This is a guest post by Sam Kanson-Benanav, a chef who has managed restaurants in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and New York City. He spent two years in the studying global resource marketplaces in the Amazon rainforest, and his favorite food is a french omelet.
Despite my desperate attempts at a career change, I’ve become fairly inured to the fact I work in one of the most job secure industries in America. And I’m not a tenured professor.
I am a professional restaurant person – cook, manager, server, and bartender (on nights when a bartender doesn’t show up). As a recent Washington Post article highlights: it has become increasingly more difficult for kitchens to staff their teams with proper talent. We could ponder a litany of reasons why talented cooks are not flocking to the kitchens, but if you prefer to stop reading now, just reference Mathbabe’s entirely accurate post on labor shortages.
Or, we could just pay cooks more. As it turns out, money is a very effective motivator, but restaurants employ two cannibalizing labor models based on fundamentally contrasting motivators: tipping and wages. I’ll take these on separately.
Tipping servers suppress wages for the kitchen
We already know tipping is a bad system, which bears less correlation to the actual quality of service you receive than to the color or gender of your server. It’s an external rewards based system akin to paying your employees a negligible wage with a constant cash bonus, a historically awful way to run a business.
In other words, restaurant owners are able to pass off the cost of labor for employing servers onto their consumers. That means they factor into their menu prices only the cost of labor for the kitchen, which remains considerable in the labor-intensive low margin restaurant world. Thankfully, we are all alcoholics and willing to pay 400% markups on our beer and only a 30% markup on our burgers. Nevertheless, the math here rarely works in a cook’s favor.
For a restaurant to remain a viable business, a cook (and dishwasher’s) hourly wage must be low, even as bartenders and servers walk away with considerable more cash.
In the event that a restaurant, under this conventional model, would like to raise its prices and better compensate its cooks, it cannot do so without also raising wages for its servers. Every dollar increase in the price of line item on your receipt increases a consumers cost by $1.20 , the server happily pocketing the difference.
Unfair? Yes. Inefficient? Certainly. Is change possible? Probably not.
Let’s assume change is possible
Some restaurants are doing away with this trend, in a worthy campaign to better price the cost of your meal, and compensate cooks more for their work. These restaurants charge a 20% administration fee, which becomes part of their combined revenue—the total pool of cash from which they can pay all their employees at set hourly rates.
That’s different then an automatic service fee you might find at the end of your bill at a higher end restaurant or when dining with a large group. It’s a pre tax charge that repackages the cost of a meal by charging a combined 30% tax on the consumer (8% sales tax on 20% service tax) allowing business owners to allocate funds for labor at their discretion rather than obligate them to give it all to service staff.
Under this model cooks now may make a stunning $15-18 an hour, up from $12-$13, and servers $20-30, which is yes, down from their previous wages. That’s wealth redistribution in the restaurant world! For unscrupulous business owners, it could also incentive further wealth suppression by minimizing the amount a 20% administration fee that is utilized for labor, as busier nights no longer translate into higher tips for the service staff.
I am a progressive minded individual who recognizes the virtue of (sorry server, but let’s face it) fairer wages. Nevertheless, I’m concerned the precedents we’ve set for ourselves will make unilateral redistribution a lofty task.
There is not much incentive for an experienced server to take a considerable pay cut. The outcome is likelier to blur the lines between who is a server and who is a cook, or, a dilution in the level of service generally.
Indeed wages are rising in the food industry, but at a paltry average of $12.48 an hour, there’s considerable room for growth before cooking becomes a viable career choice for the creative minded and educated talent the industry thirsts for. Celebrity chefs may glamorize the industry, but their presence in the marketplace is more akin to celebrity than chef, and their salaries have little bearing on real wage growth of labor force.
Unlike most other industries, a cook’s best chance and long term financial security is to work their way into ownership. Cooking is not an ideal position to age into: the physicality of the work and hours only become more grueling, and your wages will not increase substantially with time. This all to say – if the restaurant industry wants more cooks, it needs to be willing to pay a higher price upfront for them. This is not just a New York problem complicated by sky high rents. It’s as real in Wisconsin as it is Manhattan.
Ultimately paying cooks more is a question of reconciling two contrasting payment models. That’s a question of redistribution.
But “whoa Sam – you are a not an economist, this is purely speculative!” you say?
Possibly, and so far at least a couple of restaurants have been able to maintain normal operations under these alternative models, but their actions alone are unlikely to fill the labor shortage we see. Whether we are ultimately willing to pay servers less or pay considerably more for our meals remains to be seen, but, for what its worth, I’m currently looking for a serving job and I can tell you a few places I’m not applying to.
Oh My God! Holy crap!! I’ve got incredible news for you all. Namely, my best friend, who will be henceforth known as Sister Of My Sister, is here with me today to help dole out incredibly unhelpful, entirely silly, and possibly hurtful advice. Congratulations to all of you for receiving it!!
Before we begin, I need to mention my new hero, the woman who has slept with 3000 men:
On with the main event! Readers, remember when I complained last week about running out of questions? Well, you’ve responded, for which I am very grateful. My trust Google Spreadsheet (soon to be the “Alphabet Spreadsheet”) is happily filled in with a dozen or so new questions. But that’s not to say it should stop! Please continue to add to my list, because why? Because it is a real pleasure of my life, which I look forward to all week and I am ever so grateful for it.
So please do a sweet Auntie a good turn and:
ask Aunt Pythia any question at all at the bottom of the page!
Dear Aunt Pythia,
I’m on the verge of graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics, and suddenly I’m wondering whether going to grad school is the right thing to do – there are a few subjects (mostly in Complex Analysis) which I really like, and I definitely will keep reading about them in the future. Thing is, I really don’t know if I have what it takes to do research in math. I don’t know whether I should try going to grad school and drop out if it doesn’t work out, or whether I should just be content with my bachelor’s degree and keep reading Ahlfors in my free time.
Thanks for any reply,
Here’s the thing. We never know whether we have what it takes for anything. At least we who are not crazy narcissistic don’t. So I’d say, if you love something, and if the signals are good that you are capable (i.e. your profs are encouraging), then follow your instincts. It’s a very good sign that you want to read math in your spare time! Go with that.
Or, in the words of my good friend Jordan Ellenberg, do what you’d do if you weren’t insecure.
Sister of My Sister says: go to culinary school.
Aunt Pythia and SoMS
Dear Aunt Pythia,
I find this article disturbing. Here’s an excerpt:
[O]ne of academia’s little-known secrets is that private college admissions are exempt from Title IX’s ban on sex discrimination—a shameful loophole that allows some of the most supposedly progressive campuses in the nation to discriminate against female applicants.
Consider my own alma mater, Brown University. In 2014, 11 percent of men were accepted at Brown versus 7 percent of women, according to U.S. Department of Education data.
Brown is hardly the only, or the worst, offender. At Vassar College, the 34 percent acceptance rate for men was almost twice as high as the 19 percent rate for women. At Columbia University, the acceptance rate was 8 percent for men versus 6 percent for women. At Vanderbilt University, it was 15 percent versus 11 percent. Pomona College: 15 percent versus 10 percent. Williams College: 21 percent versus 18 percent. This bias in private-college admissions is blatant enough that it can’t be long before “gender-blind admissions” becomes the new campus rallying cry.
Colleges won’t say it, but this is happening because elite schools field applications from many more qualified women than men and thus are trying to hold the line against a 60:40 ratio of women to men. Were Brown to accept women and men at the same rate, its undergraduate population would be almost 60 percent women instead of 52 percent—three women for every two men. . . .
Today’s [admissions] officials . . . fear though that if enrollments reach 60 percent women, it will scare off the most sought-after applicants, who generally want gender balance for social reasons. “Once you become decidedly female in enrollment, fewer males and, as it turns out, fewer females find your campus attractive,” Kenyon College’s dean of admissions, Jennifer Delahunty Britz, wrote in The New York Times in 2006.
Interesting. So you’re saying there’s a de facto affirmative action policy for men taking place in elite colleges.
The statistician in me needs to make the following caveats: some of these statistics could be explained away if we found out that high-achieving girls tend to apply to more places than high-achieving boys on average. Then you’d see many of the same girls applying to a bunch of places, for example, and the boys might apply to fewer.
As a thought experiment, say girls apply to twice as many colleges as boys. From the perspective of the college, among their best applicants they see twice as many from girls. Their acceptance rates, even if they had consistent standards across genders, would be lower for girls. Does that make sense?
Also, keep in mind that a college’s acceptance rate isn’t the same thing as kids actually showing up at college. It could be – and we know it is likely true, in fact – that the same kids are being accepted at a bunch of places and then saying no to all but one. Again, we have to be smart about this, which is all a crazy and inflated system. And without being on the admission committee myself, I really don’t know what’s going on.
Having said all that, I don’t know of any statistics that would make us think girls do apply to more places. I conclude that the stats from the article definitely warrants more investigation.
Here’s another thing to keep in mind. Girls, statistically speaking, are better students than boys, but boys tend to do better on SAT’s at the high end. Personally I don’t think this is all that meaningful one way or another, because both “grades” and “SAT scores” are somewhat arbitrary systems of judgement, neither of which are particularly convincing to me of inner intrinsic worth. Even so, it might be partly responsible for college admissions; colleges might care more about SAT scores than about grades.
I guess that’s what it comes down to: how do colleges decide who to accept? What are their acceptance guidelines like, and are they gender specific? I mean, we might find them discussing the “too many girls” situation, or, more likely, we might just find them trying out different processes until they come upon one that results in “a satisfactory student body.”
A cynical person would point out that what colleges really care about is future endowment contributions, and in our sexist society men are more likely to be the contributors to that. I’m not saying it’s not a factor, but I’m not sure it could possibly be that explicit; it’s more likely to be embedded in an algorithm or at least a process, as many such assumptions are. In any case I’d love someone with more experience in the admissions process at an elite school to weigh in.
Sister of My Sister says she believes that our worst suspicions about the college admissions process are true.
Aunt Pythia and SoMS
Dear Aunt Pythia,
Which question that you’ve answered most affected you, and what was the effect?
Curiously Hunting And Obviously Sympathetic
Thanks for the question, it’s brought me great pleasure in thinking back at all the wonderful questions I’ve had the pleasure to answer. I hope it won’t bother you terribly if I admit that my favorite piece of advice wasn’t actually in an Aunt Pythia column at all, but rather was a mathbabe post called How do I know if I’m good enough to go into math?, which, come to think of it, I should have referred my friend E above to as well. Hey E, go look at that post!
Here’s why that post affected me. I met the wonderful young person who wrote the question to me, afterwards, and she told me quite earnestly how much it helped her. She’s now a thriving and ambitious math major at an elite school. What a pleasant experience, to be able to encourage someone like that!
Moreover, when I went to visit my math camp earlier this summer, I was told that this note had been shared with quite a few of the participants as a way to ward off annoying and competitive behavior; hopefully it helped, but in any case I was super astonished at how much it is needed.
I guess I’m saying that, this is the piece of advice that is closest to that fantasy you have, that you could get in a time machine and go back to your previous self and say something like, hey self! Don’t worry so much, everything’s going to be okay, and you can go ahead and start feeling good now! Because there’s really no time to lose when it comes to just getting on with your life. And that’s really the best feeling that an inveterate advice giver like myself could possibly feel.
Sister of My Sister says that that post and every other is why mathbabe is her hero.
Aunt Pythia and SoMS
Dear Aunt Pythia,
My wife of 5 years is a lesbian and I’m not a woman. We’ve known this for about 3 years.
As you might imagine this eliminates the kinds of sex that we find convenient to share with other people in most social settings.
We’ve taken to pretending we’re sexually conventional, even to close friends, because we fear that they’d be really awkward about it if we ever let on. Everyone we have told so far has made a point of avoiding the subject, as if they simply don’t know what to say, understandably I suppose. They’ve been supportive and kind, but awkward.
How can we avoid widespread social awkwardness without feeling like we’re deceiving our friends and families?
Accidentally Asexual Humans
Why are you two still married? Are there kids? If I’m a friend of yours, and you tell me this, and you don’t have kids, i’d be anything but quiet. I’d say, get the fuck out!
And that holds for anyone who tells me they aren’t getting regular sex from their partner – unless they have a very good reason, like an illness – and they don’t have kids. If they have kids, then fine, make an arrangement with your spouse to get some outside action while you keep a stable household and until the kids are in college. But for an unromantic atheist such as myself, marriages are not simply friendships, they are sexual arrangements. Moreover, to live a full life you want to at least have the option to get action.
You say you’ve been married for 5 years, and for more than half you’re not having sex. Moreover, it doesn’t seem to be ending soon. I just don’t get it. Your friends are too polite and confused to say what I’m saying now: get out, remain friends, and go find someone who can’t resist your manly self. There are plenty of women looking for a good man that would love to enjoy your company.
Sister of My Sister agrees with me wholeheartedly, but suspects there is some other compelling reason you’ve stayed with your wife and would like you to write back and tell us what that is.
Aunt Pythia and SoMS
Readers? Aunt Pythia loves you so much. She wants to hear from you – she needs to hear from you – and then tell you what for in a most indulgent way. Will you help her do that?
Please, pleeeeease ask her a question. She will take it seriously and answer it if she can.
Click here for a form for later or just do it now:
Yesterday I went to a fascinating discussion at the Population Council on child marriage in sub-saharan Africa. Specifically, we heard about the effectiveness of four strategies to delay the age at marriage among girls aged 12–17 in parts of Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Burkina Faso in regions with a high prevalence of child marriage (around 12-18%). The strategies were:
- holding community conversations about the benefits of delayed marriage,
- helping pay for school supplies to keep girls in school,
- giving families with girls aged 12-17 a goat or two chickens in exchange for an agreement that they keep her unmarried for two years, and
- doing all of the above.
They also had control areas where they did nothing except poll the girls at the beginning and end to see what percentage of them overall were married, had sexual experience, and had been pregnant. There were typically about 2500 girls in each of the three areas.
They also split the girls further, into two age ranges: 12-14, and 15-17. There are, sadly, many girls in that younger group getting married, sometimes without even knowing in advance that they were to marry, and not knowing or even meeting their husband in advance of their marriage day.
The researchers kept track of effectiveness as well as cost for each of the strategies, both per vulnerable girl and per “avoided child marriage”. A few comments:
- A local economic condition in one region – I think it was Tanzania – namely a situation where all the local coffee farmers were swindled out of their pay, resulted in worsening poverty and dramatically increased child marriage in that region.
- While giving a family a goat or two chickens might sound like a bizarre incentive to avoid marrying their daughter, it is common in Burkina Faso (but not in Ethiopia) to offer dowries in the form of livestock.
- In fact, the reasoning is often desperate and economic: I need these cows, I will give up my daughter for them.
- In Ethiopia, if I remember correctly, it’s a social bonding issue, where you are bound to marry your daughter to a neighbor’s son out of a sense of neighborliness. It’s also hard to refuse these requests.
- There’s also fear that parents have that their daughter might become pregnant before they are married, so they marry her off before that can happen.
- They also worry about their girls becoming “old maids” if they’re not married by 18.
- Different strategies to delay marriage seemed to work for the younger girls than for the older girls.
- Often the young girls who are going to be married young are also not going to school, so it makes little sense to focus efforts only on girls in school.
- As the closing speaker pointed out, these girls’ sexuality has been utterly commoditized for the marriage market, and their autonomy is basically nonexistent. In that sense, even delaying marriage from 12 until they are 16 makes a real difference in their negotiating power.
- Not to mention that, the younger they are married and start having babies, the more likely they are to live in poverty for another generation.
It’s refreshing to see scientific experimental design and data collection being used for such a good cause! I was really impressed by their approach and intelligence over at the Population Council, and I just subscribed to be notified of their future events and research announcements here.
Some of you may have seen the recent New York Times article entitled Teacher Shortages Spur a Nationwide Hiring Scramble (Credentials Optional). As the title indicates, it turns out that not too many people are throwing their hat into the school teacher ring recently. And given the enormous turnover, this is bad news for the profession.
I’ve got a general rule about such headlines that I like to follow. Namely, whenever we hear about a “labor shortage” in a given profession, we should think about four things:
- Conditions on the job
- Benefits, including retirement
- Cost/ length of training
So for school teachers, we might break it down like this:
- Wages – median at around $58K, has been rising a bit ahead of inflation if I’m eyeballing this graph correctly
- Conditions on the job – much worse in the past decade due to the Value-Added Model, and other Education Reform measures which remove autonomy and force teachers to teach to the test
- Benefits, including tenure and retirement – under relentless fire from gleeful Republican politicians
- Cost/ length of training – sizable, which means that it might take the profession quite some time to recover
When you take the above points together, you realize that it’s not a salary thing so much as an environment that has become toxic. A capable person, however earnest, would think twice before entering such an industry. This is particularly true right now, when tenure is on the chopping block but the salary hasn’t risen to compensate for the added risk.
Teachers, as a profession, are not so different from truckers, who I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. We’ve got some skilled workers whose environments have been severely degraded, and whose salaries have not risen in response. Considering the fact that the economy is somewhat better, this means people are unwilling to go get trained and qualify for such jobs. Moreover, there’s a real reason in both industries to avoid lowering the barrier to entry; we don’t want illiterate teachers nor do we want dangerous truckers. The solutions are obvious: either make their lives better or give them more money, or both.
There’s one more profession that’s going through a “labor shortage,” namely fruit pickers (hat tip Tom Adams). This is because we have many fewer Mexicans coming in for work, and Americans are generally unwilling to break their backs for a measly $11.33 per hour median wage. This is somewhat different from the other industries, because there’s really no lower bar for training, and anyone willing to do the work is given a job. There are also no benefits or job security, and obviously conditions are horrendous.
Even so, the solutions are still obvious: make the job better or pay more.
I’m happy to announce that I’m on the Program Committee for Bloomberg’s Data For Good Exchange. This is a one day event, taking place on September 28th at the Bloomberg offices. It’s been scheduled to lead into the annual Strata NY conference which is run by O’Reilly.
In addition to the event, which will have speakers and keynotes by people like my buddy Jake Porway, there’s a competition for papers that contribute to the public good. The fact that I’m on the Program Committee means that I get to choose a bunch of papers which were submitted according to this call for papers, take a look at the contents, and rate them.
I’ve taken a quick look at the papers and they look pretty amazing. Stay tuned for more.
It’s time to get busy, people. I need to find futurist conferences to go to (and to speak at), I need to hobnob at cocktail parties. Now that I care deeply about predicting and shaping the future, I need to get on top of this shit.
As part of my research, I have stumbled upon Dylan Matthews’s brilliant Vox piece entitled I spent a weekend at Google talking with nerds about charity. I came away … worried. In a word, Matthews agrees with my post from yesterday.
He spent a weekend at an “Effective Altruism” (EA) conference at Google Mountain View, with many other “white male nerd(s) on the autism spectrum” and he came away with this observation:
In the beginning, EA was mostly about fighting global poverty. Now it’s becoming more and more about funding computer science research to forestall an artificial intelligence–provoked apocalypse. At the risk of overgeneralizing, the computer science majors have convinced each other that the best way to save the world is to do computer science research. Compared to that, multiple attendees said, global poverty is a “rounding error.”
This particular brand of futurism takes refuge in “existential threats” which they measure very carefully with lots of big powers of 10. They worship a certain extra-special white male nerd from Oxford named Nick Bostrom. From Matthews’ piece, where a majority of those at the conference were worrying about the risk robots taking over:
Even if we give this 10^54 estimate “a mere 1% chance of being correct,” Bostrom writes, “we find that the expected value of reducing existential risk by a mere one billionth of one billionth of one percentage point is worth a hundred billion times as much as a billion human lives.”
No, it doesn’t matter what that means. The point is that it’s a way of nerdifying the current messy world and thereby have an excuse for not improving things now.
Matthews sees through this all, in terms of their logic as well as their assumptions. Here’s his logical argument:
The problem is that you could use this logic to defend just about anything. Imagine that a wizard showed up and said, “Humans are about to go extinct unless you give me $10 to cast a magical spell.” Even if you only think there’s a, say, 0.00000000000000001 percent chance that he’s right, you should still, under this reasoning, give him the $10, because the expected value is that you’re saving 10^32 lives.
And here’s his critique on their assumptions:
…the AI crowd seems to be assuming that people who might exist in the future should be counted equally to people who definitely exist today.
Just in case you’re thinking that this stuff is too silly to be taken seriously, some of the people putting money into think tanks that worry about this crap include Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and other Silicon Valley success stories. The money, and the Google location, adds to the self-congratulatory tone. An event organizer made this embarrassingly clear: “I really do believe that effective altruism could be the last social movement we ever need.”
I find this kind of reasoning very familiar, and here’s why. Anyone who’s worked at a hedge fund has heard far too many people with a similar “Bill Gates Life Plan”: first, amass asstons of money by hook or by crook, and then, and only then, deploy their personal plans for charity and world improvement.
In other words, this whole movement might simply be a way of applying a sheen of scientific objectivity and altruism to a vain and greedy impulse.
I’ve got my work cut out for me. Please tell me if you know of conferences or such which I can apply to.
I’ve been thinking about the future a lot recently, so I’ve decided to throw my hat into the futurism ring. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t an easy decision. Nevertheless I think it’s the right one.
It all started with fretting over the present. Things seem to be unraveling, and I spend at quite some time each day worrying about stuff like our country’s oligarchy problem, our racist policing and justice systems, and the overall lack of good middle class jobs.
So far that’s just a list of our present woes, but any plan to address them needs to incorporate a hopeful plan for the future, right? So naturally I decided to look into “futurism,” which attempts to anticipate and guide our future plans.
Here’s the thing, though. As described beautifully in Rose Eveleth’s Atlantic piece, Futurism Needs More Women, the field is currently clogged with white North American men between the ages of 55 and 65 who talk optimistically about super cool future technology, and living longer, and uploading their brains, and so on.
It’s is not a particularly appealing pool to jump in on, but here I come anyway. And, being a world class cannonballer, I’m not afraid of making a splash.
So, there’s a big problem with futurism right now, which is that, on the whole, they pretty much entirely ignore social issues, which as you’ll notice are highly entwined with my top three concerns, politics, racism, and the end of work (otherwise put: the only way to compete with robots is to become one). I plan to change futurism; I’ll be the loudmouth at the futurism conference talking about other things and how we need to plan. I’ll make this shit real. I mean, after all, why should the white guys have all the fun of deciding what the future might look like?
Before I go on, let me explain why women (so far!) have been reluctant to join the futurism movement. We remain unimpressed with their major visions so far: live forever, become one with a machine, let technology solve all social problems. Here’s why.
Living forever/ the singularity. Women get their period when they’re young, then they go through menopause when they’re old, and then they die when they’re really old. I mean, oversimplification, but whatever; the point is they are firmly tied to their aging bodies and are well aware of the ticking biological clock, and not just the one for having babies. Personally I’m 43 and even though getting my period is a messy pain, at this point I am deeply nostalgic for my youth every time it happens.
By contrast, men grow pubes at the age of 14 and nothing ever seems to change again. They might have even forgotten they ever didn’t have them. In any case men are more likely to consider the idea of putting their brains in jars – hooked up to the internet, of course – as a reasonable approximation of their current state of existence. I feel sorry for them. Being reminded of death once a month makes it impossible to be so silly. Or at least much harder.
Technophilia. Men – especially futurists – seem to love technology, and fail to cast a critical eye on anything that seems remotely “innovative.” I call this the “I win” blindspot, whereby people who are generally rewarded in a system seem to think the system must be great. After all, if you’re the one creating the surveillance software or analyzing the surveillance footage or sensor data on say, long-haul trucks, you’re getting paid really well to promote “progress.” Not so much the story for the truckers being surveilled, but whatever, I guess they should have learned to code.
I mean, that’s just one small example, but I could go on for hours. And I think women, and for that matter anyone who isn’t a successful white dude, sees both sides. That’s why we’re not jumping at the chance to join the technophiliac bandwagon.
Anyhoo, futurism is unbearably narrow at the moment, but I don’t think that should stop me. In spite of my focus on social issues, I have the credentials required to worm my way into the conversation. In fact, I have a convincing explanation for why their approach so far – into the probability of various future trends – is fatally flawed. Namely, they’ve got too few variables. They focus on technological change without taking into account human beings. So their Monte Carlo engine, if you will, of possibly futures ends up with only tweaks that they allow in their tiny little list of possibilities. I plan to add to that list. And given that they seek to influence policy as well as the individual’s forward-looking self, this list might matter.