Recently, Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, shared a meal with two economists who ordered two expensive bottles of wine. TPM has the story, complete with cell phone photographs taken by a Rutgers Business School professor:
“We were just stunned,” said [Susan] Feinberg, who e-mailed TPM about her encounter later the same evening. “I was an economist so I started doing the envelope calculations and quickly figured out that those two bottles of wine was more than two-income working family making minimum wage earned in a week.”
She was outraged that Ryan was consuming hundreds of dollars in wine while Congress was in the midst of intense debates over whether to cut seniors’ safety net, and she didn’t know whether Ryan or his companions was going to pay for the wine and whether the two men were lobbyists. She snapped a few shots with her cell phone to record the wine purchase.
Later on, the professor confronted Chairman Ryan and his dinner companions:
After ending their meal and paying the check, Feinberg decided to give Ryan a piece of her mind. She approached the table and asked Ryan “how he could live with himself” sipping expensive wine while advocating for cuts to programs for seniors and the poor. Some verbal jousting between Feinberg and the other two men ensued. One of the two men said he had ordered the wine, was drinking it and paying for it. In hearing how much the wine cost, Ryan said only: “Is that how much it was?”
The rest of the story is very entertaining, and I recommend taking a look. Naturally, a number of other media organs are now having fun with Paul Ryan’s supposed taste for expensive wine.
One is reminded of the directional logic of the intensification of political conflict. If politicians are going to drink expensive wine, they’d be well advised to do so behind closed doors henceforth.
Could Chairman Ryan live with himself if he consumed expensive wine while advocating the expansion of programs for seniors and the poor? I suppose I could see the logic in that, particularly if it meant that Ryan himself would pay some shared of the increased taxes that would be necessary. But of course Ryan would be using his power and influence to compel others to pay more taxes, including many teetotalers.
I perused Professor Feinberg’s personal website, which offers a list of highlights.
Advanced market democracies are complex cooperative ventures. To what extent are we and should we be accountable to each in our habits, commitments, and consumption? Would it be appropriate for someone to berate a relative of mine for eating unhealthy food if she were a Medicaid beneficiary, or if she enjoyed a large tax subsidy for her employer-sponsored health coverage? Is public shaming of this kind appropriate — and is it just? Say I believed that a large Medicare expenditures are captured by medical providers rather than devoted to delivering high-quality medical care and that restraining the growth of Medicare spending would tend to reduce these “profits” by spurring more innovation in this space. Am I then allowed to drink expensive wine? Perhaps the belief that transparency and competition in this space will reduce the cost of high-quality medical care is naive or stupid. Is that why I can and should be harassed while eating a meal? And if so, where do we draw the line as to when we can and cannot harass people on grounds of stupidity and naivete?
If I were an employee of an MBA program sponsored by a public university, I might think about this in a number of ways:
(a) Management education is vitally important to a flourishing economy because it contributes to managerial innovation and growth in capital productivity. It is not just a signaling mechanism. I am contributing to the common good by teaching in an MBA program, and also by conducting research on vitally important social scientific questions. Though there is a great deal of leisure embedded in this kind of intellectual work, I feel confident that I earn every cent of my salary and I am entitled to spend it as I please.
(b) I would be uncomfortable with working for an MBA program sponsored by a public university if said program were primarily funded by taxpayers, as I am very aware of the competing uses for taxpayer dollars, particularly in a straitened budget environment. Yet my program is primarily funded by alumni donors, corporate sponsors, etc. We pay our own way, and my employers pay me what they need to pay me to keep me here. Of course I can spend my salary as I please.
(c) I am a private citizen. Yes, I am in some respects best understood as a public employee, but I have not been empowered by voters to make decisions on their behalf. And that is why my own choices should not be scrutinized. I can, however, scrutinize the private consumption choices made by elected officials.
I really like thinking through the choices people make and how these choices are shaped by self-perception and narrative. What kind of person am I and what kind of person are you, and how does that shape how I am allowed to treat you?