A Parable: The Tenth Man
Strength in numbers.

April 27, 2001 1:15 p.m.


he following parable just came in from a friend, via the Internet. It's possible everyone else in America has seen it. On the other hand, it's also possible that only my friend and I have seen it.

Every night, ten men met at a restaurant for dinner. At the end of the meal, the bill would arrive. They owed $100 for the food that they shared. Every night they lined up in the same order at the cash register. The first four men paid nothing at all. The fifth, though he grumbled about the unfairness of the situation, paid $1. The sixth man, feeling generous, paid $3. The next three men paid $7, $12, and $18, respectively. The last man was required to pay the remaining balance of $59.

The ten men were quite settled into their routine when the restaurant threw them into chaos. It announced that it was cutting its prices: Now it would charge only $80 for dinner for the ten men. This reduction wouldn't affect the first four men — they would continue to eat for free. The fifth person decided to forgo his $1 contribution to the pool, and the sixth contributed $2. The seventh man deducted $2 from his usual payment and now paid $5. The eighth man paid $9, the ninth, $12, leaving the last man with a bill of $52. Outside of the restaurant, the men compared their savings, and angry outbursts began to erupt. The sixth man yelled, "I got only $1 out of the total reduction of $20, and he" — pointing to the last man — "got $7." The fifth man joined in the protest. "Yeah! I got only $1 too. It is unfair that he got seven times more than me." The seventh man cried, "Why should he get a $7 reduction when I got only $2?" The first four men followed the lead of the others: "We didn't get any of the $20 reduction. Where is our share?"

The nine men formed an outraged mob, surrounding the tenth man. The nine angry men carried the tenth man up to the top of a hill and lynched him. The next night, the nine remaining men met at the restaurant for dinner. But when the bill came, there was no one to pay it.

Well, parables do have their weaknesses. But they can be useful. Clare Boothe Luce had the habit, in search of analytical clarity, of chopping off seven zeroes to illustrate her points. Thus the population of the world was 800 (read 8 billion) and that of the United States, 30 (not 300 million).

By these devices, it is true, clarifications are more nimbly arrived at. As the parable above informs us, 10 percent of the American people (the tenth dinner guest) pay 59 percent of all the taxes. The lowest 40 percent pay none. The fifth quintile, 1 percent; the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th, respectively, 3, 7, 12, and 18 percent of the taxes.

The parable, of course, then brings in the drama: The proposed tax reduction of President Bush would reduce income taxes by a total of 20 percent, and the benefits of that reduction are distributed along the lines suggested for the ten diners.

And yes, the protests arise, reaching maximum volume in the matter of relieving the tenth man from his customary contribution of $59 toward the common meal, lowering it to $52.

Okay, but the drama is then taken to what one might call a fourth act, which is one too many. The tenth diner isn't going to be lynched because his survival is too necessary to the other nine diners. What they will do is attempt to diminish the reduction in his allocation of his benefits from the reduced dinner price and spread it among themselves. They'd like to see the tenth man continue to pay 59 percent of all taxes.

That way it doesn't hurt. Ah, but the parable writer obviously believes that it would hurt, in the long run. Because if that tenth diner tires, or is crushed into diminished productivity, he won't have the $59 to contribute to the pool, and that would be very, very inconvenient. Perhaps even life-threatening. If the restaurant has to go without that critical subsidy from the tenth diner, it might just have to reduce the rations paid out.

Granted, if the parable were refined even further, it would have to ask: What was it that caused the tenth man to be so obliging in the first place? Were they threatening to lynch him if he didn't put out? Did the tenth man plot to protect himself? … Was he the critical voter in Florida in November 2000?