Thursday, August 29, 2013

Better wages for fast food restaurant workers

Let's honor the picket lines today. Fast food workers are striking for higher wages across the country. It will be a good thing all around if they succeed.

Inadequate private-sector wages at the low end of the wage distribution are a key source of our country's hard economic times and basic feeling of distress. As individual consumers, we cannot be proud to save a couple bucks ourselves by supporting companies who pay people so little. The coalition of groups that has organized today's walk-out has been circulating this video, mocking McDonald's own website that purports to educate its workers about how to survive on a low budget. A technical detail: the McDonald's website actually allowed for a miscellaneous category for some expenses, so some have quibbled with the video's list of all the basic needs that are excluded, but this is a very minor correction. I found the video completely persuasive on its main point: somebody in the McDonald's hierarchy was tasked with trying to demonstrate that the company's wages were adquate, and discovered exactly the opposite.

Restaurant industry defenders have claimed that higher wages would cost jobs, but I see things differently. First, labor economists are divided on this question. Some leading labor economists believe there would be no job loss and might even be employment gains (see, for example, Jeremy Stahl at Slate). Second, even if there were a small loss of employment in particular quick service restaurant outlets, here is how that loss would play out: a substantial percentage increase in wages would lead to a small percentage increase in actual restaurant product prices, which would then cause a small decrease in fast food consumption, which would finally lead to an even smaller decrease in employment. The fast food consumers who reduce their restaurant consumption will not go hungry; they will buy other things from other businesses instead, and those other businesses hire workers too. The upshot is economically healthy and nutritionally healthy all around.

Some people think of striking for higher wages as anti-market or anti-capitalist, but again I see things differently.  Our great market economy will only work if it provides prosperity that reaches even down to the lower end of the wage distribution.  It would be an unpatriotic and anti-market sentiment to say that the American economy is somehow incapable of this modest accomplishment.  I expect decent wages at the restaurants I patronize precisely because that's what makes this whole fine system work.  That's what makes a market system better than the alternatives.

See Time and AP for more news reports.  The AFL-CIO has links to labor movement sites.  In Boston, there is a rally on the Boston Common at 4 pm today.  I'll be there. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

What is your general view about the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?

The public debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is shrill.

GMO opponents are very tough on occasional environmentalists who express a public view that GMOs might be safe or useful.  GMO supporters belittle the serious concerns that critics have about corporate control of the food supply and shortcomings in the U.S. approach to safety testing.

For rhetorical purposes, most writers on this topic spend all their ink criticizing the errors their opponents make, while carefully avoiding committing themselves to the sometimes untenable implications of their own side's position.

I think it would help if people paused the rock-throwing and reflected on what broad general statements they could support and defend under scrutiny.  I suspect that this reflection would make people more aware of the weaknesses on their own side and more willing to listen to multiple points of view on this divisive issue.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world's leading questionnaire tool.

Rodney Leonard: "No food stamps, no farm program."

The Republican-led House of Representatives recently passed a Farm Bill with no food stamp provisions.  Fiscal conservatives in the House hope this will allow them to make deep cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) without jeopardizing their political support from farmers.

It is unlikely to work out that way.

In a note this week on the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) site, Rodney Leonard, who had been a special assistant to Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman in the early 1960s, described the early politics that led Congress to combine nutrition assistance and farm programs into a single Farm Bill.
The union began when Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman finally pushed the Democratic majority of House of Representatives to approve by a narrow 30-vote margin legislation to adopt the statute creating a permanent food stamp program originally proposed in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. That program is a far cry from the program that today ensures the right of every American adult to choose to protect themselves and their children from hunger. Freeman was intent on linking the capacity to feed a growing nation to a policy insuring that every person, regardless of income, is entitled to share in an abundantly productive agriculture. Within two weeks of the passage of the food stamp legislation, Freeman was able to convince an urban dominated Congress to adopt a Farm Bill establishing supply management as the new post-war policy for American agriculture. Agriculture could maintain remunerative prices for farmers despite a structural tendency to overproduce year after year.
To some extent, this policy logic remains intact. Leonard argues that -- far from allowing farm programs to thrive without SNAP -- the divorce between the two parts of the Farm Bill will allow the nutrition assistance program to survive.  It is the farm programs that will lose support.
The effort of the House GOP to perform political surgery to remove food stamps can have only one predictably disastrous outcome:  Food stamps will survive. An urban nation will not compel millions of its residents to accept a life dominated by hunger. But, if divorced from food stamps, farm programs, whose benefits largely are delivered to the largest 200,000 farm operations, likely will perish in the ideological bonfire that is the GOP Farm Bill. The political conflagration will inevitably include rural America as well.

Simply put, no food stamps, no farm program.
I am not sure.  With separate bills, SNAP also faces political hazards.  We will see what happens next.

In addition to being a former special assistant at USDA, Rod Leonard is a past board member for IATP, and he is author of a history about Orville Freeman's time as governor.  Rod was the long-time executive director of the Community Nutrition Institute (where he hired me as an editor in 1990, my first-ever job in U.S. food policy).