risk of creating reliance on the wealthy that undermines relationships and self-reliance. It’s why parents stop paying for their adult children, even while parent incomes are typically greater. Yet the liberal paradigm isn’t trying to put parental responsibilities on the wealthy. It’s simply trying to systemically produce the best result and best opportunities for the most people.

So this holiday season, as you catch up with friends over cozy meals, think about what norms you want to have. And share with me what you think: should rich people pay more for dinner the way we ask them to pay more for taxes? Tweet at me: @mbainthecity

Moving in and taking out – the demise of Seamless

It’s July, I’ve tossed my graduation cap up in the air, and into a crate. I’ll miss the NYU housing, just a stone’s throw away from Washington Square Park. Mamoun’s will no longer be my go-to dinner spot, and I finished my last Smith’s brunch for a while yesterday morning. 

The two movers from Queens that I found on Craig’s List arrived with their van, and we begin the elevator dance, squeezing what we can into the freight in our 3 hour reserved slot. I’d managed to find a new three bedroom in a hot new neighborhood. Well, just outside of a hot new neighborhood – Bushwick; it’s more affordable. It’s a walk-up, but I’m only on the second floor, and there’s three of us — we can handle.

Six hours later, with 30 minutes of coach maneuvering, we’ve arrived as a sweaty mess of cardboard boxes in the living room. I don’t know were my new work wardrobe ends and my pots and pans begin. I think to myself, If I can make it here, I can also get it delivered. Already salivating, I pull out my phone and open up Seamless, visions of chicken pad thai dancing through my mind. I scroll. And scroll. And scroll. Polish food. All Polish food. No thai food even touches the map of possibilities. Even if I pretend to be a few blocks closer to Manhattan, I seem to be just one block further east than any Thai restaurant is willing to go. And it fully dawns on me, I’ve made a horrible mistake — I have moved into a delivery desert.

I lived in a land with sushi as far as the eye can see only 6 hours ago. In the depths of my despair, I realize I need to pay the movers. As they open Venmo to make the request, I notice a *whole screen* of food apps. “Hey, which of those apps do delivery around here?” I ask, trying not to sound as desperate as I am. “All of them,” my mover says. I gape in disbelief. “Want a referral? I can send you all of them – DoorDash, Postmates, maybe Caviar because – treat yo-self”. Hell. Yes. “That would be awesome, I owe you a tip as well, add it to the Venmo.” 

My world had just contracted and expanded in the space of minutes, the Big Bang of delivery. Just because I don’t live in the Village, doesn’t mean I can’t eat like I do. The confines of my local neighborhood erased, the city is once again my bread basket.

Download #1 complete. Postmates. I open, and scroll, and scroll. It was there. It was all there. Restaurants that had mysteriously disappeared from Seamless months ago, now available to me, miles away. I now saw the shifting tides for what they were: the Great Unbundling. The restaurants no longer had to hire delivery people, or share a cut with Seamless. They could just outsource it.

Further down the list: Shake Shack. This explained the mysterious lines of this non-delivering burger power house. These delivery services will order for you, and wait in line! And after a day like mine, I am more than willing to pay the service and delivery costs. I upgrade from my #2 to my #1 Thai place, now that it’s back on the map, and place a double order of chicken pad thai. And while I’m at it, I delete the Seamless app. Goodbye peirogis, hello world.