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The politics of shaming McDonalds


I confess I’m a little baffled by the amount of pushback in the comments to Erik’s post below.

The notion that teaching basic budgeting is, in itself, a good thing for people at any income level, isn’t exactly wrong, but hardly stands as a defense of McDonalds in this case. First, because as many point out in the thread below, McDonalds’ approach to budgeting is utterly fantastical in many respects. Second, sample budget sheet is, ineptly, attempting to conflate a reasonable distinction (between fixed and variable costs) with a distinction between “spending money” and fixed expenses, when “spending money actually includes several necessities.

But it’s worse than this: the basic employment practices of restaurants like McDonalds make stable monthly budgeting virtually impossible. Based on my own time in the world of crappy fast food jobs, and pretty much everyone I know who works in that world, it seems pretty clear that getting a regular, consistent number of hours from week to week is the exception rather than the rule. How many hours an individual employee gets is determined by, amongst other things: the whims of the scheduling manager, scheduling requests of other employees, how much business the restaurant is doing, seasonal changes in needs, and much more. When your take home pay goes up and down considerably from month to month (which also undermines attempts to get that second job), the utility of this mode of budgeting is considerably lower than it otherwise might be. As Matt T from New Orleans suggests in comments in Erik’s post, the particular challenges and tricks of actually living on crap wages are probably better understood by people who’ve actually done it for a while, rather than people who, as evidenced by the assumptions built into the McDonalds budget, don’t have anywhere near the empathetic imagination to place themselves in the shoes of the poor, or the intellectual curiosity to learn about the actual challenges they face (including a pretty big challenge imposed directly by scheduling norms in their own firm).

But all that aside, I’m most puzzled by the comments on the politics here. Conceding for the moment that raising the federal minimum wage is a better idea than attempting to shame McDonalds, I don’t see any conflict between the two projects so I’m not sure why that’s relevant. And given that Republicans are all but ensured control of the House of Representatives until at least 2022, I can’t imagine we’ll be seeing any action on the federal level here (there may be states where a minimum wage hike is feasible in the nearer future). In the meantime, we have plenty of successful corporations using a variety of different approaches to wages, benefits, and employment practices. Much ink has been spilled on the importance of the “Costco vs. Walmart” question. The superiority of the Costco model from a moral perspective is obvious, but from a strictly economic standpoint, both employment models can be economically rational and profit driven; each has its own set of costs and benefits. This debate is hardly limited to these two firms; while the Walmart model is clearly ascendant in the fast food industry there are examples of successful firms who borrow from the Costco model as well.

Companies care about their reputation. Increasing the reputational costs of the Walmart model relative to the Costco model is an acceptable way to pursue an important progressive goal while Kevin Drum’s preferred solution, changes in the minimum wage laws, has been effectively cut off by the present circumstances of politics. They’re not in competition with each other at all (if anything, the effective shaming of some of the worst offenders in shitty pay may also lead to greater support for better laws), so I don’t see the problem.

The present moment of shaming minimum wage employers is a rather unique opportunity in our political discourse; a moment where we’re actually talking about the nitty-gritty details of the economic lives of the working poor. Perhaps this is overly optimistic, but I think such a focus might have the effect of eliciting greater sympathy from the ranks of the middle of the middle class, who struggle with budgeting difficulties of their own. The success of right wing economic nonsense requires pitting the poor against the middle classes; anything that might help us break that formula can only change our political culture for the better.


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