The Latest Poster Children for the Anti-$15 Crowd: Low-Quality Restaurants?

Some sage advice for restaurant owners in this screenshot from the Hell’s Kitchen video game.

I simply can’t respond to every single dumb trickle-down take on the $15 minimum wage. If I felt the need to write back to every jerk who took an Econ 101 class and thought it earned them a Nobel laureate in economics, I’d be writing takedowns every hour of every day, with no sleep and no breaks. My fingertips would bleed from all the typing, and I’d need to rent a helper monkey to put drops in my eyes so they wouldn’t dry out as I type.

But when I noticed that someone named Peter Heck published a piece titled “Minimum Wage Hikes are Killing the Poor” — well, how could I just ignore a title as ridiculous as that? Heck says that the “wealthy liberal city of San Francisco” is facing a “coming disaster” as it’s raising its minimum wage to $15 next year. He quotes a new working paper from Harvard Business school which, according to its abstract, finds that…

…lower quality restaurants, which are already closer to the margin of exit, are disproportionately impacted by increases to the minimum wage. Our point estimates suggest that a one dollar increase in the minimum wage leads to a 14 percent increase in the likelihood of exit for a 3.5-star restaurant (which is the median rating), but has no discernible impact for a 5-star restaurant (on a 1 to 5 star scale).

Heck then extrapolates from their abstract:

Bob’s Burgers may not be able to absorb the cost associated with paying $15 an hour for their entry level employees without coming to economic ruin. But swanky, upscale Eagle’s Nest Steakhouse, on the other hand, can simply jack up the cost of their filet by a few bucks and be okay.

In other words, the liberal minimum wage policy lets the rich get richer and the poor lose their job when the business they work for goes under.

Except that’s a really bad misreading of the study. The stars used in the study are taken from Yelp. The quality that they’re measuring is the customer experience, not the cost of the restaurants. Yelp has a second ranking, of dollar signs, to identify prices, but price didn’t really figure into the closures. In fact, the study overtly states that they found (emphasis mine) “evidence that the heterogeneous effects observed earlier are driven by quality rather than by the restaurant prices.”

So if Yelp customers rate Bob’s Burgers 4.5 stars because they like the food and the service, Bob’s Burgers will weather the minimum wage increase just fine. Some comparably rated Seattle businesses on Yelp would be Paseo, which serves no meal over $15.50; Tacos Chukis on Capitol Hill, which serves tacos for under $2 and tortas for $6.90; and Fat Ducks Deli and Bakery in the University District, which sells sandwiches for $8.95 each. (I can say from experience that all three of those restaurants, by the way, are excellent.)

And if the Eagle’s Nest Steakhouse has gotten more than a little gross over the years and customers now give it a 1.5 average star rating, under a minimum wage increase the odds increase for the Eagle’s Nest to go out of business. So even if Bob’s Burgers charges $10 for a burgers-and-fries meal deal and the Eagle’s Nest charges $75 for a steak and a side, it’s the Eagle’s Nest which, according to the study, is much more likely to go out of business.

Heck doesn’t seem to realize that he’s actually arguing against the power of the market. By opposing a decent minimum wage, he’s saying that a city should subsidize low-wage, low-quality employers by allowing them to legally exploit their workers. It’s more than a little weird to me that conservatives are now complaining about the consequences of the free market. For some reason, they hate the idea that businesses which can’t afford to pay their employees a living wage should have to close while other businesses thrive. I would hope that even conservatives like Heck would agree that low-quality employers shouldn’t be subsidized by taxpayers. When businesses pay less than a living wage, those employees often have to rely on government assistance like food stamps and rental subsidies in order to get by.

Look, opening a restaurant is risky business. Everyone knows that restaurants fail with shocking regularity. Every new location requires a confluence of many different qualities (including a good location, an inviting theme, a welcoming staff, an appealing storefront and, uh, one more thing that I can’t remember…oh, yeah — delicious food) to become a success. That’s an understood quantity for anyone opening a business.

The unfortunate truth is that there will always be losers. But by encouraging a smarter, more livable wage, we can ensure that there are more winners. Seattle, which raised the wage before San Francisco, has more eating places than at just about any other time in our history. Our unemployment nunbers are at near-record lows. If we did see the same closures of low-quality restaurants that the Harvard study found, those restaurants were quickly replaced by newer (and better!) ones. Which is exactly how capitalism is supposed to work: business owners are supposed to create new concepts, and consumers are supposed to choose between them. The concepts that don’t draw the most consumers either change into something more appealing, or they fail.

And the thing about raising the minimum wage that Heck really doesn’t get is this: when the minimum wage is increased, workers have more money, and that increases demand. It allows people to try more of their ideas out in the marketplace, and it allows consumers to decide between those ideas. Nobody ever promised that every idea would be a good one, or that every business would succeed. But Seattle’s thriving restaurant scene has proven that there’s more room for winners — among business owners, workers, and consumers — when everyone agrees to pay a living wage.

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And I wanted to take a second to address Heck’s moronic final claim. He writes: ” If $15 is better than $10 an hour, doesn’t it stand to reason that $20 or $30 an hour is better than $15?” Heck, the poor dear, acts like this is a new concept, but it’s actually as old as the minimum wage itself. Nick Hanauer addressed this concern-trolling best in this piece in the Democracy Journal:

“If $15 is so great, why not $50 or $100?” critics sometimes mockingly ask. Well, because that would be stupid. The positive benefits of a $100 per hour minimum wage would almost certainly be overwhelmed by the costs. So no one is proposing $100; instead we are proposing $15, which is roughly halfway between what the minimum wage would be had it tracked either productivity gains ($21) or inflation ($10).

I hope that passage answers Heck’s question. I also hope he doesn’t misread it as badly as he misread that study.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.