Every Mother’s Day weekend, I treat my mom to lunch at one of our favorite restaurants in Greensboro. When we arrived there this past Saturday, there was a line out the door, and we were told there would be an hour and 15 minute wait.
I was pretty hungry and sitting around doing nothing for more than an hour seemed boring. Suddenly, an idea began to form, and I decided to try something I’d never once done before. I asked my mom if she knew if there was an ATM nearby.
“I think I’m going to try bribing the hostess to see if we can jump to the top of the line,” I said.
“Does that work in real life?” my mom asked. “I’ve only ever seen that in movies and TV shows.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I have a friend who’s done it before. I guess it’s worth a shot.”
There wasn’t a nearby ATM, but my mom had some cash on her and I told her I’d pay her back. After some quick mental math based on the fanciness of the restaurant combined with the sheer number of people waiting for tables, I determined that $40 would probably be a fair amount.
I nervously walked up to the hostess stand.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m on the waiting list under ‘Ben Williams.’”
“Yes,” the hostess said.
I subtly pushed the wad of cash across the desk.
“I was wondering if we could jump a little higher on the list.”
To my surprise, she took the money casually and without a second thought, like it was the most natural thing in the world.
“Of course,” she said. “Thank you.”
I sat back down.
“Did it work?” my mom asked. She hadn’t been able to bring herself to actually watch the transaction.
“Yeah,” I said, “I think so.”
About three minutes later, the hostess ushered us to our table.
Now you might be saying, “Ben, that wasn’t very fair to the other customers who were waiting, most of whom had been waiting longer than you.” And while I don’t disagree, I will offer the following counterpoints: my mom was pretty impressed and I felt like a real big shot.
I don’t know that I’ll be pulling this trick again any time soon, largely because I’m a cheapskate, but it was a fascinating experience. For just a moment, I’d been able to pull back the curtain and briefly experience the kind of lifestyle that the wealthy enjoy, like someone getting transferred from coach to first class due to a screw-up at the airport. Not a bad deal for forty bucks.
At the same time, once the buzz of being a high roller had worn off, I came to realize that what I’d done was, on a very small scale, a microcosm of what’s wrong with the world.
A couple of years ago, a story came out that while his Washington, DC mansion was being renovated, Jeff Bezos and his contractors racked up about $18,000 worth of parking tickets. Most of the tickets came from parking in clearly marked “NO PARKING” zones, and it added up to nearly 600 citations over the course of three years.
If I somehow managed to rack up $18,000 in parking tickets, I would fake my own death and start a new life in a different country. But Jeff Bezos is worth $150 billion. $18,000 is nothing to him. For perspective, he spent $23 million on the DC mansion plus another $12 million to renovate it. That $35 million represents just 0.02 percent of Bezos’ net worth. Even the man’s mansion is chump change to him. For the purposes of comparison, if I were to spend 0.02 percent of my net worth, I could buy my burger and fries, but I would not have enough cash left over to upsize my combo.
The issue here is that if a law is punishable by a fine, then that law does not apply to the wealthy. Similarly, if a law is passed that can be legally circumvented with money, then that law also does not apply to the wealthy.
And we’re going to be seeing a lot of that very soon. Now that Roe v. Wade is on the chopping block, a lot of states will instantly ban abortion. But even if every state in the union institutes a total ban on abortion, that doesn’t mean the wealthy will no longer get abortions; it means that every wealthy politician who voted to ban abortion will simply take his mistress on a weekend trip to Canada when the need arises.
And of course, we have all seen that when you’re wealthy enough, breaking the law has very different consequences. If you or I were to steal a nice TV from a big box store, we would be charged with grand theft. But when our financial institutions destroyed the economy in 2008, nobody went to jail. We have all simply come to accept the fact that the ultra rich don’t face consequences for their actions; whether they’re hiding money in offshore accounts or fomenting violent revolution against the government, the rich and powerful never seem to even get a slap on the wrist.
It can all be very discouraging. But on the plus side, I’m already feeling better about tipping that hostess.