Monthly Archives: March 2021

The No-Value Meal


Since its inclusion in the House of Representatives version of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and parliamentary exclusion from the Senate version, there has been a lot of discussion about raising the minimum wage to $15/hour.  Unfortunately, political debate over this issue has drowned out enlightening economic considerations.  So let me take a minute to talk about what the new standard represents.

At $15/hour a worker would have a gross annual salary of $31,200. This is still less than half or the 2019 average annual household income in the U.S. of $68,703.  And for the record, it is 17.9 percent of the $174,000 salary of a U.S. Senator or Representative each of whom has received three salary increases since 2006, the last time Congress raised the federal minimum wage.

But salary comparisons are only half the story.  After employee contributions to Social Security and Medicare ($2,387), plus income tax on taxable income ($1,920), net take home pay is $26,893 or $2,241/month.  Of that amount, the majority ($2090) goes toward the following three items.  NOTE:  West Virginia has the lowest monthly housing costs while New York and California are over $1250/month.

Average Monthly Rent/$725 (WV)
Average Monthly Household Food Budget/$552
Average Monthly Transportation Cost per Individual/$813

The situation does not improve dramatically for a two-income household which may now include daycare at an average of $972/month and additional transportation costs.  And neither scenario includes other necessities such as clothing, education costs, etc.  A $15/hour minimum wage is no walk in the park.  Anything less is a jungle.

But, as usual, that is not what I came here to talk about.  Understanding why we do not have a higher minimum wage is as important as whether we need to mandate one.  There are several but the one that gets the most attention is income inequality.  Yes, politicians and analysts will point to the growing disparity between management and worker salaries and benefits.  And they are correct.  In 1965, the CEO-to-average worker compensation ratio (salary and benefits) was 21:1.  In 2019, that same statistic is 320:1.

However, no one seems willing to tackle an underlying variable which may be the most significant deterrent to a living wage.  To address what I believe is this bigger and less obvious reason, I will compare two very familiar brands: Amazon and McDonalds.  In January 2018, Amazon announced it would begin paying all full-time, part-time and seasonal workers a minimum $15/hour.  [NOTE:  Pressure from Senator Bernie Sanders and others contributed to this policy change.]  How could they do this?  Did founder Jeff Bezos contribute a major portion of his $182 billion net worth to the salary pool?  Not that I am aware of.

Instead, Amazon was able to raise its minimum wage without tapping Bezos’ fortune because it operates on a value proposition that generates enough revenue to compensate its workers at the new standard and continue to make shareholders (not to mention Bezos or his ex-wife) happy.  Think about it. Amazon customers believe they get enough value from this service, not only do they patronize the company.   One hundred twelve million households pay an annual fee (Amazon Prime) to have access to a higher level of service.

In contrast, McDonalds provides the following schedule of average salaries by position.

Team Trainer: $9.28/hour
Cook: $9.36/hour
Fast Food Attendant: $9.79/hour
Shift Manager: $12.01
General Manager: $14.67

McDonald's CEO Chris Kempczinski on COVID-19's Impact | TimeYes, even a general manager is paid less than the proposed $15/hour rate.  [NOTE:  Individual franchisees can diverge from the posted schedule.]

One would expect McDonalds’ management to be a major opponent of a federally mandated $15/hour minimum wage.  However, during a January 2021 earnings call to investors, CEO Chris Kempcziski reported the company is “doing just fine” in those states in which wage minimums exceed the federal standard.  A four-year analysis commissioned by McDonalds management found there had been no closures, job losses or increased automation directly related to increased salaries.

The higher labor costs were absorbed by an increase in the price of the franchise’s signature Big Mac.  By how much?  Economists participating in the four-year study estimate “a 10 percent increase in the minimum wage led to a 1.4 percent increase in the price of a Big Mac.”  Equally important, “customers did not eat significantly fewer Big Macs as a result of the price hike.”  Imagine that.  McDonalds could raise each employees salary by 50 percent by increasing the cost of Big Macs by seven percent from an average of $3.50 to $3.75.  If the price hike was spread across multiple menu items, that increase would be even less noticeable.

The source of its value proposition is not important.  In McDonalds’ case I doubt if it is the food.  Maybe it is simply brand recognition.  Consistency of product regardless of overall quality.  Or maybe it is just keeping the kids happy for an hour.  Bottom line?  Their own analysts admit there is something about the company which makes their products inelastic enough to increase customer pricing to the point where a $15/hour minimum wage will not make the Golden Arches collapse.

My point?  We need to stop asking, “Are some employees worth $15 an hour?”  Maybe it is time to approach the question from a different perspective.  Should companies which provide goods and services be expected to create enough value their customers are willing to bear the price required to pay the company’s workforce a decent wage?  And, if they do not create that value, should they step aside to make room for other companies that can?

In other words, a fast food restaurant that survives if, and only if, to attract customers, it offers a sandwich, fries and drink at a price so low it cannot pay its workers a living wage, maybe they should advertise it as a “NO-VALUE MEAL.”

For what it’s worth.



NOTE:  The title of today’s post comes from an experience many years ago when my wife and I attended the performance of a music composition advertised as being written in the style of Bela Bartok.  When the ensemble played the final note, a member of the audience stood up and yelled, “RUBBISH.”  Yes, you could call it music by the technical definition since the composition consisted of a series of notes strung together.  But as I told my wife that day, “Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you always should.”

On March 16, 2021, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) posted an on-line news article by Adam Steinbaugh, director of the organization’s Individual Rights Defense Program, titled “University of Virginia, founded by Thomas ‘Blood of Patriots and Tyrants’ Jefferson, orders student’s sign removed because it ‘advocates’ violence.”

ImageThe sign (as shown here) is described by Steinbaugh in the article as “student Hira Azher’s new anti-racism display.”  The caption below the picture reads, “Burn it all down” and a quote from Kwame Ture (the legally adopted name of the civil rights activist born Stokely Carmichael), “In order for non-violence to work, your opponent must have a conscience” followed by the words “UVA Has None.”

In a March 12 letter to Ms. Azher, the University’s Facilities Management Division informed her it had been directed to remove the sign as it “advocates physical violence.”  The letter focused on two specific references, the phrase “Burn It All Down,” and the suggestion that “nonviolence is ineffective against UVA.”

FIRE felt it necessary to engage in the situation by sending a letter to UVA, in Steinbaugh’s words:

…explaining that the university’s assessment that the display amounts to unprotected “incitement” is erroneous. The sign’s content would be understood by observers as political rhetoric, not as a student’s literal exhortation that others burn down the building in which she resides. Even assuming it were read literally, it is not likely to actually lead anyone to burn down the University of Virginia, much less do so immediately upon reading the sign.

In Adam Steinbaugh’s three-page letter to UVA,  FIRE reserves one paragraph at the very end to acknowledge the events of August 2017 when white supremacists and neo-Nazi marched on the University resulting in the death of anti-racism protester Heather Heyer.  Steinbaugh addresses this historical context as follows.

Instead, that violence–during which a white supremacist murdered a protester–should stiffen the university’s resolve to protect speech, not to use it as a basis to curtail expressive rights.

FIRE’s call to arms on this issue boggles the mind for more reasons than one can address, but I’ll stick to three.

First, a University has many responsibilities, including providing a safe environment for its students.  And on those sad occasions when it fails to do that, it is often held liable for its negligence or incompetence.  How easy is it for Mr. Steinbaugh, representing this self-appointed star chamber of what is or is not freedom of expression, sitting in an office in Philadelphia, to criticize  when the critic has no liability or nothing personally at stake?

In light of the events of August 2017, did it never cross Mr. Steinbaugh’s mind that the University was less worried Ms. Azher would incite violence than be the victim of it?  Does FIRE believe there are no white supremacists or neo-Nazis among the UVA student population?  Just imagine the response if an angry student, having seen her sign, broke into Ms. Azher room and harmed her.  What are the chances FIRE is going to testify on behalf of the University that UVA is not liable because it was more important they protect the student’s freedom of expression while ignoring any responsibility to protect her safety?

In the article, Steinbaugh finds it unimaginable anyone would take the phrase “burn it all down” literally.  Did he also find it unimaginable that Al Qaida could take down the World Trade Center or crash a plane into the Pentagon?  Or that insurrectionists would breach the U.S. Capitol in hopes of overturning a presidential election?  Or more than a half-million Americans would die during a pandemic?  In hindsight, like so many of us, I bet he wishes, on those occasions, someone had considered the possibility before it happened.

The Lawn at the University of Virginia: Charlottesville, VirginiaSecond, Ms. Azher does not reside in just any old dormitory.  She lives in a room on The Lawn, the student housing which is part of Mr. Jefferson’s original design including the historical landmark Rotunda, which incidentally she incorporated in her sign.  She is in rarified company of alumni who have shared this space, including Edgar Allan Poe.  For many of us who are alumni, this is sacred ground.  It is a place where we celebrated the first warm day of spring playing frisbee or enjoyed an open-air free concert featuring The Fifth Dimension.  It is also a place that provided a brief refuge from the pressures of assignments and exams.  More importantly, it is where we spent our last day on the University grounds, receiving our diplomas.

I not only respect Ms. Azher’s activism against racism.  As you might imagine from previous posts, I welcome it.  I also believe she has the right to express her activism in words and images she deems appropriate.  But I am not sure that right extends to a venue where she is a guest.  It is an earned privileged (base on grades and activities) to live on The Lawn.  But with that privilege comes responsibilities.  If Ms. Azher wants to rent a billboard on Emmet Street, I say, “Go for it.”  But the door to her room belongs to the University which has conflicting responsibilities to individual students, the student population in general, being custodian of a historic site and to the community.  For FIRE to be blind to those competing obligations seems shortsighted (pun intended).  Life is not black and white (pun again intended).

Third, Mr. Steinbaugh obviously has not been reading newspapers or watching reports about the increase in targeted violence these past four years.  Nor does he seem to remember the exception to protected speech under the 1969 Supreme Court decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio goes beyond inciting violence.  It merely has to produce it.  You know, like a former president of the United States calling a pandemic the “China Flu” or “Kung Flu,” and there being a 150 percent increase in violent incidents against Asian-Americans since March 2020.  Or calling Latinos “breeders” and 23 Americans of Mexican ancestry being massacred in El Paso by an assailant who parroted that sentiment.

In closing, let me give Steinbaugh and FIRE credit where credit is due.  This is the first recorded case in legal history of “FIRE shouting First Amendment in a crowded student residence.”  I wonder how Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes would feel about that.


On March 13, 2021, Ms. Azher posted a picture of the door and the letter informing her the facilities division had been instructed to remove the image on Twitter under the words, “Fuck UVA.”   The University did NOT order or ask her to remove the Tweet.  Nor was she reprimanded for having suggested the University did not have a conscience when it came to racial issues.  Too bad FIRE chose not to acknowledge this aspect of her constitutional right to be pissed at the University administration or to feel it had not done enough to combat racism on campus.  They might have realized UVA had been quite accommodating when it came to her right to express her opinions.


If you search the term “student rights” on FIRE’s website, you get 28,399 hits.  However, if you search “student voter suppression” you get THREE hits, none of which deal with state efforts to make it harder for students to cast ballots in federal, state or local elections.  I guess disenfranchisement of a student’s constitutional right to vote in public elections does not constitute FIRE’s definition of “freedom of expression” or fits their mission of protecting “individual rights in education.”  I wonder why?

For what it’s worth.


Semantically Speaking


A few posts back, I discussed the difference between acknowledging Donald Trump as “the” president versus “my” president.  Words matter.  This time the distinction lies between the words “voter” and “voting.”

Much is being written and talked about concerning “voter suppression.”  The Brennan Center for Justice reports, as of February 19, 2021, “state lawmakers have carried over, pre-filed, or introduced 253 bills with provisions that restrict voting access in 43 states.”  To be fair some are multiple versions on a single issue.  For example, 11 bills related to absentee voting have been introduced in the current session of the Alabama legislature.

But it is not the voter who is being suppressed.  The registered voter will still be there.  What is being affected is the ability of that person to cast a ballot during an election.  Therefore, the more accurate term would be “voting suppression.”  And as we know from multiple sources, including his recent statement before the Supreme Court, Michael Carven, attorney for the Arizona Republican Party, admitted the target for “voting suppression” is likely Democratic voters.

If you want to understand the difference between “voting” versus “voter” suppression, you have to start by looking at the Marist Institute for Public Opinion survey, conducted March 3-8, in which respondents were asked, “If a vaccine for the coronavirus is made available to you, will you choose to be vaccinated?”  Why is this important?  Leading health experts from Dr. Anthony Fauci to CDC director Rochelle Walensky contend Americans can return to a reasonable level of economic and social normalcy when 75 to 80 percent of all adults have been vaccinated, a prerequisite for effective herd immunity.

So let’s look at the numbers.  According to the Marist survey, there is still work to do.  Among all adults, 30 percent say they would not get vaccinated, while 22 percent indicated they had already received at least one dose and another 45 percent said they plan to get vaccinated when their turn comes.  But the average for the total population, as usual, does not tell the whole story.  Consider the following data on certain subsets of individuals who say they will not get vaccinated.

Republican Men/49 percent
Trump Voters/47 percent
White Men without College Educations/40 percent
White Evangelical Christians/38 percent

A doctor with a patient as part of the Tuskegee syphilis study.In contrast, the population cohort with the smallest percentage of vaccine deniers is (drum roll) Black Americans.  How many news reports have focused on anticipated resistance by African-Americans, based on the historic abuses of minorities as medical trial subjects, the most obvious being the Tuskegee Experiment when 600 African American men in Macon County, Alabama were selected to study the progression of syphilis, which at the time had no known treatment.  Instead of testing the efficacy of penicillin, the most promising treatment, all 600 were given a placebo.

How could the pundits be so wrong?  Maybe, based on the morbidity rate among minorities, Black Americans understand how deadly COVID-19 can be.  Call it common sense.  Unlike Jina Militello, a school teacher and 2020 Trump voter, who appeared on today’s edition of Morning Joe.  When asked by NBC reporter Kate Snow why she is not listening to the advice of health officials, Militello responded, “I believe the risk from the vaccine is greater than getting the virus.”  Sound familiar?  How many converts were COVID-19 deniers until someone they loved or they themselves contracted the disease?  Militello is obviously outside the one in five Americans who knows someone who died from COVID-19.

Which brings me back to the difference between “voter” and “voting” suppression.  Voting suppression did not work in 2020 and will not work in the future.  Why?  Because as rightfully predicted by many, determined Democrats  will “walk through fire” when anyone tries to disenfranchise them.  Sadly, that will not be the case when it comes to vaccine deniers.  Even as the number of deaths from COVID-19 continue to decline, the percentage of the remaining deaths will be significantly highly among the unvaccinated.  And if that cohort consists largely of Republican men and Trump supporters, will GOP leadership understand they are suppressing their own electoral base when they do not encourage their supporters to get vaccinated?  Not by making it harder for them to cast a ballot, but by increasing the odds they will be eliminated forever from the voting pool.

It reminds me of an old joke.  A driver slows down to avoid hitting a jaywalker.  The passenger says, “Why did you slow down?  He was smoking and is going to die anyway!”  Worried about a friend or relative who continues living in that alternative Trump/GQP universe?  Don’t worry.  There are 50/50 odds they are not going to get vaccinated and you will not have to worry about them much longer.

For what it’s worth.


CHUTZPAH: A New Standard


In his book The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten gives the following example of the word “chutzpah” which Merriam-Webster defines as “nerve or gall.”  A person on trial who, after murdering his mother and father, begs the judge for mercy because he is an orphan.  Of course, this example is fiction.

Last week Representative John Rutherford (R-FL) provided an actual example which should become the new standard.  The March 10 edition of the Fernandina Beach News Leader included a picture of our congressman participating in “Read Across America” Day by virtually sharing a book with a third-grade class at Jacksonville’s River City Science Academy.  The book he chose was One Vote, Two Vote, I Vote, You Vote, part of the Dr. Seuss Learning Library.  NOTE:  The book, though authorized by the Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. was written by Barbara Kiefer in the style of Dr. Seuss and published in 2016.

For those unfamiliar with the book, it focuses on the importance of voting as the way society makes choices.  From pages 8 and 9:

Voting gives each of us
our very own voice.
It allows a large group
to make ONE single choice.

Can you choose NOT to vote?
Yes, but that’s a sure way
to lose your own voice
and to not have a say.

The item or person
that most of us select
will wind up the winner—
the one we elect.

On page 10 the author selects a presidential election as perhaps the single event in which voting is most important.

The biggest of all of
America’s voting events
chooses our president
and vice president.

It takes more chutzpah than Rosten ever imagined for Rutherford to choose this particular book after voting NAY on H.R. 1, the For the People Act of 2021, which according to the bill’s text is designed “to expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, strengthen ethics rules for public servants, and implement other anti-corruption measures for the purpose of fortifying our democracy…”

This was not a one off.  His March 3rd vote against H.R. 1 followed his January 6th challenge of the certified electoral votes in six states which resulted in Joe Biden’s election.  So, let me suggest that Mr. Rutherford, if he chooses to continue to use this book as a teaching prop, edit page 9 to make it more consistent with his personal philosophy and actions, as follows:

The persons with the most votes
after the results are disclosed
will wind up the winners—
unless they are a Democrat the GOP opposed.

For what it’s worth.

Liar’s Poker


If we learned nothing else from the 2020 election and its aftermath, we now know what happens to law students who graduated at the bottom quartile of their classes.  They represent Republican officials.  Not that we needed more proof, but last Tuesday the sample size increased by one during Supreme Court arguments related to new voting restrictions enacted in Arizona.

Briefly, the Court was conducting oral arguments on two appealed cases related to newly enacted state laws, one by the Arizona attorney general and the other by the Arizona Republican Party.  In Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, the lower court had ruled Arizona violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when it disqualified the votes of individuals who had mistakenly cast their ballots in the wrong precinct.

The second case Arizona Republic Party v. Democratic National Committee was triggered by a new law which prohibits anyone other than a family member or caregiver from collecting and delivering a voter’s absentee ballot.  NOTE:  No-excuse absentee/mail-in balloting has been legal in the Grand Canyon State since 1991, and the issue of “ballot harvesting” had never been raised until the 2020 election.

In an illuminating moment during oral arguments, Justice Amy Coney Barrett and attorney Michael A. Carvin, representing Arizona, have the following exchange over the state’s motivation in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee.

Justice Barrett:  What’s the interest of the Arizona RNC here in keeping, say, the out-of-precinct voter disqualification rules on the books?

macarvinMr. Carvin:  Because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats.  Politics is a zero sum game, and every extra vote they get through unlawful interpretations of Section 2 hurts us.  It’s the difference between winning an election 50 to 49 and losing 51 to 50.

Voting rights activists were quick to jump on the obvious.  Carvin had just said out loud what they rightfully assumed all along.  This was not about election security, but the value of voter suppression to GOP candidates.  By doing so, Carvin affirmed the lessons of both 2018 and 2020.  When Democrats vote, Democrats win.  But here is the other issue.  Not only was Carvin’s argument a rare moment of truth, it also represented gross ignorance, something that no one on the court or any legal analyst pointed out.

In no way is what Carvin described a “zero sum game.”  Consider the formal definition of the term.

A mathematical representation of a situation in which each participant’s gain or loss of utility is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the utility of the other participants. If the total gains of the participants are added up and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero.

For the argument to apply to the situation under debate, every vote cast out-of-precinct would not be disqualified.  It would have to go to the other candidate.  What’s more, his example of how the percentages would change is even more inane.  The numbers would not change, much less total 101 percent (Do these people ever hear what comes out of their mouths?).   The percentages would merely flip.  Instead of losing 50-49, in a truly zero sum game, the alternative outcome would still be 50-49, but in the opposite direction.

Let me explain this to Mr. Carvin with an analogy he might understand.  A zero sum game in politics works the same way it does in a poker tournament.  Imagine each of five participants pays a $10,000 entry fee.  At any given point in the tournament, there is always $50,000 on the table.  If Player #1 wins the first pot, his holdings increase by the aggregate losses among the remaining four players.  At the end of the tournament, the winner has $50,000 and the losers walk away empty-handed.

Under Carvin’s analogy, Player #2 could win even though his total was now less than half the total entry fees, if and only if, he finds a way reduce that amount.  Suppose, for example, Player #2 declares any dollar bill with the signature of former Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew (2013-2017) does not count.  By this measure, the total pot is reduced to $43,000.   Player #2 then declares he won a majority of the stakes while holding only $21,501.

In a real political zero sum game, the vote total is not reduced.  Instead voting preferences shift among candidates.  Of course that would require the GOP adopt policies and programs which appeal to current Democrats and independents who do not share the GOP’s predilection for trickle-down economics, global isolation or defending insurrectionists including the leader of their own party.

What lesson should we take from this day in court?  Never, ever play Liar’s Poker with Mr. Carvin.  Anyone who can make the above argument in front of the Supreme Court with a straight face probably is not likely to show his hand during a game of chance.

For what it’s worth.