Saturday, October 12, 2019

Who Should Pay for Lunch: Wealthy Child or Poorer Parents?

I have often drawn attention to the truly awful advice doled out by our nation’s leading advice columnists. I do so as a public service. Since these columnists purvey therapy culture bromides and nostrums, what better way to question that culture. Real life is always more instructive than the theoretical elucubrations of psycho theorists. Even more so considering that today’s psycho theorists are pathetically incapable of theorizing much of anything.

Anyway, today we venture into a different territory, the one where behavioral economists hold sway. As you know behavioral economists are academic superstars. They had a clear influence on the Obama administration policy. They are lauded and feted far and wide. With few exceptions, America bows down to the wisdom of economists who pretend to know how we should all conduct our lives.

For the record, one persistent and accurate critic of these moralizing posers is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, he of black swan fame. Hats off to Taleb. Not everyone worships at the altar of behavioral economics.

With that in mind we turn to Duke’s very own Dan Ariely, a renowned behavioral economist who offers up his advice in the Wall Street Journal. 

In a letter to Ariely a man named Andrew explains his moral dilemma. He makes more money than his retired parents. He wants to know whether it is alright to treat them to their weekly lunches, even though the family custom has been for them to alternate paying.

Unfortunately, the letter writer does not offer up any numbers. Without them we are flying blind. It might not bother a behavioral economist, but if Andrew is making millions a year and Mom and Dad are living on a modest pension plus Social Security, the answer becomes more obvious. In that case, if he allowed his parents to pay he would be a portrait in avarice. Even so….

Anyway, here is the letter.

My retired parents and I usually go out for lunch every other Sunday. We have been taking turns paying the check, but I know that I make more money than they do. Should I start paying for all the meals or at least cover the tip when they are paying? —Andrew

You will be thinking that a generous son, a son who had learned filial piety, would naturally pick up the check, without even asking his parents to pay. He would do so always because he owes his parents something. One suspects that they fed, housed, clothed and educated him. 

So, he is merely paying them back. Perhaps they do not want full reimbursement, but still they will not, for reasons of pride, ask for money. That would make him look less generous. He should show his gratitude to them by paying for lunch. It is not an unreasonable burden.

The point is so obvious that Ariely missed it completely. For your edification, here are his thoughts:

Since you’ve established a custom of taking turns paying for meals, I think you should continue on that basis. Think of these meals as gifts that you are giving each other: The purpose of gift-giving is to help strengthen relationships rather than a strictly financial exchange. If you are worried about potential strain on your parents, you can offer to pay some of their other bills or give them a yearly cash gift, but I would separate the issue of their finances from the weekly tradition that you have established.

Let’s see… for one, Ariely is correct to see that gift-giving strengthens relationships. It is not a strictly financial concern. True enough. And yet, we are talking about a parent-child relationship. Do you really think that it needs this kind of strengthening?

Normal gift giving most often occurs on a horizontal axis, between relative equals. In the case of parent/child relations, the vertical axis pertains. The hierarchal relationship prevails over the need to make a horizontal connection. 

Thus, in cultures where people do not bow down to behavioral economists, the law of filial piety prevails. Young Andrew is in his parents’ debt and he should show his gratitude by taking charge of the payment obligations. It is vastly more gracious than offering them a yearly cash gift or by paying their bills. Of course, if they need help with their expenses he should contribute.

The latter solutions, offered by the behavioral economist, might feel insulting, like giving to a charity. The offer to spring for lunch is gracious and generous. It acknowledges that his parents fed him for many, many years. Now is his chance to thank them.


UbuMaccabee said...

Or as a five year old who went to church or temple would say, “honor your father and mother.” Religious child > Duke behavioral economist.

trigger warning said...

I fully agree with you, Schneiderman, but...

I remain amazed that some silly berk actually bothered to ask a so-called (celebrity) behavioral economist about buying his parents' lunches in the #%&!ing Wall St Journal, and that they published it.

Freddo said...

It may be proper to let the father enjoy his role of pater familias and pay for the lunch. If money is not important, focus on the things that are important to the parents, such as plenty of access to any grand children and assistance when their health eventually deteriorates.