Food Fight

by on June 10, 2008 at 7:30 am in Political Science | Permalink

In a story rich with irony the Senate, led by Democrat Dianne Feinstein, has voted to privatize its restaurants and food services.  The House privatized twenty years ago.  The result?  Sort of like East and West Berlin.

In a masterful bit of understatement, Feinstein blamed [millions of dollars in losses] on "noticeably
subpar" food and service. Foot traffic bears that out. Come lunchtime,
many Senate staffers trudge across the Capitol and down into the
basement cafeteria on the House side. On Wednesdays, the lines can be
30 or 40 people long.

House staffers almost never cross the Capitol to eat in the Senate cafeterias.

Naturally some of Feinstein’s colleagues were not pleased. 

In a closed-door meeting with Democrats in November, she was
practically heckled by her peers for suggesting it, senators and aides

"I know what happens with privatization. Workers lose jobs, and the
next generation of workers make less in wages. These are some of the
lowest-paid workers in our country, and I want to help them," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a staunch labor union ally, said recently.

The reporter adds without comment, "The wages of the approximately 100 Senate food service workers average $37,000 annually."  Who says we can’t get a better press corps?

Feinstein had an ace in her sleeve, however, and when push came to shove she unleashed her threat.  Feinstein warned "that if they did not agree to turn over the operation to a private
contractor, prices would be increased 25 percent across the board."  Well that was it – the Senate voted to privatize.

1 Joe June 10, 2008 at 8:08 am

What does the “The reporter adds without comment, “The wages of the approximately 100 Senate food service workers average $37,000 annually.” Who says we can’t get a better press corp?” comment mean for those of us in Europe who have no idea how $37K/year fares in comparison to comparable jobs.

What do the house food service workers make, on average?

2 Speedmaster June 10, 2008 at 8:22 am

Fantastic story. 😉

3 Rich Berger June 10, 2008 at 8:23 am

I think the reporter wants to imply that they aren’t paid that much now, and per Sen Brown, they are going to be paid even less. I am guessing that the workers at the House facilities have taken the jobs of their own free will, so they must be paid enough to make the bargain. Incentives matter, and I guess the proof is in the pudding, or something.

4 Daniel Klein June 10, 2008 at 9:18 am

This episode is pure poetry. Thanks.

5 Peter K. June 10, 2008 at 9:21 am

How did Obama vote? How did McCain vote? What about those Senators on the “short lists” for VP (Lieberman, Edwards, Graham, Clinton)?

6 ZBicyclist June 10, 2008 at 9:28 am

$37,000 is a very high average for this type of work. The reporter is noting that these workers are paid very well.

“Median annual wage-and-salary earnings of food preparation workers were $17,410 in May 2006. The middle 50 percent earned between $14,920 and $21,230. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $13,190, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $25,940. ”

I would note that pretty much the same thing occurs in corporate cafeterias. The food quality improvement when Aramark took over our corporate cafeteria a few years ago was dramatic. The problem isn’t so much government [although that doesn’t help certainly] as trying to run a business that’s far removed from what the company really does.

7 ZBicyclists June 10, 2008 at 9:50 am

M1EK makes some good points, although I might note that companies can view employees as a profit center without outsourcing food.

I particularly like M1EK’s point about “costing free overtime”. One of the big benefits of staying in at the office cafeteria is the opportunity to do cross-departmental networking, and the ability to get back to your desk faster.

My own company seems to be trying to make us a profit center by getting us “special rates” on fitness centers, car insurance, etc. These may be sent to our homes, or sent via company e-mail.

Not only are the rates not so special, they seem oblivious to the fact that reading — or even just deleting — these e-mails on company time is a productivity drain.

8 Independent George June 10, 2008 at 9:56 am

The 37k salary might not be totally out of line; remember, we’re not comparing the dining room to Applebees, but to high-end restaurants. I remember a NYT article a while ago about the servers at Peter Luger’s, who tend to stick around for about 10 years, learn the business, and go on to open their own restaurants.

The more pertinent question is why they have 100 employees for such a limited market; that’s about four times the kitchen staff of a 5-star hotel.

9 Christina June 10, 2008 at 10:35 am

[O]ne of the major liabilities of outsourcing food is that the employees are viewed as a profit center — compare cafeterias at IBM versus, let’s say, Google.

My brother-in-law is a chef on the Google campus, but he works for Bon Appetit Management Company. Google pays them to provide food in the campus cafes and for special events. I don’t think employees pay to eat at all.

By the way, my brother-in-law noted that they are just recently starting to care about food costs. They still are committeed to buying only food grown within 100 miles, but they have cracked down on the extravagent use of costly ingredients. I wonder if forcing employees to pay for their food would lead to an abandonment of the localvore standard, or if, like good Northern Californians, they would be willing to shell out the bucks for it.

10 Highgamma June 10, 2008 at 10:55 am

“The more pertinent question is why they have 100 employees for such a limited market; that’s about four times the kitchen staff of a 5-star hotel.”

Independent George, 100 workers for 100 Senators. Royalty needs attendants.

(Yes, I know the staff eats there, too, when there not at the House restaurant, but it’s too juicy to let by.)

11 Rich Berger June 10, 2008 at 11:59 am

I went back to read the whole article and wouldn’t you know it but the Dems plan to give taxpayers a parting gift: “Eventually, Democrats agreed to pass legislation that includes guarantees for those who go to work for Restaurant Associates. They would retain their current salaries and federal health and pension benefits. Employees who choose to leave instead would receive buyout packages of as much as $25,000 — paid by the Senate. Half the current employees are likely to take that deal.

New employees, however, will not receive federal benefits, though they will be allowed to unionize.”

The real message is that the Senate restaurants had no incentive to provide good service and they didn’t.

12 meter June 10, 2008 at 12:39 pm

In a story especially rich with irony, a university professor at a public institution supported by government funding clamors for a “free” (government free, that is) market.

13 Sean June 10, 2008 at 1:37 pm

I used to work for a managed services company that ran a lot of college and corporate dining operations. A full-time food service employee was generally paid around $20k/year (much of the staff was part time) and a dining room manager would be lucky to clear $50k. A larger operation would include a general manager and maybe an executive chef.

Obviously the senate dining room is a bit fancier than the average corporate cafeteria, but the mind boggles at how they could get an average wage of $37k. Even at a high-end restaurant the average employee isn’t paid a whole lot. The people at the top are paid better and waitresses receive bigger tips, but base wages for cooks and whatnot are still well under anything needed to hit that payroll figure.

14 MH June 10, 2008 at 1:50 pm

The MEAN pay may be 37k, but what is the MEDIAN pay? It would not surprise me to learn that two or three people at the top were bringing the average way up.

15 meter June 10, 2008 at 2:24 pm

Scott, seems fair to expect that, yes.

It’s more than a bit hypocritical to rail against a) unions and b) job/wage protectionism when one is a) basically in one, for all intents and purposes, and b) privileged enough to have a cushy lil’ safety net and a job not in jeopardy of being outsourced or undercut by cheap immigrant labor.

16 12345 June 10, 2008 at 2:59 pm

meter has a valid point. In fact, I’ve noticed that a lot of so-called Libertarians tend to be pretty inconsistent in what they believe and espouse for every one else, and what they actually practice themselves in their daily lives. For example, I really wonder how many Libertarian/free marketers actually work for the federal government or are fairly dependent on them for a source of income. I’m sure there are many more examples, that’s just the first that comes to mind. It seems contradictory to me, and undercuts their arguments.

17 Braden June 10, 2008 at 4:19 pm


Public-domain research benefits everyone in society. The Senate cafeteria does not.

18 meter June 10, 2008 at 4:32 pm


This intrigues me. I often see libertarians criticized for thinking the solution to everything is a market. Now you criticize Alex for not thinking the solution to everything is a market.”

Wrong. I criticize him, above all else, for inconsistent thought and for hypocrisy in his proscriptions for society; for failing to practice what he pr/teaches.

19 Scott Scheule June 10, 2008 at 4:41 pm


Ok. I was confused. I asked: “if someone supports a free market in one situation that commits them to supporting it in all situations?”

You responded: “…seems fair to expect that, yes.”

Which I believe I accurately restated as “Now you criticize Alex for not thinking the solution to everything is a market.”

But apparently what you intended was more along the lines of: people who believe in a free market in one field should also believe in a free market in the field in which they personally work. I suppose you could say that the particular field Alex works in has no market failures that require any of the list of market interventions you listed, and as such, should be treated the same as cafeteria work. But seems an appeal to some positive externality from education would be available to the professor in a way it’s not to the cafeteria worker.

20 Chris June 10, 2008 at 5:01 pm

It is not inconsistent to say that government doesn’t need to do X while working in a field that government subsidizes.

I don’t know for certain, but I don’t believe that Alex would argue that government is required to subsidize or even run Universities. The fact that he benefits from this is really besides the point.

21 Mike Huben June 10, 2008 at 5:26 pm

Meter’s point about the irony of libertarians with tenure sucking at the government tit (and at the conservative welfare tit at the same time) is quite appropriate. I have a section of Critiques Of Libertarianism for them:
Criticisms of George Mason U. Economics (and Mercatus)

22 M1EK June 10, 2008 at 6:09 pm

The hypocrisy comes from railing against people who have negotiated what seems like excessive job security, pay, and benefits through collective bargaining or other methods of that sort while enjoying excessive job security called “tenure”.

23 meter June 10, 2008 at 6:33 pm


All due respect, I think you are not accurately articulating accepted libertarian groupthink (in as much as there is such a thing.)

Even were you, don’t you in your heart of hearts see some rather morally and intellectually bankrupt hairsplitting in that rationale?

PS – I am not affiliated with Mike Huben

24 meter June 10, 2008 at 6:45 pm

How about the history of unions/organized labor? Maybe slightly older than tenure?

25 q June 10, 2008 at 6:50 pm

meter, it’s easy to play this game. Everyone does their best to profit from the current set of institutions; this shouldn’t estop them from making legitimate criticisms of those institutions.

26 meter June 10, 2008 at 7:04 pm

Yes, I agree that this game is easy: punching holes in libertarianism is made all the easier when its staunchest proponents choose not to live by its tenets when in this instance it seems simple to do so: teach at a private institution that does not rely on government cheese to pay your salary and retirement benefits

Doesn’t seem that difficult a proposition to me, honestly.

I wonder how a person can in good faith preach an ‘ism’ and patronize pretty much the biggest thing he rails against.

On top of that, to begrudge others for looking out for their own collective best economic interests (e.g. the criticisms of those opposed to unfettered free trade, outsourcing, open borders, and so on) while taking advantage of tenure…just seems – no, it is – contradictory.

27 yo June 10, 2008 at 7:11 pm

The restaurats of the senate of the USA were public? Cynics…

28 James June 10, 2008 at 8:06 pm


How on Earth does Alex’s behavior punch holes in a body of policy prescriptions? If you had anything resembling facts on your side, you could address the claims Alex makes rather than resorting to ad hominem attacks.

29 Chris June 10, 2008 at 8:12 pm

To use another example – I do not think that health insurance should be subsidized – yet it is – does this mean that I should refrain from purchasing insurance because the government is subsidizing it?

That argument is simply ludicrous – I am not going to beggar myself or put my family at risk because I benefit from public policy that I disagree with.

You can look across the political spectrum and see this is true on the right, left and center.

30 Rex Rhino June 10, 2008 at 11:24 pm

Since government at all levels consumes or directs consumption (indirectly through mandates, tax-policy, etc.) of most GDP, it would be hard *NOT* to work for the government, or a company with government contracts, or a company that gets government subsidies, or an industry highly regulated by government, etc. The United States is a society where virtually no economic activity escapes the realm of government control. The government assures that no enterprise, public or private, can exist without the patronage of a politician to divvy out subsidies, contracts, loans, regulatory exemptions, licenses, etc.

Maybe drug dealers don’t work for the government. But then again, even drug dealers enjoy government subsidies in the form of restrictions on supply.

So chiding libertarians for not living a pure libertarian lifestyle is stupid. It is as impossible to live a libertarian lifestyle in the modern day United States. In fact, we would probably be thrown in prison for trying.

31 Dano June 11, 2008 at 1:22 am

meter writes,

“If you cannot see the inherent irony of a publicly-funded professor who constantly proselytizes against the evils of taxation and government subsidies …”

I work for a private institution … does it follow from your statement that my socialist co-workers have the same inherent irony?

32 Alistair Morley June 11, 2008 at 8:31 am

Heya Meter,

We’re in danger of tying together several points here, so I’ll try and refute your position on any of 3 steps.

1) Libertarian Principles

No, I don’t think I’m misrepresenting mainstream libertarian opinion; say, Friedman or Nozick. Can you identify the libertarian thinker and specific argument that condemn me?

2) Seeking/Accepting Government jobs is NOT hypocrisy for Libertarians

Libertarians are opposed to the use of force in human transactions. There is no force involved in my seeking/accepting a government post. Ergo, morally valid. Simple. Libertarians condemn the government for creating the posts in the first place (or rather because of the taxes they ultimately require to fund ). As Chris has pointed out, Libertarianism does NOT say you can’t act selfishly in a corrupt system, it says that the system should be reformed.

I’m sorry if this seems like hair-splitting to you. Referencing both logic and class theory, may I suggest that a categorisation made on the basis of meaningful defintions with high accuracy cannot be considered hairsplitting? Like the difference between murder and euthanasia.

3) Hypocritical Libertarians do NOT invalidate Libertarianism

I freely grant you that situation is ironic. But ironic is not an argument against the syllogistic truth of a proposition. For the third time, I’d stress that failings of individual libertarians does not constitute an argument against libertarian principles. Any more than say, the existance of millionaire socialists invalidate socialism. To put it even more simply, there are two prepositions here:

1) “Libertarians are often hypocrites”
2) “Libertarianism is false/evil”

You are arguing for ‘1’. ‘2’ does not follow from ‘1’. Saying that ‘2’ follows from ‘1’ is false and ad hominem. At the risk of repeating myself, could I check you are familiar with the fallacy involved?

As always, I will happily be proven wrong in argument, if you can lay one out. But in refusing to acknowledge the ad-hom point you’re now in danger of Bad Faith. Which is far worse in the eyes of thinking men…

33 meter June 11, 2008 at 10:17 am

“To put it even more simply, there are two prepositions here:

1) “Libertarians are often hypocrites”
2) “Libertarianism is false/evil”

You are arguing for ‘1’. ‘2’ does not follow from ‘1’. Saying that ‘2’ follows from ‘1’ is false and ad hominem. At the risk of repeating myself, could I check you are familiar with the fallacy involved?”

Those are propositions, not prepositions. I trust you understand the difference? (I can be condescending too).

To your point, I am not arguing 2 in this thread. I am arguing 1 and 1 alone. Please reread my posts.

34 meter June 11, 2008 at 10:30 am

Alistair Buckley (sic):

You also define libertarianism thusly:

“Libertarians are opposed to the use of force in human transactions.”

Reading comments in these threads for the past year+ from avowed libertarians, that’s not the long and the short of it. You’re being disingenuous.

What of the notion that government doesn’t have the right to impose taxation on its citizenry? (hardcore)
What of the notion of a (very) limited government? (less hardcore)


35 meter June 11, 2008 at 12:48 pm

I’m not a libertarian.

36 lxm June 12, 2008 at 8:42 pm

$37/hr for the workers in a cafeteria does sound a bit excessive, but who cares? If the cafeteria had been providing good food and good service there would be no issue here.

Now who is responsible for the lousy food? Why the management of the cafeteria is, that’s who, not the workers who do not make the decisions.

Let’s get the focus where it belongs. It’s another management failure, not a worker failure.

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