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Here's the Problem

It's simple, really

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, January 25, 2006.

When I was in the judicial system, the euphemism I generally avoid when talking about the time I was in jail and probation, I worked any number of temporary worker jobs for several companies here in Boulder. It didn’t take long to discover one obvious defect in the motivational system: the better and quicker you worked, the quicker the job – and your paycheck – ended. Ergo, during those periods when there wasn’t much temp work, there was always motivation to work methodically and slowly at boring activities that unsurprisingly annoyed management. Some of that motivation came from the services that provided my labor; when my check ended, so did theirs, after all.

Previous to that, I ran bars, and in bars there was always a problem with staff, and it was easy to pick it out and easy to correct in theory. Bartenders, by tradition and not common sense, earn their money in tips. What they are tipped for are the special favors beloved by those drinking: the free shot, the top off, the more booze for less. This, of course, is stealing from the bar to increase your income which, being essentially untraceable, was also tax-free. The problem is that barkeep and the bar manager and owner have different agendas because they are set at conflict with each other. In bars, like everywhere else, employee theft is the major loss leader.

This could be remedied by paying bartenders significantly more money, say a higher hourly vs. a percentage of bar sales rung up on their registers, outlawing tips, and charging more for the booze. In theory, the customer is out the same amount of money including tips. Then, the bartenders and waitresses have less incentive to pander for tips, which is always at the expense of the bar, and often of the customer and it’s dangerous.

But the bar likes it, because it can advertise cheaper prices and can arbitrarily fire employees at will for the inevitable violations of contract, which can always be found by professional spotters, and they can blame bad service of waiters and busboys on the help, as if they were outsourced labor which, in some regards they are. When the bar had a good night, so did the employees. The reverse wasn’t always true.

So, here in Boulder the Damned last weekend, a restaurant and bar was rented by fraternities and sororities for a party. Shockingly, under-aged college students, who are old enough to be legally killed in Afghanistan and Iraq if in our nation’s service, got severely hammered and the police arrived when on a freezing night barefoot women in cocktail dresses were wandering the streets outside. A clue, surely. The owner pretends he didn’t know this sort of thing happens and will never host frat parties again, etc. etc. The people who organized the parties blame the staff for not checking ID’s, a winning entry in world class chutzpah. Police express concern, and editorials are written while asleep.

We know the issues here. It’s almost impossible to tell fake from real ID’s today, and you don’t have time to thoroughly check them at the door, especially when offered by friends and unknown but attractive cleavages. Institutional underage drinking is a source of major income in Boulder and all college towns, which means it contributes to sales tax. Which means that there is divided, shall we say, opinion on the consistent enforcement of drinking laws absent major problems like, say, a death or twelve on the way home. That a 21 year old bartender is sentenced to jail for selling in a crowded bar a final shot to someone with a fake ID nine months younger who gets in an accident on the way home is an absurd conundrum for people to work under.

People get upset at the income and benefits given to CEO’s in corporations because stockholders, labor, and management aren’t penalized and don’t profit under the same circumstances. Shouldn’t they? Yet, executives' contracts are tied to absurd conditions that can be manipulated to screw both stockholders and labor and the product, and I’m looking at you Ford Motor, whose SUV's overturned merely changing lanes on the highway.

Or, in West Virginia, lives were lost because economic benefit does not accrue to companies who stay up to date with safety equipment and procedure. The government will tax, study, penalize, litigate at great expense but won’t simply make safety equipment and training a tax-free purchase or make it easy for companies to buy and maintain a safer workplace. Really, which road costs government less in the long run?

The standing corruption of Karl Marx and his 1848 theory is that today, labor, land, and capital are likely found in the same person in this country and time as opposed to his. In the past, there were clearly seen social classes, and knowing what side you were on was decided at birth, for the most part. Today, singing Which Side Are You On makes no sense in a dodecahedron of economic pulls, short and long term, and it’s absurd to pretend otherwise. We waste a lot of time and money studying the issue rather than admit the obvious and pointlessly maintained status quo. When the CEO’s bonus kicks in, that should mean bonus for labor and stockholder as well.

It’s almost impossible to configure it that way, and that’s the problem.