Friday, December 13, 2013

Unintended (But Thoroughly Predictable) Consequences

Thirty-some years ago, when my wife was newly in the US, we were walking past the construction site of a new high-rise in downtown San Francisco; pausing to watch, Gloria commented on how few workers there were. The site didn't look unusual to me, until I recalled similar sites in Manila, covered with hundreds of workers – and relatively little of the heavy equipment the San Francisco workers were operating.

“In the Philippines,” I commented, “people are cheap and machines are expensive. Here, it's the opposite.”

In the Philippines, a typical wage is under ten dollars per day, with a day often being ten hours or so. In the US, skilled construction workers make at least twenty times that amount, which makes it worthwhile for their employers to invest in machinery to do much of the work.

I was reminded of that when I read this article:
"Would you like fries with that order?"
[White Castle] is taking a step toward the future with its rebuilt restaurant at 1550 Hilliard-Rome Road by taking a step out of the traditional ordering process. 
This new White Castle drops old-fashioned, go-to-the-counter ordering in favor of kiosks that allow customers to punch in their order and take a seat without the inconveniences and pressures of waiting in line.
Advocates of a 'living wage' for fast-food employees should bear this in mind. I imagine White Castle is testing this idea with the possibility of increases in the minimum wage in mind (though of course they aren't saying so publicly; it's being pitched as an effort to improve the customer experience). A store that is open sixteen hours a day would save $7,500 per month for each $15/hour counter employee displaced. I don't know what such machines cost, but it shouldn't take long to amortize them at that rate.

Replacing the kitchen staff won't be far behind -- how tough can it be to robot-ize flipping a burger?

And so youth unemployment will increase. Crappy as such jobs are, they are often the only thing unskilled workers can qualify for, and they can teach valuable life skills that such employees may never have learned in their broken homes or broken schools – e.g., the importance of dressing properly, treating customers and co-workers respectfully, punctuality, etc.

Not having the opportunity to learn these skills at White Castle, McDonald's, or Taco Bell, they will be unable to move on to marginally better jobs, as they now can.

Oh well, I know writing this sort of thing is pointless, because some sort of increase in minimum wage is almost certain to pass – it's a feel-good proposal and people don't like to think about the negative consequences of feel-good legislation. In fact, if I were a politician, I'm just cynical enough to vote for it.

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