Sunday, April 27, 2014

Sunday Reading

Maximum vs. Minimum — Zoë Carpenter at The Nation looks at the disparity between fast-food CEO’s pay and the people who work to help them earn it.

David Novak is the chief executive of Yum! Brands, the parent company that runs Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC. Last year, while Yum! Brands and other restaurant companies lobbied against raising the minimum wage, Novak made at least $22 million—more than 1,000 times what the average fast-food worker makes in a year. In return for paying him so much, Yum! got a tax break.

The National Restaurant Association, which represents Yum! and other restaurant companies, is expected to launch a lobbying blitz in Washington next week against a minimum wage increase. For years the restaurant industry has fought to keep the wage floor low, all while rewarding its CEOs with increasingly large pay packages. As a result, the food industry is now the most unequal sector in the American economy. Thanks to a tax loophole that encourages companies to raise “performance pay” for executives, taxpayers are effectively subsidizing the imbalance.

While inequality between low-level workers and CEOs manifests in all areas of the economy, a new report from Demos concludes that the gap within the food industry is exceptional. Between 2009 and 2012 the CEO-to-worker pay ratio in food services and accommodation was about twice as large as most other sectors. In 2012, fast-food CEOs earned 1,200 times as much as the average employee.

Why is the gulf between executive compensation and average earnings colossal in the restaurant industry, in particular? One explanation is stagnation of wages at the bottom, abetted by low minimum wage standards. Fast-food workers are paid less than any other employees in the country, and that low floor has barely moved in a decade. The industry’s average hourly wage of $9.19 puts the salary for a fulltime worker below $19,000—poverty wages if she’s supporting a family of three. Most fast-food jobs aren’t even full-time; the average salary for average hours is under $12,000. Last year, fast-food wages fell to levels not seen since 2006.

Meanwhile, compensation for fast-food executives has more than quadrupled since 2000. Those CEOs pocketed an average $23.8 million in 2013, making them among the highest paid people in America.


Beyond the obvious hypocrisy of companies who throw millions at their CEOs while saying they can’t afford to pay their workers a living wage, the level of inequality within the food services industry has troubling implications for the whole economy. The jobs created in the wake of the recession have largely been in low-wage industries like food service. In other words, the jobs being added are the most unequal. Economists have pointedoutagain and again that inequality undermines economic growth, and there are more immediate costs as well, like the nearly $7 billion in public assistance that fast-food workers rely on to make up the gap between rock-bottom wages and the cost of living.

According to Demos the pay gap could hurt fast-food companies themselves, with bad publicity affecting their reputation and low wages encouraging poor customer service. “Consumer are increasingly dissatisfied with their experiences at the biggest fast food companies,” the Demos report found. “In addition to operational issues, the low pay practices of fast food employers have opened the companies to expensive legal risks.” A McDonald’s franchise, for example, settled a lawsuit with employees over uncompensated work, wage deductions and other infractions for $500,000 in March, while class-action suits are pending in at least two states over alleged wage theft.

Too Close for Comfort — Elias Isquith at Salon on how Cliven Bundy represents what Republicans are really thinking.

When renegade rancher Cliven Bundy was revealed this week to be very much a racist, most Republicans tried to separate themselves from the man with the kind of speediness and immediacy we don’t often associate with the conservative movement. (Remember, these are the same people who still carp about Benghazi and think every presidential election will be a repeat of 1980.) It was easy to see why: With references to porches, picking cotton and slavery, Bundy’s speech was like a greatest hits compilation of racial taboos. And if any group knows which words you can and cannot say in polite conversation today when talking about black people, it’s the Obama-era GOP. It’s a lesson they’ve learned the hard way.

But for all the earnestness of their attacks on Bundy — Sean Hannity alone called his former favorite rancher’s ideas “beyond repugnant,” “beyond despicable” and “beyond ignorant” — what many conservatives failed to notice is that, at their essence, Bundy’s comments were well within the conservative mainstream. Not the stuff about black people sitting on porches or needing to learn how to pick cotton, but rather the critique of the welfare state as somehow being responsible for the destruction of the African-American family. As others have noted, this line of analysis was just recently endorsed by Paul Ryan, the de facto intellectual leader of the GOP. So Bundy’s only real sin was, as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie correctly wrote, not being “sophisticated enough to couch his nonsense in soundbites and euphemism.”

Perhaps even more uncomfortably for conservatives, it’s not only that Bundy’s vision of the social consequences of redistribution so closely mirrors theirs, it’s also that his way of framing his critique is the same as theirs, too. In his initial remarks as well as those he’s offered since in his own defense, Bundy has tried to engender sympathy by arguing that all he was trying to do is express his deep concern for the plight of black families in the U.S. today. It’s not that he doesn’t think they deserve “his” money, it’s that he worries government assistance will ultimately be detrimental to black people, that it will sap them of their ambition and force them to rely on others for survival. Bundy is worried that the safety net will, as Paul Ryan once put it, “turn … into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.”

I call this move — the adoption of a stance of disingenuous or exaggerated concern for people of color — “racial concern trolling.” And while it’s always been an element of conservatism’s rhetorical repertoire, with the advent of the country’s first black president and the related shift in national politics away from questions of foreign policy and toward arguments over redistribution, it’s become increasingly prevalent in the political discourse. Yet as dishonest a tactic as this usually is, I think it actually offers reason for supporters of the redistributive state to be optimistic about the future of racial politics in America.

The Real House Candidate from Beverly Hills — Mark Leibovich in the New York Times Magazine on what happens when the rich feel the call to public service.

Brent Roske lives on a 45-foot yacht off the coast of Marina del Rey, which is technically on the Pacific Ocean, but for jurisdictional purposes is considered part of the city of Los Angeles and, more to the point, the 33rd Congressional District of California. In January, Henry Waxman, the liberal stalwart who has represented the district with little resistance since the year after Roske was born, announced that he would not seek re-election. Now Roske, who is 39, is part of a field of 18 candidates hoping to represent the heartland of Beverly Hills, Malibu and Bel-Air in the United States Congress.

A former creative director at NBC Universal, Roske is not without assets. He is the producer of a web series called “Chasing the Hill,” which chronicles the campaign of a fictional Democratic congresswoman. He also has support from the White House — or at least the soundstage White House of “The West Wing.” Richard Schiff, who played Toby on the series, has a big role in “Chasing the Hill” and is a Roske friend. So is David Hasselhoff, who played the governor of California on the web series. Should Roske get elected, he already has some bold ideas. He plans, for instance, to hire a film crew to document his every move in office. “People have a right,” he says, “to know what their elected representatives are doing.”

News of Waxman’s departure unleashed a kind of political anarchy on the Botox Belt. “When you represent a district for 40 years, it does tend to produce pent-up demand,” Waxman told me. Initially, fantasies were spun about celebrity candidates jumping into the race and vying “Survivor”-style for the privilege of serving in the People’s Chamber. Roll Call, the Capitol Hill publication, put out a call via Twitter for the likes of Courteney Cox, Danny DeVito and Betty White, as well as a roster of other A-through-C-listers. Ricki Lake and Richard Simmons replied — to say no. Lorenzo Lamas came back with a maybe.

Even so, the existing field reflects the vibrant collection of humanity that resides in California 33. Some are serious candidates, some not — three Republicans, three Independents, one Green, one Libertarian, the rest Democrats. You’ve most likely not heard of any of them except Marianne Williamson, the self-help guru, who dislikes being called a “self-help guru.” (Her spokesman has suggested the term “thought leader.”) Williamson has spoken of turning our political dialogue into “a conversation of the heart.” Katy Perry shows up at her events, as do multiple Kardashians. Kim officially endorsed her in a blog post just before press time. Williamson also received the support of Alanis Morissette, Nicole Richie and, for added sex appeal, Dennis Kucinich.

The more conventional candidates include Matt Miller, a Clinton White House alumnus and author who co-hosts a popular talk show on the public-radio station KCRW (and had a cameo appearance as a D.C. pundit in the Denzel Washington movie “The Siege”); and Barbara Mulvaney, a former State Department official who was the senior prosecutor for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The Republican Elan Carr is a prosecutor and an Iraq War veteran and the president — or “Supreme Master” — of the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi. (If you want a congressman who led a Hanukkah service in Saddam Hussein’s former palace, he is your man.) Then there are the favorites: the former Los Angeles controller Wendy Greuel, who was the runner-up in last year’s L.A. mayor’s race and is backed by Emily’s List, the political-action committee, as well as by Ed Begley Jr. and Rob Reiner; and Ted Lieu, a California state senator and lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, who emigrated from Taiwan as a child, lived in a basement apartment in Cleveland and helped his parents hawk jewelry as a child.

Doonesbury — Time is money.

One bark on “Sunday Reading

  1. “Brent Roske lives on a 45-foot yacht off the coast of Marina del Rey, which is technically on the Pacific Ocean, but for jurisdictional purposes is considered part of the city of Los Angeles and, more to the point, the 33rd Congressional District of California.”

    Speaking as a former liveaboard, a 45’er isn’t all that big, and (depending on what make and age) is likely far cheaper to own and dock than the corresponding real estate would be. Mine was 42′ – and the sum of the loan and the slip rent was half the price of the corresponding 1 bedroom apartment where I was. It’s not a cheap lifestyle – but it’s often a cost-effective one, especially in context. Now, had Roske come by his boat in some less-than honest way (think Rep. Cunningham’s Duke-Stir) that would be different.

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