Thirty-six years ago, President Jimmy Carter rattled boardrooms across America by taking aim at tax write-offs for the three-martini lunch — a symbol of taxpayer-subsidized corporate excess. Like many of Carter’s parsimonious proposals, this one got thrown back at him as an example of useless moralizing — Carter was as profligate in his admonitions as the corporations were with their perks.
Yet Carter’s long-ago scolding gained relevance again this week, after Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and two government associates raised eyebrows while on a trip to Beijing by dining out at a restaurant called the Bao Yuan Dumpling House. The total tab came to $17.50. “Lew’s Modest Lunch Tab Feeds Debate,” proclaimed a headline in The Wall Street Journal. The debate, alas, was mainly in China, where ostentatious spending by Communist Party officials has led to recent scandals. Lew set a counterexample. And by all accounts the food was terrific.