Posts tagged ‘cafe’

Minimum Wage, American vs. European Restaurants

In reading reviews of European restaurants to try to find places to dine, I saw a lot of criticisms of their service.  There seems to be a meme among travelers that Austrian restaurants in particular often have bad service.

I am not sure I can agree with this -- we had a lot of good wait-staff in Austria  But I can say that they had to service a LOT more tables than a typical American waiter.  I don't know what the standard is today, but it used to be that 4-6 tables was the max American restaurants considered that a waitperson could cover and still provide acceptable service.  In Austria, the number was often double that.  I watched one gentleman memorably service almost 20 tables during the busy lunch hour at a museum cafe in Vienna.  I can tell you he was working his butt off but we still had to wait for basic service like ordering or paying our bill or getting our food delivered.

I pair this information with a second factoid from a travel book we read when trying to figure out what tipping policy was over there.  The book, as well as most other sources we consulted, said that tips for waiters in Austria and Germany could be less generous because waiters were paid much more than in the US -- a fact that the source considered a point of superiority over the US for the Europeans.

That may or may not be -- personally, I have never like the US tradition of restaurants outsourcing the paying of their staff to the customers.  But it may well be that these higher wages have their cost in the form of reduced customer service, as restaurants are forced to minimize their higher cost staff to keep prices reasonable.

Minimum Wage Deja Vu

This letter to customers from San Francisco bookstore Borderlands is making the rounds.  Apparently, the new "living wage" legislation in San Francisco is killing this store:

In November, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly passed a measure that will increase the minimum wage within the city to $15 per hour by 2018.  Although all of us at Borderlands support the concept of a living wage in [principle] and we believe that it’s possible that the new law will be good for San Francisco – Borderlands Books as it exists is not a financially viable business if subject to that minimum wage.  Consequently we will be closing our doors no later than March 31st.  The cafe will continue to operate until at least the end of this year.

I find the authors surprisingly open to the Progressive assumptions behind this bill, despite the death of their business.  I don't know if this is a pair of hipsters destroyed by their own cause, or if the nods towards Progressivism are merely boiler plate that is required in any San Francisco conversation, like having a picture of Lenin on your wall in Soviet Russia.

Anyway, I found the language here familiar because I spent most of last year writing such letters to angry customer bases.  In our case, fortunately, we had the ability to raise prices so the letters were to defuse customer irritation rather than to announce a closure.  Here is one example I wrote in Minnesota:

Labor and labor-related costs (costs that are calculated as a percentage of wages, like employment taxes) make up nearly 50% of our costs.  The Minnesota minimum wage is set to rise from $7.20 to $9.50 in the next two years, an increase of 31%.  Since wages and wage-related costs are half our expenses, the minimum wage increase raises our total costs by 15.5%. This means that all by itself, without any other inflation in any other category of expenses, the minimum wage increases will drive a $3.10 increase in our camping fees (.155 x $20).  Note that this is straight math.  The moment the state of Minnesota passed their minimum wage increase, this fee increase was going to be required.

One of the problems with these minimum wage increases is that the people behind them, with their hazy assumptions and flawed understanding of economics, typically think that companies will just absorb the increase.   Our net profit margin runs in the 4% range, so it difficult to see how any such retail company can absorb a 15+% cost increase, but it happens all the time.  After some trial and error, the "this is straight math" phrase seems to work the best in communicating the need for price increases.

Government Regulates to the Mean, Plus More on Hidden Taxes

One of the seldom discussed problems with government regulation is that typical regulation is aimed at the "mean"  -- the mean worker, the mean industry participant, the mean driver, whatever.  The problem is that there are 300 million of us with vastly different lives and different preferences.  One-size-fits-all regulations are often a poor fit for many of those regulated.

Take the Fair Labor Standards Act (which includes minimum wages, maximum work weeks, record-keeping requirements, etc).  The Fair Labor Standards Act is written for factory workers who come in the door at 9AM, punch a time clock, work under the direct supervision of management, and punch out at 5PM.

Many of my workers are running isolated campgrounds.  They work out of their home (their RV).  While they have scheduled tasks, like cleaning the bathrooms, many of their hours come in spurts (e.g. someone comes to their RV and asks them a question).  The nearest manager from the company might be hundreds of miles away, and there may not even be electricity to power a timeclock.  All of this adds up to a hugely awkward compliance problem for many of the details of the FLSA.  But comply we must.

Yesterday's new proposed CAFE regulations on car fuel economy is another example.   It appears that the average MPG requirement for new cars will increase from 27.5 today to 42MPG in 2016.  The obvious question is -- of all the actions we could take to reduce CO2 emissions, is this the least costly and/or most efficient?

Well, nobody knows, and I don't think that anyone in the "science-based" Obama administration has even tried to put pen to paper on this question.  And, even if they did, their answer would be largely irrelevant because they would likely, again, be regulating to the mean.

I am sure the folks passing this kind of stuff picture a mean commuter driving 25-30 miles each day each way to work.  But what about me?  I drive 2 (actually 1.9, but we will round up).  That makes a 4 mile daily roundtrip commute.  Assuming I drive a car at the CAFE standard, this new regulation will save me 0.05 gallons of gas per day, or ten cents per day at $2.00 gas prices.

Obviously, it makes zero economic sense for me to be regulated in this way.  The fuel economy of my car for my daily commute is virtually irrelevant, because I chose to locate my house and my business within a few miles of each other.  It is a terrible investment for me to pay, both in higher costs and lost features, for a car with higher MPG.  Though my decision-making was not driven by gas consumption (it was driven by my time, which is way more valuable to me than a gallon of gas**) one could argue that I have already made a huge gas-use-reduction investment in terms of the location of my home, and thus a further investment in gas-use-reduction via my car is not necessary.

On Hidden Taxes

We can tease one other lesson from this regulation.  In regulating CO2 in transportation, the Obama administration had another choice -- a carbon tax.   A carbon tax on fuel would easily cause CO2 emissions to be reduced over time from cars  (in fact, it probably would do a better job, as history has shown that higher MPG standards actually lead to increased driving and thus have equivocal impacts on CO2 emissions).

Further, a carbon tax would have the advantage of putting 300 million people to work figuring out the most productive ways to reduce emissions.  Those who drive most, or have the greatest ability to cut back on driving and shift transportation modes, are going to be the ones to preferentially reduce emissions.

So why not a carbon tax?  Well, the politicians have all explained this pretty directly -- because they do not want to pay the political cost of raising taxes, particularly on something like gas whose price gets so much media attention.  Having demagogued oil companies as evil for so many years for raising gas prices, politicians were not able to bear the irony of themselves being responsible for higher gas prices.

So instead, they will force cars to be built more fuel efficiently, which will almost certainly raise the price of cars (as well as reduce choice and certain features).  These higher costs and reductions in choice are most certainly a tax on consumers, but they are an indirect tax.  They show up as rising prices and perhaps falling attractiveness of auto makers' product lines, which consumers will blame on auto makers, not the Congress or Obama.

So Obama will continue to say he has never raised taxes on the middle class, when in fact he has just made their cars $1500 more expensive.  Some day, we may live in a world where politicians are called to task for this kind of bait and switch, but my guess is that Obama gets away with it.

** Postscript: The one constant of all leftish regulation is that it puts about zero value on my personal time.  Every regulation seems to be about my spending more of my time in exchange for conserving some other supposedly scarce resource.  But I have never panicked that we are going to run out of oil or tungsten or iridium or whatever.  But I do know that I am going to run out of time, just like everyone else.   It is the only commodity I am positive is zero sum.

Not a Bailout?

I was watching CNBC over lunch and saw that Alan Greenspan has criticized the President's plan for freezing the interest rates on some adjustable rate loans.  He argued, and I agree, that it is bad to mess with contracts and markets, and bad to stand in the way of a real estate bubble that needs to correct.  He said that if the government feels sorry for certain mortgage holders, it should give them cash.

I am not too excited about giving away cash to people who made bad financing decisions, particularly since I have successfully weathered a couple of tough years in my business brought about in part by rising rates on our businesses adjustable rate loans.  However, I am very much a supporter of being as open and up-front as one can be in government taxing or spending.  For example, I prefer direct payments to farmers rather than price supports.  I prefer a carbon tax to CAFE-type mandates.  In both cases, while both alternatives probably cost the economy about the same in total, the cost-benefit tradeoff is more clear in the first alternative.  Which is why, predictably, politicians usually prefer the second alternative. 

All of this pops into my head because apparently the President's reaction was that he preferred his plan to a "bailout."  Huh?  How is his plan any more or less a bailout, except that the exact costs are more hidden and who pays the costs are more obscure.  The only real difference is that Greenspan's approach is probably less likely to set bad precedents for the future or to make mortgages more expensive for the rest of us, which the President's plan almost certainly will.

What if the Interstate Highway System Became Obsolete Every Five Years?

Tim Wu believes he has diagnosed the problems of public Wi-fi.  Public wi-ife is a great idea, he says, but the problem is that municipalities have not recognized they need to spend real money on it.

It's hard to dislike the idea of free municipal wireless Internet
access. Imagine your town as an oversized Internet cafe, with invisible
packets floating everywhere as free as the air we breathe....

Not quite. The basic idea of offering Internet access as a public
service is sound. The problem is that cities haven't thought of the
Internet as a form of public infrastructure that"”like subway lines,
sewers, or roads"”must be paid for.

It could be, however, there are a few tiny differences between public wi-fi and public roads:

  • Any wi-fi system you install today will be dated in three years and obsolete in five. In fact, given the long delay in public projects between design (and presumably technology selection) and deployment, the system may well be obsolete on the day it gets turned on.  Would we have made the same public highway investment we did if roads went obsolete every five years?
  • Roads don't tend to have private competitors.  And when roads are constructed by private entities, say in a new housing development, you can absolutely bet that the municipality doesn't feel the need to invest in "public" roads to run beside them.

Wu admits that both cable and DSL have a much lower cost to serve urban customers, which is why private efforts for urban wi-fi tend to fail.  Free municipal wi-fi will therefore be more expensive to build and operate than if you just provided direct public subsidy payments to poorer people to use existing private solutions.  Further, a huge part of the investment will go towards giving away free access to people who already have internet service from a private supplier and are willing and able to pay for it.

Note that Wu never actually names a goal for municipal wi-fi or a
problem it is solving, just this beautiful vision of a city-wide
internet cafe (are we going to provide municipal coffee too?)  This fascination with municipal wi-fi reminds me of nothing so much as a similar fascination with light rail.  You can see it in his opening comment about the "oversized internet cafe."  This is an aesthetic, not an economic, vision.  Our light rail project here in Phoenix is the same way.  It will haul passengers more expensively and at a far higher investment and with less flexibility than our bus and road system.   With the investment we are putting into the system we could have instead bought cars for every rider and had money left over.  It makes zero sense for the density and commuting patterns of this city, but still we are doing it, because there is a subset of people who love light rail as some sort of pleasing aesthetic vision.  Name any goal either one is trying to solve (e.g. access to transportation or internet) with public investments in light rail or municipal wi-fi and those goals could be solved more cheaply some other way. 

Postscript:  A while back, I wrote about another danger of municipal wi-fi:  That bureaucrats in charge of the system will try to protect their jobs by blocking new competitors:

[the municipal wi-fi authority] can use its government authority to block new entrants. ...  Take another large government network business: The Post
Office.  The USPS tried like hell to get the government to block Fedex,
and almost succeeded.  The government continues to block competition to
the USPS for first class local mail.  Heck, the USPS has tried at
various times to argue that it should have authority over email and the
Internet.  The government blocks new cigarette manufacturers to protect
the settlement money it gets from the old-line tobacco companies and it
blocks usage of Love Field in Dallas to protect D/FW airport.
Bureaucracies never, ever let themselves die, and there is no way a
municipal broadband business will ever let itself be killed by a
competitor - that competitor will be blocked, even if that likely means
that local broadband consumers have to stick with higher costs and
outdated technologies.

You see something very similar with municipal water systems trying to get the government to limit the growth of bottled water.  It happens all the time.  Already, examples exist of municipalities trying to shut down wi-fi competition from private companies.

Boston's Logan International Airport is attempting to pull the plug on
Continental Airlines' free Wi-Fi node, which competes with the airport's
$7.95-a-day pay service.

In an escalating series of threatening letters sent over the last few weeks,
airport officials have pledged to "take all necessary steps to have the (Wi-Fi)
antenna removed" from Continental's frequent flyer lounge....

Senate Passes Massive Farm-Subsidy Bill

Though it is nominally called an "energy" bill, the Senate just passed the largest farm-subsidy bill in history:

The legislation would require ethanol production for motor fuels to
grow to at least 36 billion gallons a year by 2022, a sevenfold
increase over the amount of ethanol processed last year. It also calls
for boosting auto fuel economy to a fleet average of 35 miles per
gallon by 2020, a 40 percent increase over current requirements for
cars, SUVs, vans and pickup trucks.

The evidence is absolutely unequivocal that corn-based ethanol doesn't reduce net energy use, since it takes at least as much energy to grow and produce as it provides.  It is even worse as environmental policy, since it almost certainly increases total pollution and CO2 production, particularly as ethanol is produced with Midwestern coal-powered electricity.   In addition, it is going to cause marginal lands and open space to be brought into corn production, reversing a 70-year trend in the US towards increases in wilderness and forested land.  It is going to increase fuel costs to no real purpose.  This is dumb, dumb, dumb.  So stupid that I can't even get the energy to criticize the new CAFE standards.  If they really wanted to meet their goals, a carbon tax would have been cheaper and more effective, but that would have taken political guts.