New York Times

Omigod, Omigod! An Automated Restaurant! The End Is Nigh!

Is Eatsa really the "restaurant of the future," or just a high-tech throwback to the automat of the past?

Is Eatsa really the “restaurant of the future,” or just a high-tech throwback to the automat of the past?

Okay, I’m a little late on this post as I’ve been deeply immersed in something else, but I just couldn’t let slip by this credulous piece in the New York Times touting the jobless “Restaurant of the Future“:

The restaurant, Eatsa, the first outlet in a company with national ambitions, is almost fully automated. There are no waiters or even an order taker behind a counter. There is no counter. There are unseen people helping to prepare the food, but there are plans to fully automate that process, too, if it can be done less expensively than employing people.

For optimists, it’s a way to make restaurant-going more efficient and less expensive. For pessimists, it’s the latest example of how machines are stealing people’s jobs. Either way, it’s like heaven for misanthropes, or those who are in too much of a hurry to chat with a server. … It might be a harbinger of a future in which eating out no longer involves waiters.

Oh please.

Microwave quinoaFirst of all, I already have a glass-faced cubby that serves me hot food when I tap on it. It’s called a “microwave oven.” So if I want to wolf down something fast, cheap, and machine-made, I can simply pop a frozen entree into and out of the office microwave in less time than it takes me to ride the elevator down to the lobby—and with a helluva lot more variety than Eatsa’s menu of “eight quinoa bowls.” (Seriously. All Eatsa serves is quinoa.)

Second, apart from its touch-screen ordering kiosks and its Star Trek chic sensibilities, there’s nothing particularly futuristic about Eatsa’s automated restaurant. If anything, the whole concept comes off as downright nostalgic to those of us who fondly remember the old Horn & Hardart Automats.

The Horn & Hardart Automat: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

The Horn & Hardart Automat: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Horn & Hardart opened its first restaurant in Philadelphia way back in 1888, and its first Automat back in 1902; the last Automat closed in New York City in 1991. During the concept’s 89-year run, millions of New Yorkers and Philadelphians made a daily routine of purchasing freshly prepared meals through the futuristic chrome-and-glass-doored cubbies at their local Automat. According to Smithsonian magazine:

It was once the world’s largest restaurant chain, serving 800,000 people a day. It was Horn & Hardart, and its cavernous, waiterless establishments represented a combination of fast-food, vending and cafeteria-style eateries. These restaurants, with their chrome-and-glass coin-operated machines, brought high-tech, inexpensive eating to a low-tech era. Making their debut in Philadelphia in 1902, just up the street from Independence Hall, and reaching Manhattan in 1912, Horn & Hardart Automats became an American icon, celebrated in song and humor. With their uniform recipes and centralized commissary system of supplying their restaurants, the Automats were America’s first major fast-food chain.

Yeah, so, given the long successful history of automated restaurants (conveyer belt sushi, anybody?) I fail to see what’s so revolutionary about Eatsa. Or threatening, for that matter. And I hardly see it as a harbinger of anything.

I loved going to the Automat as a kid—there was something really empowering about dropping the coins into the slot and choosing my own food. But ironically, most of my experience with the chain was at the Philadelphia area’s last surviving Horn & Hardart: a full service restaurant at the Bala Cynwyd Shopping Center, just across the city line. My grandmother used to take us there, and I always ordered the creamed spinach. It wasn’t as fun as the Automat, but I sure did love their creamed spinach.

The point is, for all its huge success (and any business that lasts more than a century has to be considered hugely successful) Horn & Hardart never came close to destroying waitering as a profession. The Automat remained a very popular dining option for decades, but just one option out of many, and even during its heyday, full service restaurants continued to thrive—some of which were operated by Horn & Hardart. And anybody who believes that this time it’s different—that this time technology has finally advanced to a state where we no longer need mere human beings to take our order or serve our food—just doesn’t understand the social dynamic of dining.

Look, I enjoy a bargain as much as the next guy (honestly, more than the next guy), but while I could certainly get all my meals from my microwave oven, and I could drink much cheaper alone at home, I usually don’t. Because I enjoy the experience of dining out. It’s far from efficient or cost effective, but that’s part of the pleasure. And so just like we still have live theater, and movie theaters, and TV despite the dramatically greater efficiency and lower consumer cost of each successive medium, fine dining establishments and automated quinoa cubbies and everything in between will continue to coexist as long as we have human beings.

“A future in which eating out no longer involves waiters?” That’s not dining. That’s eating.

But there’s another point about this robots-are-coming meme that I think Eatsa founder David Friedberg gets exactly right. Even if the Eatsa concept proves popular, and cheap automated quinoa becomes a national lunchtime craze, it wouldn’t portend a jobless future for “low-wage” workers:

“There’s rarely been a technology shift where people didn’t complain about technology replacing people’s jobs,” [Friedberg] said. “The reality is the economic growth from new technology has always resulted in new economic activity and job descriptions.

“We can sit and debate all day what the implications are for low-wage workers at restaurants, but I don’t think that’s fair. If increased productivity means cost savings get passed to consumers, consumers are going to have a lot more to spend on lots of things.”

Exactly.

Now excuse me—I need to go replicate a cup of tea. Earl Grey. Hot.

David Brooks, the CBO, and Conventional Economics Are Wrong

WA restaurant industry employment growth 1990s

If raising the minimum wage always costs jobs, you wouldn’t know it from history.

David Brooks’ latest column in the New York Times is annoying for the way it lazily accuses Hillary Clinton of advocating for something she’s not. She does not want government to tell companies how to “structure and manage themselves.” She wants government to do a better job of setting the rules by which companies fairly compete in the market.

But that’s not my biggest beef with Brooks’ column. No, the lazy assertion that really ticks me off is this:

Clinton displayed no awareness that most federal requirements involve difficult trade-offs. According to the Congressional Budget Office, raising the minimum wage to even $10.10 an hour would increase pay for millions of workers, but would cost roughly 500,000 jobs.

First of all, that’s not what the CBO said. It said raising the minimum wage “could” reduce employment, not “would.” Big difference. In fact, the CBO said the job losses could range from a high of one million to a low of near zero.

Second, the CBO’s models are clearly wrong.

How can I assert this with such confidence? Because despite the job losses that are always predicted by these neo-classical models, there is actually no empirical evidence to suggest that these job losses ever occur! Indeed, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, “A review of 64 studies on minimum wage increases found no discernable effect on employment.” And we’ve been raising the minimum wage for 80 years!

Call me crazy, but when the economic model says one thing and reality says something entirely different, unlike Brooks, I’m going with reality.

The real battle in 2016 isn’t between right and left, Republicans and Democrats, or Bush versus Clinton. The real battle is between economic paradigms—the old paradigm that gave us models that wrongly predict that higher wages leads to fewer jobs, and that failed to predict the economic calamity of the Great Recession, versus a new, evidence-based paradigm that more accurately describes the real economy.

The conventional economic models are simply wrong. And we shouldn’t be shy about saying so.

David Brooks Can’t Do Math

math

stockimages | FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I could easily spend the next five days fisking New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks’ absurd notion that it was a “Democratic Tea Party” that was to blame for the TPP’s defeat… if I could only get past his stoopid, stoopid lede:

Last week, the Congressional Democrats defeated the underpinnings of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

Um, Congressional Democrats defeated the TPP? Really? Sure, the motion failed 126-302, with only 40 Democrats voting yes. But the last time I checked, Republicans hold a commanding 246 to 188 seat majority. GOPers could have easily passed TPP on their lonesome, but only about a third of House Republicans could bring themselves to vote for fast track authority. Yet somehow, according to Brooks, it’s the minority Democrats who are solely to blame for its defeat?

By that logic, I guess Dems are also to blame for the fifty-some times Congress has voted to repeal Obamacare. Damn you, Democratic Tea Party!

 

If You Hate “Market Distortions” You Should Hate our Nation’s $1.2 Trillion in Student Debt

Stuart Miles | FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Stuart Miles | FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In a New York Times op-ed, writer Lee Siegel makes a cogent case for why more people should follow his lead and default on their student loans:

I found myself confronted with a choice that too many people have had to and will have to face. I could give up what had become my vocation (in my case, being a writer) and take a job that I didn’t want in order to repay the huge debt I had accumulated in college and graduate school. Or I could take what I had been led to believe was both the morally and legally reprehensible step of defaulting on my student loans, which was the only way I could survive without wasting my life in a job that had nothing to do with my particular usefulness to society.

The free marketeers love to rail against government policies that allegedly “distort the market,” but as Siegel’s personal choice illustrates, isn’t that exactly what the high cost of higher education is doing? Young people are choosing careers, not because they are particularly useful or because they are particularly well suited, but because that’s the only way to earn enough money to pay off their student loans.

The US could certainly use more great social workers and teachers (and yes, even more writers), but our decades-long disinvestment in public universities is sucking would be social workers and teachers out of these professions and into less well suited but better paying lines of work (if it doesn’t dissuade them from going to college altogether). How does this benefit our economy? How does it not distort the market to require a talented and dedicated journalist to take a vow of poverty in order to ply their craft?

From a labor market perspective, wouldn’t it be more efficient to free workers from this market-distorting burden (Americans currently carry over $1.2 trillion in student debt), creating greater flexibility for employers and jobseekers alike?

I know, there’s that “moral hazard” thing. Well Siegel’s got an answer to that too:

Some people will maintain that a bankrupt father, an impecunious background and impractical dreams are just the luck of the draw. Someone with character would have paid off those loans and let the chips fall where they may. But I have found, after some decades on this earth, that the road to character is often paved with family money and family connections, not to mention 14 percent effective tax rates on seven-figure incomes.

Moneyed stumbles never seem to have much consequence. Tax fraud, insider trading, almost criminal nepotism — these won’t knock you off the straight and narrow. But if you’re poor and miss a child-support payment, or if you’re middle class and default on your student loans, then God help you.

Siegel’s probably right: there are many Americans who would be better off defaulting on their student debt. But of course, the better, more efficient, and less-distorting solution would be to move toward a system in which all qualified students have the opportunity to graduate from college debt free.

A Gated City on a Hill

Gated house

Simon Howden | FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Despite living in an era of record low crime rates, America’s uber-rich are feeling less and less secure—at least as evidenced by New York City’s burgeoning “safe room” industry:

The world is a very scary place right now, especially for people of means; they feel cornered and threatened,” said Tom Gaffney, the president of Gaffco Ballistics, which has installed a number of safe rooms around New York City.

“When you have so much to lose, and you can afford to, you put a premium on your safety.”

So, couple of thoughts. First, cry me a goddamn river. The world can surely be a “very scary place” right now for the children of the desperately poor. The world can be a very scary place right now for undocumented immigrants. The world can be a very scary place right now for the chronically underemployed and for families facing foreclosure. And if there’s anybody who has a right to “feel cornered and threatened” in America today, it’s young black men just about every time they’re confronted by the police. But people of means, not so much. Far from a scary place, New York City is like a Disneyland for the super rich—with unlimited Fastpasses. So forgive me if I roll my eyes at this zillionaire-as-victim meme.

That said, if people of means really do feel so cornered and threatened by the unwashed rabble these days that they’re willing to cower behind Kevlar-lined, steel-reinforced concrete walls, they might want to ask themselves, “Why?” If the threat is real, they should consider how our nation’s staggering income inequality is undermining their own security. And if the threat isn’t real, they should look deep inside themselves to question whether their paranoia stems from pathological narcissism or a healthy (and justified) pang of guilt?

Also, they might want to ask themselves, “Do I really want to live this way?”

As Civic Ventures Skunk-in-Chief Nick Hanauer has repeatedly warned his fellow plutocrats, the pitchforks are coming. I suppose hunkering down in their gated communities—prisoners of their own wealth—is one way to prepare for it. Or, acting out of rational self-interest, they could start using their enormous influence and wealth to promote policies that address income inequality before the inevitable backlash occurs.

The Media Obsesses Over Jeb Bush’s Diet Tips

"Mister President! Mister President! How many calories are in that turkey?"

“Mister President! Mister President! How many calories are in that turkey?”

Look, I’ve worked in the media during a presidential campaign. I know what it’s like. You get swept up in the craziness of it all, and sometimes your good sense goes out the window. You forget that these politicians are trying to be leader of the free world and you start to think of it as some sort of weird sport. The next thing you know, you’re cranking out one thousand words about Rick Santorum’s love of sweater vests and you haven’t thought about a real issue in a week and a half.

But it’s a little early for this kind of zaniness to seep into presidential coverage: the New York Times‘s Michael Barbaro has written a long story about Jeb Bush going on the Paleo diet.

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