Ours is not, generally speaking, a drive-through family. But recently after a long road trip (a delightful one, albeit bookended by missing luggage on the way there and a poolside injury while coming back) we found ourselves about to return late-ish in the evening to an empty refrigerator at home, intentionally cleared out before our vacation. What followed was grimly amusing.
First, at the request of our older girls, we tried Little Caesar’s, which turned out to be on fire. (Or something: there were three fire trucks parked in front and all the staff were standing in the parking lot.) Then we moved on to McDonald’s, where despite having the lights out on its arched sign, waiting cars reached in a long U all the way around the parking lot. As we passed by in the despair of the long line we heard screams. One man had even climbed out of the passenger side of an old sedan and was shouting at the window with a look of horror, his finger stretched out like Donald Sutherland’s in the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
After that we tried Burger King next door. Here too the lights were out, but when we pulled up anyway, one of the employees (there were only two cars in the parking lot) told us that they were only taking cash. Half a mile down the highway we found that Wendy’s was simply closed, at 8:00 p.m., generally a busy hour for these places in the summer. Further down the road at Arby’s we were startled by an unseen voice that turned out to be some kind of recording informing us that its doors were also closed due to a lack of employees. Finally we settled on Culver’s just across the parking lot, which was not only open but had lights on and at least two dozen customers inside. We ordered, waited a few minutes, and headed back with four of the orneriest children in America; when we passed McDonald’s on the way back, all the cars were in their previous positions.
I am sketching this postmodern “Fall of Rome” scene because in places like our small Michigan town it is becoming increasingly clear that people are refusing to work for the kinds of wages offered to them by these fast-food chains. The dictums of neoclassical economics tell us that in response to their unwillingness to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous Karens (“I said extra syrup, sir!”) for $9.50 an hour, which is less than I made while employed by a non-selective state university as an undergraduate tutor a decade ago, corporations should allow them to bid up the price.
Despite what some reports suggest, this is not happening. Anyone who thinks that the measures being taken instead—absurd patronizing offers of gift cards or a few hundred dollars of wages upfront—must have a very low opinion of the average unskilled worker in this part of the country, who until recently has been making roughly $16.55 an hour in extra unemployment benefits. If he is worth that much to Uncle Sam just staying home, and more now if he has any children, why should he accept a pittance for mind-numbing work, no benefits, and virtually no prospect of advancement?
I for one do not expect these people to return to the workforce any time soon. What they seem to have realized is that their time is more valuable than the consultants with their stock price targets have been taught to believe. The most likely consequence of this exodus is that sooner or later many of these fast-food franchises will shut down. Rather than deviate from their spreadsheets, the shareholder value-maximizing whiz kids at Yum! Brands, Inc., would rather shut down a location or two, under the correct assumption that the lost revenue out in the sticks will be a rounding error, and that in places where the labor pool is larger they will be able to maintain a sufficiently large workforce without significantly raising wages.
Anyone who believes in the dignity of labor, in the just wage and the integrity of the family (this is to say nothing of ecological and I daresay aesthetic dimensions of our postmodern convenience culture) should welcome such a development. But not uncritically. It is one thing to say that $19,000 a year is not reasonable compensation for ensuring that the rest of us can eat mechanically separated meat at whatever hour of the day we choose; it is another to accept the future that one suspects Wall Street really envisions for the rest of us: the replacement of work with a basic income scheme that allows what remains of the working class to spend its time watching Netflix and pornography, placing bets on their mobile devices, visiting the cannabis dispensary and the payday lender.
Replacing one kind of undignified existence for the poor with another that is equally acceptable to our leaders is not a victory for the human spirit.
Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.