The War on Workers’ Rights

by Corey Robin on May 19, 2014

I have an oped in the New York Times on the Republican war on workers’ rights at the state level. My conclusion:

The overall thrust of this state legislation is to create workers who are docile and employers who are empowered. That may be why Republican legislators in Idaho, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, Ohio, Minnesota, Utah and Missouri have been so eager to ease restrictions on when and how much children can work. High schoolers should learn workplace virtues, says the conservative commentator Ben Stein, like “not talking back.” Early exposure to employment will teach 12-year-olds, as the spokesman of an Idaho school district put it, that “you have to do what you’re asked, what your supervisor is telling you.”

And if workers don’t learn that lesson in junior high, recent Republican changes to state unemployment codes will ensure that they learn it as adults. In 2011, Florida stipulated that any employee fired for “deliberate violation or disregard of the reasonable standards of behavior which the employer expects” would be ineligible for unemployment benefits. Arkansas passed a similar amendment (“violation of any behavioral policies of the employer”). The following year so did South Carolina (“deliberate violations or disregard of standards of behavior which the employer has the right to expect”) and Tennessee. The upshot of these changes is that any employee breaking the rules of her employer — be they posting comments about work on Facebook, dating a co-worker or an employee from a rival firm, going to the bathroom without permission — can be fired and denied unemployment. Faced with that double penalty, any worker might think twice about crossing her boss.

What might Adam Smith, often claimed as the intellectual godfather of the American right, have said about these legislative efforts? “Whenever the legislature attempts to regulate the differences between masters and their workmen,” wrote Smith in “The Wealth of Nations,” “its counsellors are always the masters. When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters.”


The oped is based on Gordon Lafer’s eye-opening report last fall for the Economic Policy Institute, “The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards, 2011-2012,” which you should also read.



John Quiggin 05.19.14 at 3:42 am

Just saw this in the NYT. Great stuff!


Belle Waring 05.19.14 at 6:09 am

Congrats Corey! Right on!


Brett 05.19.14 at 6:23 am

I’d heard about Florida writing an ALEC-“override” bill on paid sick time off, but not about that appalling bill to void local anti-wage theft efforts – or the “character” laws for denying unemployment insurance (something ALEC and its ilk have wanted to gut forever).

And yet it still seems hard to really get people out against this in force, in unionization efforts and in the streets for legal and illegal strikes/boycotts/protests. Sure there are some like the OUR Walmart and McDonald’s, but the absolute numbers aren’t great. I don’t get it.


shah8 05.19.14 at 7:09 am

From the Jacobin to the New York Times. Mebbe Corey’s doing the Ezra!

Anyways, I do not think this will be a sustainable trend. Either a reverse of the legal trend towards weaker worker rights, or some sort of compensationary regime will be installed. It’s basically just a tad too obvious (politically) and injurious (economically) to the bottom line of the upper elites to allow lower elites to repress wage. If one rejiggers the Dual-Sector model a bit [pulling labor from pool of growing transient labor instead of overpopulated rural areas (zero marginal productivity to available projects of positive utility); services instead of manufacturing; capitalist expansion is in terms of financial products rather than stock (think GM and profits from loans rather than cars before 2008)]. The financialization of the economy is such that what matters is surplus financial rents available from investable projects.

Japanification is the Lewis Turning Point of the post-industrial age. There’s no real rent available anymore, just ever larger deflationary circle jerks that will continue until political situation destabilizes to the point that the rentier class shrinks. Both the slumlord and the army recruiter are going to see, and not like, the consequences of ever-decreasing take-home wages.

Given just how unsustainable the Republican position is, even in state and local affairs, I think that this reveals an ideology that is all but stiff while that rigor mortis holds. So I’m wondering what’s the long term rearrangement of conservative ideology might turn out to be. 2014 might turn out to be a winner for the GOP, but I suspect it’s going to be the last one, in the absence of de-democratization.


Tim Worstall 05.19.14 at 8:48 am

One almost trivial detail:

“That same year, Maine legislators passed a bill declaring that “service charges” were not tips at all. Because they aren’t tips, they don’t belong to the serving staff. Employers can pocket them — without informing customers — whether they redistribute them among the staff or keep them.”

My detailed knowledge of the law surrounding tips is 30 years out of date for the US as it’s that long since I did the job there. But this was always understood to be the basic rule anyway. And I did more investigation of it in the UK in a formal sense and found out that it was a Common Law rule. If it’s a charge being made by the establishment then yes, obviously that belongs to the establishment. So this Maine law seems more like a statutory confirmation of the previous legal position rather than a change in it.

Tips are tips and belong to the people they were given to (and thus, for example, do not pay sales tax but do pay income tax) and service charges are simply revenue to the establishment (and thus do pay sales taxes).

And a slight quibble with this:

“In 2011, Florida stipulated that any employee fired for “deliberate violation or disregard of the reasonable standards of behavior which the employer expects” would be ineligible for unemployment benefits.”

The change in the law is explained here:

I’d welcome correction if I’m reading this the wrong way but my reading is that a firing for misconduct always did lead to no unemployment bennies. What changed here was the definition of misconduct. And this particular portion seems reasonable enough:

“A willful and deliberate violation of a standard or regulation of this state by an employee of an employer licensed or certified by this state, which violation would cause the employer to be sanctioned or have its license or certification suspended by this state.”


Belle Waring 05.19.14 at 12:35 pm

Tim Worstall: you misunderstand the “service charge” law; it is a significant and terrible change to the law. The issue with the tips is that for various types of parties and in varying restaurants, customers must pay “service charges” in lieu of “tips.” (Strictly speaking one may tip on top of a service charge, but it don’t happen: see below.) So, for example, many–I’d venture to say most, below a certain price level–restaurants have a rule that if you have a party of eight or more you must pay a “service charge” of 15%. This is to counter the well-known problem that large groups split the bill among themselves in a miserly fashion, so that often the tip is incredibly low. Think about your own experiences–whoever physically picks up the check often doesn’t even get enough to cover the entire tab, even after everyone claims to have paid for everything they ordered. All waitstaff hate big parties!

Also, at lower-cost-restaurants (where the tips are lowest to begin with), the clientele kind of has a psychological ceiling for tips–maybe no one is ever going to tip more than $20 at that local place, even if they had a birthday party for Aunt Ernestine with 14 people, and they ended up spending $300 all told. And then there are plenty of restaurants that have service charges for other reasons or occasions. And no one ever adds on more money when they look at the credit card slip and see: the total, then the taxes, then the “15% service charge.” No one. It’s like the restaurant tipped the waitress for you. And generally until now that’s what happened, I think. At more expensive restaurants there is tip pooling and the tips are shared out among the waitstaff, people bussing tables, line cooks sometimes, maitre’d, bartender. But at inexpensive restaurants the cooks and dishwashers are getting minimum wage, at least, while the waitstaff is making like $2 an hour. Under this law all the restaurant owner has to do is start charging “service charges” and she can pocket everything, and the poor waiter will still have to pay taxes based on the hypothetical tips he didn’t get. This is seriously fucked up.


engels 05.19.14 at 1:23 pm



hix 05.19.14 at 2:06 pm

Ive got a mandatory course right now that is solely focused on turning us into either bosses that disregard any laws or ethical standards or submisive workdrones. Every lecture is an assesment center simulation where youre either the boss and forced to permantly ask question that breach German labour law (health status, children…) , or youre on the other side and supposed to play the obedient beggar that just takes everything.


Alex 05.19.14 at 2:36 pm

My detailed knowledge of the law surrounding tips is 30 years out of date for the US as it’s that long since I did the job there.

Why not shut up then?


Tim Worstall 05.19.14 at 2:44 pm

Belle, I do understand the system, I spent near a decade doing the job myself, everything from the graveyard shift at Denny’s to places with a couple of Michelin stars. So I understand it in the manner that someone whose living depended upon understanding it does (as opposed to the Upton Sinclair quote about someone’s living depending upon not understanding something). And I even went around checking on the law (with the Inland Revenue, the VATman and so on) when at university exactly because I found an employer ripping us off over the division of tips (in detail, a tronc system where management charged the pool VAT and national insurance: most naughty as tips were not subject to both of those while a service charge was).

“The issue with the tips is that for various types of parties and in varying restaurants, customers must pay “service charges” in lieu of “tips.” (Strictly speaking one may tip on top of a service charge, but it don’t happen: see below.) So, for example, many–I’d venture to say most, below a certain price level–restaurants have a rule that if you have a party of eight or more you must pay a “service charge” of 15%.”

It’s usually 7 or more. Anything that means using more than a four and a two top to seat the party.

And it’s that “must” there that is the problem. It has always been true that a must pay charge is not a tip. It’s revenue to the person who is insisting that you pay it: in this case the restaurant. There might well be very strong pressure to insist that you must pay that 15% party charge, there might be very strong social pressure and so on but there isn’t and hasn’t ever been a legal necessity to pay it. Simply because that legal requirement to pay it moves it from being a tip over to being revenue to the restaurant.

“But at inexpensive restaurants the cooks and dishwashers are getting minimum wage, at least, while the waitstaff is making like $2 an hour. Under this law all the restaurant owner has to do is start charging “service charges” and she can pocket everything, and the poor waiter will still have to pay taxes based on the hypothetical tips he didn’t get.”

Taxes on tips don’t work quite that way. The assumption is (came out of Jimmy Carter’s war on the three martini business lunch, yes I was doing this sort of stuff that long ago) that you’ll be tipped 7% of your sales tabs. So if you don’t declare that, and the restaurant will be telling the IRS what your sales have been, then there’s going to be a presumption that you’re not telling the truth about your earnings. However, if you can point out that the restaurant is charging a service charge and that therefore you’re not getting tips them no tax will be due.

Oh, and if you’re still being paid $2 an hour and not getting tips then the restaurant owner is going to get sued by the same IRS for not paying the minimum wage. For the sub-minimum *must* be made up to at least minimum by tips or management has to pay the waitron units more.


Metatone 05.19.14 at 2:55 pm

I think it was John Q who had the threads about the culture of the South in the USA. One of the key points was that a lot of the political dynamics are about local elites maintaining their control over the rest. These employment regulations seem ripe for abuse in service of that purpose.


Metatone 05.19.14 at 2:57 pm

On tips – perhaps the law needs to change? In the credit card era, I’m sure many people don’t always have the cash to hand to make a decent tip – that’s part of why the credit card machines added the “gratuity” element.

But if you’re saying that “legally” anything collected by “the house” is property of the house, then there’s some subtle fraud going on…


engels 05.19.14 at 3:04 pm

Tim Worstall: you misunderstand

Four words that were never before truly written [/weary sarcasm]


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© 05.19.14 at 3:11 pm

Congratulations, Corey.

I will add that this war has more support than just the GOP. NAFTA didn’t turn out well for workers. and our President campaigned against it in 2008. Then he secretly resumed negotiations on NAFTA on steroids (the TPP and its European equivalent) in the fall of 2009.

You mention the 2010 elections. What happened to Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy?

First Tim Kaine and then Debbie Wasserman Schultz, our President’s picks for DNC chair.

The Dems are going to lose in 2014, bigtime. And the usual suspects will be blamed: Ralph Nader, Glenn Greenwald, FireDogLake, etc.

The real culprits will be the cynical corporatists who control the Democratic party. And they’ll be crying all the way to the banks, as usual.


CarlD 05.19.14 at 3:13 pm

Well, they’ve read or reinvented their Gibbon. The empire must strike back before it is eroded from within by the decline of discipline and civic virtue, and by the outsourcing of basic functions to poorly assimilated barbarians.

I will say, as a (now) old lefty with a reflexive disdain for the masters and nostalgia for the good old days of robust working class virtue, that ‘the kids these days’ I see in my classes, many of them from working class backgrounds dressed up as petty-bourgeois aspiration, tend to be pretty short on the dispositions of competence that any kind of effective action, critical or otherwise, requires. So I don’t doubt that they go out into the work world and shock the masters with their comprehensive uselessness. I’m inclined to see this as the hegemonic chickens coming home to roost, after decades of buying off class struggle with consumer culture. And I don’t think getting tough in the workplace is going to fix that.


bianca steele 05.19.14 at 3:15 pm

In Tim’s defense, restaurant patrons’ understandings of the law is also most likely not up to date. I suspect many people would refuse to pay the 15-20% service charge for a large party if they did not believe it would be distributed as tips. As Belle stated, something has gone very wrong here.


djw 05.19.14 at 3:41 pm

Nicely done!


Patrick 05.19.14 at 4:09 pm

Tim Worstall- re the minimum wage for untipped servers issue- this isn’t going to result in servers working for $2/hour without tips. They’ll still work for $2/hour with tips. But when the big groups come in, they will pay a service charge and not tip for that specific transaction. So money will still be lost. It’s basically a stealth pay cut to people who don’t make much.

And the fact that they will do so based on an intentional effort to mislead customers about a social custom is pretty awful.


bianca steele 05.19.14 at 4:13 pm

Uh, that was Tim’s defense @5 and in reply to Alex@9. This “There might well be very strong pressure to insist that you must pay that 15% party charge, there might be very strong social pressure and so on but there isn’t and hasn’t ever been a legal necessity to pay [a ‘must pay charge’],” is one of those, “this is a very interesting factual question and I need it to be true to make my case, but whether it is or not is a trivial question of fact for a jury to resolve.” I give Belle credit for drawing that out.


engels 05.19.14 at 4:23 pm

If it’s a charge being made by the establishment then yes, obviously that belongs to the establishment.

Not really obvious, if the payee expects it to be passed on…


engels 05.19.14 at 4:35 pm

I mean ‘payer’.


js. 05.19.14 at 4:42 pm

Oh, and if you’re still being paid $2 an hour and not getting tips then the restaurant owner is going to get sued by the same IRS for not paying the minimum wage.

Indeed. And this totally happens all the time! All. The. Time.


js. 05.19.14 at 4:44 pm

Oh, and Corey, great piece. Cheers!


geo 05.19.14 at 4:47 pm

Magnificent piece. I expect the Times editorial board is meeting in special session at this very moment to consider whether to fire Thomas Friedman and give Corey his slot on the Op-Ed page.


Shirley0401 05.19.14 at 4:52 pm

Tim Worstall@10
You don’t honestly believe the “restaurant owner is going to get sued by the same IRS for not paying the minimum wage,” do you?
“…‘the kids these days’ I see in my classes, many of them from working class backgrounds dressed up as petty-bourgeois aspiration…”
I think you’ve hit on something here.
I know I’m not the first person to point this out, but for many “kids these days,” the internalization of the systems of control is so close to complete, I sometimes wonder if they even want to think about the possibility that other systems are possible. Foucault, unsurprisingly preciently, had some things to say about this, well before technology kicked the process into overdrive.
I do some work with adolescents; it’s interesting, if disheartening, to watch it in action. There is almost no consideration on the part of many (though, thankfully, not all) of these kids that the way things are doesn’t have to be the way things will be. Consumption and passivity are part of it, as are fear and insecurity, to be sure. But in the 15-odd years since I was anything that could pass for a young person, there has been a shift: the idea of solidarity, or even social responsibility, has been eroded to the point where any value it has is as something to which one occasionally will pay lip-service, in order to get something in return. (Community service is done to get into college. Any actual benefit to the community is often a secondary concern, if a concern at all.)
Everyone’s first question seems to be some version of, “what’s in it for me?” I wasn’t around, or paying attention, but I imagine there used to be a much larger percentage of the population that also (at least) considered what was in it for “us.” (It following that what was best for us would also likely lead to more favorable outcomes for me and others in my position.)


adam.smith 05.19.14 at 5:08 pm

In case anyone thinks Tim Worstall can be trusted with details:

My detailed knowledge of the law surrounding tips is 30 years out of date for the US as it’s that long since I did the job there.

to places with a couple of Michelin stars.


In November 2005 Michelin produced its first American guide

(this, by the way, isn’t obscure knowledge for anyone who is even remotely interested in the restaurant industry and it comes triply embarrassing when used to inflate ones own credentials and in a post that emphasizes the importance of details).


Bernard Yomtov 05.19.14 at 5:15 pm

Good piece, Corey.

Tim Worstall,

I don’t get your comments on the service charge. From my point of view, as a customer, I assume that the reason for the service charge for large parties is to avoid the risk of the service staff getting an unreasonably small tip for a large amount of work. It’s a mandatory tip, in other words.

Are you advancing some thin legality to suggest that the customer should not regard this as tip, but as a surcharge on the meal, and provide a tip in addition, even though the added-on amount is generally labeled a “service charge?”


Barry 05.19.14 at 5:26 pm

Tim: “Oh, and if you’re still being paid $2 an hour and not getting tips then the restaurant owner is going to get sued by the same IRS for not paying the minimum wage.”

Corey, please forgive my rudeness, but it’s justified, I feel.

Tim, just STFU:

1) In terms of plausibility, you are at the point where you might as well be saying something ‘don’t worry if somebody has no medical insurance, charity will take care of the odd $100K’.

2) The IRS does not deal with minimum wage issues. Their job is to collect taxes. The Department of Labor (or more likely, the state equivalent) worries about wage issues.

Furthermore, I’ve eaten with a number of large parties, and in no cases was the ‘service charge’ viewed as anything other than a tip.


JW Mason 05.19.14 at 5:39 pm

‘the kids these days’ I see in my classes, many of them from working class backgrounds dressed up as petty-bourgeois aspiration, tend to be pretty short on the dispositions of competence that any kind of effective action, critical or otherwise, requires. So I don’t doubt that they go out into the work world and shock the masters with their comprehensive uselessness.

That’s funny. The kids I see in my classes, almost all from working-class backgrounds, are sometimes academically underprepared and often overburdened with full-time jobs on top of heavy class loads. But they are almost uniformly serious, disciplined, energetic, curious about the world and genuinely eager to learn. I don’t know from petty-bourgois aspiration, but I do know that most of these kids are way more capable of useful work than I was in college.

Probably you’re just a bad teacher.


JW Mason 05.19.14 at 5:42 pm

Oh and — fantastic piece, Corey.


john c. halasz 05.19.14 at 5:48 pm

OT, but more from our mutual friend:

You be the judge.


Map Maker 05.19.14 at 6:38 pm

Well, like Debt, it is the thought that counts with Corey, not the details, so let’s not get all up-in-the-face with Tim pointing out problems with Corey’s facts.

In the US, the commie loving surrender monkeys were never popular. We used the Mobil Restaurant guide, which was bought by Forbes in the 2000s:

A 5 star Mobil rating was considering superior to a Michelin guide back in the day….


CarlD 05.19.14 at 6:41 pm

JWM @29, no doubt you’re right. I think just about anyone would feel like a good teacher with students like that. In fact when I get one, which does happen from time to time, my quality as a teacher skyrockets.

On second thought, another possibility is that your standards are very, very low, and you’re part of the problem. And another is that I and @25 are reporting from a different demographic than you’re used to, which might help provide a little material grounding to the present ideological kerfuffle.


Ronan(rf) 05.19.14 at 6:50 pm

” UKIP calls for pauperisation of waitron units “


Bruce Wilder 05.19.14 at 7:29 pm

An excellent piece.

I skimmed through the comments, before I read the op-ed at the NY Times. I think we all know Worstall’s schtick by now, but I am aware that there’s some legitimate controversy over tipping and its potential to be a corrosive factor in a restaurant’s internal politics and management. I thought Corey Robin held the focus on workers’ rights and the ways in which legislation seeks to exploit loopholes in exactly the right way, never exposing his argument to the kind of distraction that Worstall tried to create. Well done.

On the issue of whether “the kidz are alright” or should just get off my lawn, I don’t think they are alright. Obviously, they find themselves in another country from the one their parents or grandparents grew up in. (And, that’s true if the country is the U.S. or Spain or Japan, etc.) They cannot imagine that world, and its unfathomable confidence in ideals of fairness, even ideals denied or broken in hypocritical practice. They cannot imagine the felt sense of solidarity, associated with belonging to even a out-group or living in a ghetto of one sort of another. They cannot imagine a world in which ideology was embraced with passionate sincerity.

They are going to have invent something new. My nostalgia is little help as a model, and that’s not their fault. I’m sorry that they have to be inventing, because they will have to live through the breakdown, and that’s rough. The “system” will falter. The system is breaking down — Ukraine, Turkey, Syria, Thailand, Venezuela, Brazil, Spain, China.

Much of the economy is being reinvented with less hierarchy and more surveillance and control and it will inevitably be clumsy control as it is new, and, then, it will develop rapidly. I cannot imagine this brave new world for them. Corey Robin’s excellent op-ed is another datapoint among many marking out the emerging awareness of on-going class war. The invention of vehicles of countervailing power, as we termed them back in the day, had better start soon.

I see some reasons to hope for them. In the U.S., at least, I see that young people in their twenties are more social and team-oriented and less individualist or egoist than people now in their forties and fifties were. It’s an impression; I don’t know if that could be documented with objective, observable facts, but I think maybe it could. The young people I know are remarkably well-prepared, I think, to organize in response to the breakdown and dysfunction of the decrepit old order. That they don’t understand the old order seems regrettable to me, in my nostalgia, but it’s no a practical obstacle, because the old order cannot be repaired; it must be reinvented in any case.


Dr. Hilarius 05.19.14 at 7:33 pm

Tim Worstall’s comment @ 10: “There might well be very strong pressure to insist that you must pay that 15% party charge, there might be very strong social pressure and so on but there isn’t and hasn’t ever been a legal necessity to pay it. Simply because that legal requirement to pay it moves it from being a tip over to being revenue to the restaurant.”

If Mr. Worstall thinks that paying a stated “party charge” isn’t a legal necessity he is absolutely wrong. I have seen individuals charged and convicted of theft for refusing to pay those charges. Restaurants state service charges on their menus. And just yesterday I heard someone say that they don’t tip for room service at hotels if the room service bill includes a set service charge. It’s a real issue.


Townsend Harris 05.19.14 at 7:49 pm

The explosive growth of computers as cash registers has an upside for restaurant workers and taxi drivers in New York City: riders and diners get bills with three pre-computed percentages of the subtotal (for example, 15%, 18%, 20% of the before-sales-tax subtotal at Coogan’s Bar in Washington Heights; 20%, 25%, and 30% of the total fare in all medallion and boro taxis). Waitresses hate that their middle suggested percentage is so low, while cabbies love it that theirs is so much higher.


Matt 05.19.14 at 10:01 pm

OT, but more from our mutual friend:

You be the judge.

The minimal version of Peak Oil is a prosaic observation like this: oil is being extracted from the Earth faster than it is created, individual oil wells have a production curve that reaches a peak and then declines, ergo at some point global oil extraction will itself reach a peak and then decline. A more expansive version of Peak Oil may include predictions about when that global peak will be reached, based on past trends, and those specific dates may indeed be put off by changing technology as Mr. Worstall asserts. Global production is still (slowly) climbing even though a number of people expected peak a few years in the past. Changing technology can’t actually prevent an eventual peak, though, since it’s still a non-renewable resource however it’s extracted.

I think Mr. Worstall does a better job on making the case for “EROEI is nonsense” — or at least EROEI doesn’t tell you much. In Texas wind power has an EROEI greater than 20:1, considerably better than new oil sources coming online. The unsubsidized instantaneous cost of energy from wind in Texas is less than $50 per megawatt hour, and a megawatt hour (3.6 gigajoules) is energetically equivalent to about 30 gallons of gasoline. Why are any Texans still trying to produce more oil and turn it in to gasoline when wind delivers energy at better EROEI and lower costs than new oil plays? Because only a tiny portion of cars can run on electricity at present. No passenger jets can run on electricity. You can’t load a tanker with electricity and send it across the Gulf of Mexico. Liquid hydrocarbons will continue to be used as a very energy dense “battery” even if EROEI declines below 1:1, because legacy transportation can’t consume coal or electricity in place of liquids, just as humans can consume ruminant animals but not grass. It would be a lot more energetically efficient if we could eat grass directly, but we can’t.


PJW 05.19.14 at 10:44 pm

Great piece. Congrats. I remember details of your writing on labor issues from pieces you have posted here the past couple of years and when I share them with friends and family, they are often surprised things are the way they are. Appreciate your work.


David 05.19.14 at 10:47 pm

I always come to CT for insightful commentary from the UKIP.


bxg 05.19.14 at 11:53 pm

> suspect many people would refuse to pay the 15-20% service charge for a large party if they did not believe it would be distributed as tips

I’m sure so. But on the other hand many OTHER people (count me as one) are probably delighted by this and are motivated to come back again: the restauranteur (shock! horror!) _tells me what I should pay for the meal_ when I asked her that specific question. So that’s what I pay.

I didn’t need to think about how to break down my total payment into various sub-payments to … waiters, the chefs, the janitors, the landlord, and all the various supplies (indeed I didn’t need to spend much time thinking about who those suppliers even are!). I paid what was asked, and part of that payment was the convenience of just having a meal without having to think about how to run a restaurant business myself.


MPAVictoria 05.20.14 at 1:49 am

Shorter CarlD: Those damn kids are on my lawn again.


MPAVictoria 05.20.14 at 1:56 am

“Shorter CarlD: Those damn kids are on my lawn again.”

Seriously man if any generation really sucked it was the boomers.

The kids today are actually pretty great.


krippendorf 05.20.14 at 2:47 am

CT readers might be interested in research by Annette Bernhardt and colleagues on wage theft and other violations of labor law among low-wage workers (primarily in the service sector) in 4 major US cities. It’s not an especially easy population to study, at least where the goal is to secure reasonably reliable estimates of the prevalence of wage theft. The data were collected in 2008.

Non-firewalled version of the report is .

The peer-reviewed articles are subscription only. See, e.g., “Employers Gone Rogue: Explaining Industry Variation in Violations of Workplace Laws.” 2013. Industrial and Labor Relations Review 66(4). (Bernhardt, Michael Spiller, and Nik Theodore).

“All Work and No Pay: Violations of Employment and Labor Laws in America’s Biggest Cities.” 2013. Social Forces doi: 10.1093/sf/sos193. (Bernhardt, Michael Spiller, and Diana Polson).


krippendorf 05.20.14 at 2:48 am

Sorry, messed up the tags. First URL should be:


Jason Weidner 05.20.14 at 3:33 am

I worked as a server for pretty much the whole decade of the 90s, and Worstall is full of shit. In most restaurants, gratuity is automatically included in parties of six or more. Whether there is a legal requirement to pay is of no consequence. Diners always pay it, and assume the tip is going to the servers, not the restaurant.


Rakesh 05.20.14 at 4:47 am

Lafer seems to be making an interesting political-strategic point–that once the public took the bait of breaking public sector unions putatively getting fat on the taxation of poor, non-unionized workers it became easier to count on public silence once the agenda was broadened as a general attack on private sector unions too and then on all kinds of workers and local, pro-worker ordinances.

In other words, Lafer seems to be implying that the attack on public sector workers served as a spearhead for a generalized attack on workers.

In politics, the sequence of actions counts, and it seems that Lafer is suggesting that the Republicans were clever in their sequencing of anti-worker initiatives.

I have only skimmed the piece–is Lafer suggesting this? Does it fit the record? Did the attack on public sector unions tend to come before the other anti-labor legislation?

Moreover, Lafer implies that even if public sector unions are inefficient in terms of neo-classical microeconomics, they may be the only force capable of resisting concentrated employer power on behalf of all workers.


Tim Worstall 05.20.14 at 7:04 am

@26. Yep, that’s a real gotcha.

“In November 2005 Michelin produced its first American guide”

I’m English and have lived and worked in both the UK and US.

“Whether there is a legal requirement to pay is of no consequence.”

But that’s exactly my point. It’s always been the case that if there’s a legal requirement to pay then it isn’t a tip, it’s a charge by the restaurant. That Maine law didn’t change the law, it merely confirmed it.


Main Street Muse 05.20.14 at 12:59 pm

Great op-ed Corey – we need more like this.

I am related to people who yearn for the 1950s, when men opened doors for women, who stayed home with the children. They forget the high taxes on the wealthy, unions (that their own parents joined) that protected workers and helped increase wages, and a lesser divide between most CEO and worker salaries.

I also think the Fed under Alan Greenspan did everything it could to contain wages in an effort to limit the dreaded wage/price spiral many blamed for the 1970s inflation crisis.

I live in a “right-to-work” state that has a high rate of poverty and an increasing number of people dropping out of the workforce all together. That’s what happens when unions are busted.


Barry 05.20.14 at 1:15 pm

Tim: “I’m English and have lived and worked in both the UK and US.”

The issue was US law and customs.


engels 05.20.14 at 1:31 pm

Wrongstall: It’s always been the case that if there’s a legal requirement to pay then it isn’t a tip, it’s a charge by the restaurant.

‘Always’ because according to your research it is a common law rule in England? And you know this has never been over-ridden by statute in Maine because….


The tips received by a service employee become the property of the employee and may not be shared with the employer. Tips that are automatically included in the customer’s bill or that are charged to a credit card must be treated like tips given to the service employee. A tip that is charged to a credit card must be paid by the employer to the employee by the next regular payday and may not be held while the employer is awaiting reimbursement from a credit card company.

Maine Revised Statutes


JW Mason 05.20.14 at 1:35 pm

cabbies love it that theirs is so much higher.

The thing is, that higher percentage didn’t just happen. The tip amounts were worked out through negotiations between the city and the organized drivers in the Taxi Workers Alliance.

That’s the other side of the bigger story and it’s equally important as the side Corey tells. Yes, the masters are always trying to use law and culture to turn rational human beings into malleable quanta of labor power. But they don’t always win. Workers have a lot of power when we act collectively. If you look at the overall balance between those who work versus those who own, it’s clear that since Smith’s time the masters have lost a lot more ground than they’ve gained.


bjk 05.20.14 at 2:33 pm

Lots of crocodile tears if nothing is done about immigration, the big corporations number #1 way to drive down wages and destroy unions. And in that long document, all we hear about immigration – even guest workers! – is that they don’t have enough rights. So guest workers OK! but gee, what happened to our unions? That’s a puzzler.


ThatDeborahGirl 05.20.14 at 2:56 pm

Sounds like the other states are just joining the party. Ohio has had this rule for a long time. The only way you can be granted unemployment is if you are laid off through “no fault of your own.” What this means is that if someone quits or is fired, the ex-mployer can and will dispute their unemployment claim and it will be denied.

So basically the only way you can get unemployment is if the company you are working for shuts down or you have a mass layoff through a union or something. Anything else and tough shit, you better go apply for welfare.

And for all that a “year” of unemployment benefits in Ohio only lasts 6 months. Yep, they have redefined the word “year” to mean 6 months. And it used to be that federal unemployment would kick in after that, but thanks to the asshole Republicans who won’t pass the bill t extend federal unemployment insurance, millions of people are jobless and without unemployment. And thanks the “able bodied adult work requirement” many are ineligible for welfare if they can’t or refuse to “volunteer” in exchange for foodtamps or benefits.

It’s an insidious fucking system and very soon, this country is going to feel the backlash.


SykesFive 05.20.14 at 4:33 pm

I see that there was some controversy concerning a previous poster’s comments; however, I do want to point out that Corey Robin’s discussion of service charges and tips is somewhat problematic.

In 2012, the IRS issued a ruling that the service charges added to restaurant bills are not tips. Even that money is given directly to tipped service staff, it still doesn’t become a tip: it’s part of the non-tip wage. This has significant compliance consequences because the restaurant must track and report its employees’ non-tip wages and subject them to withholding. This ruling took effect on January 1, 2014.

Here is the IRS ruling:

Here is recent IRS guidance:

As it stands, Maine law is directly opposed to federal law: a service charge is a tip according Maine but not according to the federal government. I think the Maine legislature is considering bringing its law into conformity with federal law so that restaurants and their employees can comply.

I don’t have any particular knowledge of how restaurants are complying, but my understanding is that many don’t think the compliance burden is worth it and are discontinuing mandatory service charges.


MPAVictoria 05.20.14 at 5:07 pm

Great article Corey.


SamChevre 05.20.14 at 5:10 pm

The tips received by a service employee become the property of the employee and may not be shared with the employer. Tips that are automatically included in the customer’s bill or that are charged to a credit card must be treated like tips given to the service employee.

In all the places I worked, that was understood as follows:

A tip that’s added to the bill is optional; it will always say so in the fine print on the menu. That’s because it’s a tip; tips legally must be optional.

If it’s a required, rather than optional, charge (like a Domino’s delivery fee) , then it belongs to the restaurant.

This matters to the restaurant because sales tax (and meal and restaurant tax, if any) is not paid on tips.


engels 05.20.14 at 5:31 pm

That’s because it’s a tip; tips legally must be optional.


SamChevre 05.20.14 at 5:39 pm

Follow your own link, why don’t you? Every legal cite and every newspaper story points out exactly what I noted above–if it’s a tip, it’s voluntary and belongs to the server; if it’s a mandatory charge, it’s not a tip, and belongs to the restaurant (and is subject to sales and FICA tax).


engels 05.20.14 at 5:52 pm

I did. Eg.:

But can you really unilaterally decide not to pay a “mandatory” tip?

The answer is not entirely clear. That’s because there is no uniform body of law that addresses tipping. Instead, we have to rely on case law, and these decisions depend upon specific facts in specific jurisdictions.


engels 05.20.14 at 5:56 pm

You’re just talking about tax rules, aren’t you?


SamChevre 05.20.14 at 6:08 pm

I’m focusing on tax rules, because they define the field within which everything else has to work; if you run afoul of the tax authorities, it gets very expensive very fast. (That’s a large reason tipping persists–taking out the 20%+ tax wedge (15% FICA and 5%+ sales/meal tax) is expensive to both restaurants and servers.)

And your quote above (“the answer is not entirely clear…”) is sort-of true (case law is never 100% clear), but I didn’t find any cites to a court finding that a tip could ever be mandatory, and multiple cites of court cases where tips were found to be definitionally optional .


TM 05.20.14 at 6:08 pm

TW, the last time I was charged a mandatory service charge, it was clearly after sales tax.

But you are right that IRS does NOT classify service charges as a tip. If they are distributed to workers, they count as wages, not tips. That actually seems to be a recent change. It used to be they counted as tips.


engels 05.20.14 at 6:53 pm

Just ask the American couple who not long ago refused to tip surly waiters at a pub in London, England. After finishing a meal and paying their tab without including a gratuity, the couple attempted to exit the pub but were physically restrained by the pub’s manager and employees. When the couple refused to relent, bobbies were called, and the tourists were treated to a ticket that included a hefty fine. Evidence if their crime was spelled out in black and white – the gratuity had been automatically added to the pub bill.

Then there is the recent case of the recalcitrant young couple in Pennsylvania who withheld a tip at a restaurant because they had to wait an hour and a half for their order. Not only were they cornered by restaurant staff, they were arrested on a charge of theft and fingerprinted by police because  – again – the restaurant bill clearly showed the gratuity was part of the fee for services. The fact that thuggish staff admitted to the slow service made no difference in the matter. At the time, one member of the staff said, “We were busy. We work our butts off for low wages. Who do these people think they are?”


novakant 05.20.14 at 7:26 pm

This whole tipping business can lead to all sorts of trouble (warning; graphic violence)

We should do away with it altogether and pay people decent wages.


TM 05.20.14 at 9:09 pm

As a correction to 63, I do remember that the charge was not specified as a “service charge” but as “gratuity” on the bill. Not sure what legal difference that makes but clearly, the patron is led to believe that this is just like a tip, except it’s involuntary.


TM 05.20.14 at 9:12 pm

[With an apology for participating in a fruitless sidetrack – let’s get back to the topic!]


engels 05.20.14 at 11:17 pm

a fruitless sidetrack

Agreed – apologies!


Alex O'connor 05.21.14 at 1:25 am

I wonder would those employment regulation fail under implied preemption or via interference / frustration of a federal objective. Just a thought


Shirley0401 05.21.14 at 1:17 pm

One last comment, re: “the kidz,” below.
@135 “They cannot imagine that world, and its unfathomable confidence in ideals of fairness, even ideals denied or broken in hypocritical practice. They cannot imagine the felt sense of solidarity, associated with belonging to even a out-group or living in a ghetto of one sort of another. They cannot imagine a world in which ideology was embraced with passionate sincerity.”
Thanks for writing this. I would have tried to make the point, but you said it better than I could have. And while it’s true that the type of kid one sees has a lot to do with the background of the particular kids, I’ve had the chance to work with students from many different schools, and from vastly different circumstances; one thing I hear an increasing amount (especially when I speak to graduating seniors) is reflection of the belief that one must look out for oneself, since nobody else will. There’s a significant amount of evidence they’re right, and I imagine their parents have probably hammered it into them, out of worry that if they take one wrong step, they’re damning themselves to a life of penury. So I don’t hold it against them, but that doesn’t keep me from being discouraged.
However, when you write that you “see that young people in their twenties are more social and team-oriented and less individualist or egoist than people now in their forties and fifties were,” I hope you’re right, but I also wonder about whether it’s true. I think they’ve adopted the patterns of speaking, and the buzzwords — which is potentially important, as the language we choose can affect our patterns of thinking — but the underlying team-orientation tends to be very temporary, flexible, and instrumental. I haven’t seen much evidence that it’s tied to a larger sense of identifying with a “class” or “movement,” or others who are not directly involved with the accomplishment of discrete projects/goals from which they expect to derive rewards. In that sense, I see it more as an extension of the drive for self-interest/self-protection than as anything resembling the solidarity I like to imagine being present in the labor movements that truly forced change. But I hope I’m wrong.
Side note: many of the students with whom I work are wonderful, kind, and generous towards the people in their lives. But in interactions with the wider world, I see a drive towards self-interest and self-preservation (with a consequent lack of much concern for implications of virtually anything beyond their own narrow self-interest) that I find upsetting.
Okay. I’ll stop now — one of them is probably dropping a gum wrapper on the floor somewhere.


MPAVictoria 05.21.14 at 1:53 pm

I am seriously appalled by the “Get off my Lawnism” being displayed by the folks posting here. Kids today are FAR more accepting of diversity then you were growing up. They are also, in my experience, more concerned about social justice and the environment. Their generation is not the problem, yours and your parents are.


CarlD 05.21.14 at 5:59 pm

I’d be sorry to belabor a dead point, but it’s at least on-topic enough to define with a little more care. Neither Shirley0401 nor I want the kids to get off our lawns. I thought I signaled that pretty clearly by telling that joke in my own post. We’re also not arbitrarily making shite up about some of the troubling consequences of how this generation was raised (I’ll grant fully that I and my generation suck in our own ways). See, e.g., here:

I don’t get JW Mason’s eager learners at my school, although I get plenty with undeveloped formal and intellectual skills and some with difficult lives. I get lots of kids who were raised on Fox, Rush, and Beck, who are frankly baffled by the notion that education could be anything but a series of humiliating hoops to jump through in order to earn a certificate of perseverence. I trust that it has been that for them and that they have strategized appropriately. But those strategies centrally include inattention, bluffing, passivity, and explicit expectation that I will elaborately and repeatedly walk them through the procedures of the bare minimum – barely ‘makessense-stop’ – so it does become a vivious circle.

It’s true they are good with diversity, as long as it doesn’t feel like it’s hurting them personally. They group up smoothly, willingly, and even productively, as long as the benefits to themselves are clear. A lot of my teaching is really more orienting them toward learning (or rather, embracing the project of figuring things out), and involves translating the collective goods of citizenship and the liberal arts into the discourses of personal benefit.

They are deeply passive and dependent. They wait to be told what to do, then wait to be told it again. As an illustration, I have an email now in my inbox from a parent seeking guidance on the course texts for next semester. Their titles, authors, publishers, editions, and isbns are listed on the official website it consulted, but somehow it needs my help to get the right books. I realize this is probably symptomatic of an anxiety response around an unfamiliar milieux and procedure, but that’s the point I’m making, right? This is not someone with the skills and dispositions of independence, adaptability, and competence; and by running interference for the kid, anxiously and incompetently, the trouble is being compounded into the next generation.

I play tennis with a bunch of businessy types. Country club sport and all that. When I ask them what they’re looking for in new hires, they say we’d just like basic skills and a willingness to learn. Wistfully, because that’s not what they’re getting. Well, I know what that looks like, and I can see where there might be a pushback on workplace discipline, although I think that just compounds the problem. My wife recently had a kid show up for an internship interview needing to be shown how to work the parking meter.

I don’t ‘blame’ these kids. I like them; they’re mostly charming and well-meaning; there’s nothing actually wrong with their brains. But it’s a very long, hard trajectory from where they are to effective, critical thinking, and that’s a subset of a larger deficit of attentive, responsible competence. So again, I think the legislators in the OP are responding to something real and troubling, although the way they’re doing it is real troubling.


CarlD 05.21.14 at 6:25 pm

Sorry, ‘vicious’ circle. Also, milieu.


MPAVictoria 05.21.14 at 6:30 pm

“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

Seriously CarlD, the kids today are no worse than the kids of 30 years ago and in may ways they are better. You are merely suffering the effects of being an old fart. Stop it.


David 05.21.14 at 6:45 pm

Any discussion of the characteristics of an entire generation strikes me as unscientific and usually self serving.


CarlD 05.21.14 at 8:39 pm

Hm. I’ve reported observations; they’ve been dismissed as ideology. A familiar impasse. I’ll grant that I had a particularly rough semester, with a particularly difficult batch. The dynamics of that were, as usual, complex, but my inputs of action and perception were important. Even so, I think I and Shirley have given you more to work with than ‘clueless old crank’, so when you don’t work with it it’s you who start to look reality-challenged.


Yama 05.21.14 at 8:45 pm

Carl – Bingo. It is not just the old farts that are set in thier ways.


MPAVictoria 05.21.14 at 8:50 pm

“Even so, I think I and Shirley have given you more to work with than ‘clueless old crank’, so when you don’t work with it it’s you who start to look reality-challenged”

No. You have given us nothing but the same old crap that old people have been saying about the kids since the dawn of time. It was true then and it isn’t true now.


MPAVictoria 05.21.14 at 9:31 pm

“It was true then and it isn’t true now.”

Well crap….

It WASN’T true then.


uffs 05.21.14 at 11:38 pm

I don’t see or hear about many companies willing to hire based upon “basic skills and a willingness to learn” in my neck of the woods. Long lists of experience requisites with regard to niche software/business practices for the promise of very low pay, poor treatment, and zero promotion potential is what I see. And even that description is generous as usually there is only demand for temps and interns.

I don’t necessarily find you (CarlD) to be guilty of “offmylawnism” but the peculiar characterization of your business acquaintances’ hiring preferences and procedures does not lend credibility to your point of view.


john c. halasz 05.22.14 at 4:04 am

O.K. Now that everyone has gotten their “normative” outrage done, (as if it were all due to those evil Repugs, and as if it hadn’t long been happening, by both halves of the neo-liberal duopoly, except not to the “experiences “of the median commenter here), I will respond to Matt @ 38 above, having avoided any thread-jacking.

Do you really want to defend the silliness of the Tim Worstall column I linked to? So the EROEI of a loaf of bread is far lower than the production of industrial energy. For that matter, human brains are highly energy-inefficient and “expensive”. Since both are evolved systems, and no human engineer would have ever thought to have designed such systems!?!

EROEI is a relevant criterion precisely when it is low, i.e when net energy outflow becomes a problem. At high levels, that is not an issue, but at low levels it becomes crucial. One can graph EROEI vs. net energy flows and the graph sharply declines at lower levels, with about 8 being the mid-point of the bend in the curve. This is referred to as the “energy cliff”. Much below that level, and it isn’t worth doing, and something above that level, maybe 12, is required for replacement technologies to be viable, in the sense that economic and resources sustainabilities don’t come into “violent” conflict.

As to “peak oil”, it was always about conventional, not exotic, oil production. Global production flattened IIRC at about 73 mn bpd and then was raised to 75 mn bpd over 5 years, with an investment cost of $600 bn, which comes to a marginal cost per barrel of $160. If that’s not quite right, then here’s a graph:

So yes, peak oil has arrived. Current oil production is estimated at around 15-20 in EROEI terms and conventional NG at 15. Other than coal and hydro, that’s about the best there is from conventional sources. (So wind ain’t looking so bad, eh?). PV solar, despite sharp price declines, is currently estimated at 5-6, so it hasn’t “arrived”, though those figures are generally considered to be a bit old, in the face of rapid technical improvements.

So I’m puzzled why you would say EROEI is a “meaningless” criterion, endorsing Tim Worstall’s silliness. Of course, energy costs or efficiencies aren’t the only factor. Because changes in energy-using technological infrastructure are also required, and that is an additional and large cost. But then do you know how to make mixed arguments involving multiple criteria of “rationality”, rather than just venting on your own narrow criterion? (Does John Holbo?) Worstall says that there is no problem, because Mr Market in his all-knowing and all-seeing and infinite beneficence will provide, er, bread. That’s not an answer. It’s not even a question.


John Quiggin 05.22.14 at 6:04 am

Since we seem to have been derailed onto generational politics and Millennial narcissism, I’ll link again to what I claim (with a positively Millennial level of self-esteem) to be the definitive takedown of this stuff, published, appropriately enough, around the turn of the millennium.


Matt 05.22.14 at 7:56 am

I think EROEI has become “effectively” meaningless. Hydro and wind have excellent and very good EROEI respectively. I think that PV EROEI is already above 10 now*. You can get higher EROEI with coal than with renewables or gas, but coal should be left in the ground for other reasons. And you can go to lower EROEI with burning wood pellets instead of coal in power plants, or by turning palm oil or corn into fuels for automobiles, but those processes have bad enough features that you should reject them even before you see the poor EROEI. At the same time I expect that some liquids will be produced at EROEI of less than 1 just because you can run passenger jets on liquids but not electricity. So, yes, I think EROEI is a usually irrelevant and sometimes misleading metric if you’re trying to evaluate the merits of energy sources/processes.

I still experience a little vertigo thinking about the vast scaling up that needs to happen to start reducing global fossil fuel consumption, but we’ll see. 10 years ago I would have thought someone was high as a kite if they predicted 40+ gigawatts-peak of solar PV would be installed in 2014 alone. I would have thought them a remarkable optimist if they told me that in 2014 there would be an installed base of over 300 gigawatts-peak of wind power. I see hints that we are in the early days of grid scale energy storage**, similar to the beginning of big solar rollouts in the early-mid oughts, so the last great weakness of renewables may be slain in turn.

*Most academic articles about solar EROEI use inputs to their models (such as grams of silicon needed per peak watt of module output, or kilowatt hours of electricity to produce a kilogram of purified silicon) that lag actual industrial practice by years. A review article published in 2013 may use figures that were typical of the industry in 2008. The production of silicon, wafers, cells, and modules has been improving efficiency incrementally but aggressively over the last 10 years. The other problem is that module lifetime estimates are very conservative — 30 years at the most, often 20 or 25 years, in any academic publication I can recall. But actual field trials dating back to the 1980s show that median modules can hit the 30 year mark still producing 85% or more of original rated output. Most modules made today are showing even slower annual degradation rates. I expect many of them to produce useful output up to 70 years. If I’m right, common solar EROEI estimates from the academic literature are 2 to 3 times too conservative.

**OK, pumped hydro storage was really the early days. And on several metrics it can still claim to be the best. But I mean I am now seeing energy storage projects that have escaped from laboratory to field trials and that don’t require the vast and particular geography of pumped hydro storage.


Lynne 05.22.14 at 1:26 pm

@MPAV It would be astonishing if kids were not different today than they were when I was growing up in the 1960s. Not better or worse, but different: look how different the attitude is to what makes a good parent! Children today are protected, herded, organized far more than we were, even more than what was common when my children (now in their 20s) were growing up. They are also more likely to be taught about the environment and to be tolerant of diversity, including sexual diversity, which was never talked about when I was growing up.

By today’s standards, my parents were negligent in allowing us the freedom they did. By their standards, children today are both over-protected and not taught to be respectful enough. “Obedience” in children used to be an explicit virtue.

My parents did not talk a lot about their beliefs, but they lived them. They had a gay friend (I realized when I was an adult) who taught elementary school with my mother. He taught my brother and sister and was a wonderful, creative, enthusiastic teacher—but he was of necessity in the closet. My parents taught us not to litter, but not about other types of pollution, which they had probably not thought about—no one knew the dangers of smoking, even.

I’m getting off track here but my main point is that the whole notion of how to be a good parent has changed so naturally this has consequences. What I have seen in my sons and their friends, though, is both broad-mindedness and concern for the environment, and an awareness of social issues that I didn’t have until I was much older. I haven’t seen a lack of independent thinking, but many of them are not yet financially independent though they are in their mid-twenties, which is at least partly the economic situation.

When I see ten and twelve-year-olds being walked everywhere in our neighbourhood by their parents, though, I do wonder how those children will ever attain independence.


MPAVictoria 05.22.14 at 3:15 pm

Lynne these are the same old complaints that the olds have been making about the kids for the last 10,000 years.


john c. halasz 05.22.14 at 6:26 pm

Maatt @ 83:

Thanks for the info on solar PV. (I actually came across the Worstall article while researching PV solar EROEI on the web, since it seems, despite rapidly decreasing prices, the technology still needs improvement to be a fully viable replacement, in “energy cliff” terms.) Just to be a bit contrary, if the EROEI is too low, (because of manufacturing costs or low efficiencies), then the energy inputs must be coming from somewhere else, which matters in overall environmental terms, (since likely dirtier energy is still being used to produce clean energy).

As to jet fuel, the Pentagon has been pushing non-hybrid canola oil (just to be polite) and that might well be viable at scale.

The IPCC still is pushing “clean” CCS coal, but I haven’t been able to find any EROEI figures on it, nor capital cost estimates, (because, of course, it is not really a currently existing technology), only the guesstimate that it would only become viable at a carbon price of $60/ton.

But the main point is that, except for coal, the EROEI of fossil fuels is already declining, with newer supplies already over the cliff, so replacements would have to be found anyway.

I’m not an engineer, so I wouldn’t know the specs, but I don’t see why wind couldn’t be used to pump water for hydro generation where conventional hydro is not available. Since hydro is the ideal balancing source for a smart grid and a smart grid is the key to balancing out intermittent renewables.

Yes, the scale of the energy transformation is immense. But, though I’m not optimistic, I think it is economically and technically doable. However, it won’t be done by business-as-usual, which is why the sort of obfuscation produced by Worstall, (for billionaire wannabes), is, er, unhelpful…


TM 05.22.14 at 6:50 pm

I’m afraid the sidetracks have won the day. So I’ll briefly chime in on EROI. “I think EROEI is a usually irrelevant and sometimes misleading metric if you’re trying to evaluate the merits of energy sources/processes.” That’s nonsense. It’s only misleading if you look at it in isolation. It’s one evaluation criterion among several. When you look at coal EROI, you have to take into account the low efficiency of coal-fired power plants (still only 32% on average in the US). The conversion efficiency of PV or wind power isn’t higher either (hydro of course is much higher) but there the fuel is free and EROI is calculated on the basis of electric output, which if done for coal would reduce your figure immediately by 2/3. In the case of corn ethanol, both the conversion efficiency and the EROI are extremely low (the gross conversion efficiency is about 0.14% without taking into account EROI –, which makes it all the more obvious that this complicated process of wasting energy and resources would never happen if it weren’t for misguided policies and subsidies.


roy belmont 05.22.14 at 8:27 pm

Anyone who dares speak of the life experiences of some recognizable minority is shouted down for inauthentic presumption. But clueless twits whose views on an entire generation were delivered to them in a plastic box, sent by a hostile and fearful presence that remains offstage, feel free to regurgitate cliches and stereotypes that were manufactured by that hostile and fearful presence. If you weren’t there you don’t know. Boomers my ass. Boomers my royal Irish ass.


CarlD 05.22.14 at 8:37 pm

Ugh. I should just pass this turn, but dang it, it’s dumb to ignore data. It’s dumb to explain it away, and to mischaracterize it into conveniently dismissable categories. I’m so sorry I handwaved the word ‘generation’ earlier, but since I’ve repeatedly also signaled that I’m actually talking about a particular local data set (albeit anecdatally, which I suppose to be about right for blog commentary, but also note link above to report on ACTUAL RESEARCH ™) – not ‘kids these days’, the generation thing is a red herring. Read JQ’s linked post for why.

Again, this thread of the commentary is right on point with the OP, if anyone’s interested in what admittedly twisted, clueless and retrograde perceptions the legislators of the legislation under discussion might be working with. (I mean, my apologies if this is just ritual bonding over the Forces of Evil Horror Show.) So, the baddies think they’re responding to a crisis of discipline and responsibility. They say as much. Right, there’s nothing new about that; that’s been Conservo 101 as far back as it does any good to remember. Gibbon, as I mentioned. The largely conservative (emotionally, if not intellectually) faculty at my school have been wringing their hands in this tiresome way about the students since I got there a decade and a half ago.

Well, kids is kids, so they’re not finished products and the reason to teach is that they need teaching. But what I’m seeing, and reporting, is a lot more (63.7% more, to be spuriously exact) of what looks like fundamental disorientation toward learning. So, maybe something a little different than the usual chatter/disrespect wiftiness. (They’re actually quite respectful and pliable, these kids, in a passive kind of way.) In point of fact, as Gwendolyn Chelm might say, 71.23% of my students are not just routinely underskilled, underfocused, and poly(un)motivated; they’re actually gobsmack baffled by my enthusiasm for their ability and responsibility to figure things out for themselves. This is new to me in these concentrations. They’ve apparently never, ever encountered anything like that project in their lives. They are as newborns to this disposition and skillset, and their reaction to it is to go tragicomically limp.

Now, as Bourdieu warns us not to, I could just teach to the other 28.77% who remind me of me or some fantasy of what I wish I’d been, and talk about how great these kids are these days. There are always a few ‘good’ ones and a pleasant interpretation bias hangs about them. Instead, I let the good ones teach themselves as they always do, and focus on the other people who have arrived at higher education without any ‘figure it out in them’, as my wife puts it. I take them seriously, and try to move them toward what I take to be their human birthright and the central accomplishment of effective adulthood, unless, of course, we’re content with a more Brave New World-y kind of thing. And what I am telling you from this perspective of robust local knowledge at a nice little tier-3 local private university is that my EROEI can be pretty poor with these critters who are coming up lately. Which means that the bad guys who then encounter them out in the work world aren’t just making stuff up, nor are they (just) rehearsing their same tired old anthem. Really, n0t going anywhere more complicated than that with all this.

Uffs, fine. I’m playing tennis with these guys (middle and upper management at companies like GSK, ABB, Teradata), not reviewing their intake procedures. I have no doubt they list many requirements; I would take all of them as attempted proxies for the things they tell me they actually want. And I think ironically they’ve pushed so much of the education process into ritual generation of those proxies that they’ve pushed the kind of initiative and open-ended adaptability they (think they?) crave right off the agenda.


Matt 05.22.14 at 9:06 pm

The evaluation of coal is a good example of how EROEI is, IMO, usually irrelevant. Coal is horribly polluting. It not only has the highest CO2 emissions per unit of electricity of any fuel but also produces the worst acutely hazardous air pollution. Finding a great new coal deposit that’s easy to exploit with really high EROEI wouldn’t redeem it.

Conversely, there is at present no renewable energy source that is otherwise attractive but whose EROEI is so low as to remove it from consideration. Yes, this includes biofuels; the effects on food prices and deforestation make them unattractive before you get to EROEI. “Just asking questions” about renewables seems to be a popular concern-trolling strategy from people who really want to continue BAU. What about solar panels being made with dirty energy in China? What about rare metals? And do solar panels even generate as much energy as it took to make them?* … “asked” someone who was never interested in the answers, really thinks climate change is a hoax and wants to stick with the energy sources of his boyhood.

*For anyone who somehow still honestly wonders: look up photovoltaic CO2 life cycle analysis on Google Scholar. This should answer questions about dirty Chinese energy and energy payback. Even if every bit of energy that goes into making a solar panel comes from coal, the lifetime emissions intensity of PV electricity is much lower than the cleanest of fossil electricity sources. PV panels pay back their original energy several times over even using the conservative assumptions common in academic assessments.

On the rare metals front, over 90% of the global solar PV market is based on crystalline silicon cells. These do not require rare elements to manufacture. Silicon is the second most abundant element on Earth. Some PV cells use indium and/or gallium, tellurium, or germanium, but these niche technologies account for less than 6% of global module production. The rarest material commonly used in solar PV manufacturing is silver, as a component of alloys used to make cell contacts, but the proportion of silver in alloys is continually declining and some manufacturers have abandoned it entirely for tin or copper based contacts. The PV industry consumes less silver in 2014 than it did in 2011, despite considerable expansion, and much to the chagrin of silver bulls who predicted that soaring industrial demand would send silver prices to new highs. Silicon PV manufacturing could scale up another 20-fold without requiring any new mines for the raw mineral inputs.


Bruce Wilder 05.22.14 at 11:23 pm

EROEI is interesting primarily for the “cliff” reasons john c. halasz mentioned.

What’s the EROEI of solar or wind, buffered?

The conservation program that will reduce our total energy usage by a factor of 4 or 5 still looks necessary to me, if we are to save civilization from collapse.


jonnybutter 05.22.14 at 11:30 pm

Boomers my ass. Boomers my royal Irish ass.

This line @88 wins the thread.


Matt 05.22.14 at 11:58 pm

I don’t know what the EROEI is of wind or solar including storage. The only thing that is big so far is pumped hydro storage, which is dependent on and varies by the available local geography. Every other grid scale storage technology is still too new to have good data. It is a question that bears investigation and investigate I will — I spend almost 20 hours a week keeping up with energy trends in academic and mainstream publications.

TM has it right on coal: 2/3 of its energy is wasted without doing useful work in a typical power plant. For the provision of electricity or mechanical work you can reduce total energy consumption by a factor of about 3 without reducing useful energy services simply by switching from heat engines running on coal-generated steam to non-thermal generators that don’t operate on the Carnot cycle (wind, hydroelectricity, photovoltaic).

This is also the reason that people who say things like “oh, Spain might have reached 20% wind for electricity, but look at wind’s tiny share of total energy use” are either confused or disingenuous. Coal, gas, oil do not need to be replaced joule-for-joule by non-thermal electricity sources. Most joules from fossil fuels are wasted and renewables only need to replace the usable fraction, not the waste fraction. It’s still a huge job but not as huge as you would think if you look at the thermal energy content of a barrel of oil or tonne of coal.


MPAVictoria 05.23.14 at 12:55 am

“it’s dumb to ignore data.”

Data? I see no data. Only one tired old man’s “experiences”.

Here is a thought, maybe the problem isn’t the kids. Maybe, just maybe, the problem is you?


William Berry 05.23.14 at 2:02 am

CarlD@ 73: I am fine with “vivious”. The other night we had a backyard barbecue (the old standbys: pork steak and chicken, delicious potato salad, baked beans, inexhaustible supply of Sam Adams Boston Lager). Now that was a vivious circle.

Some of my friends think the kids are all right. Some of them think they are totally effed up. Some are somewhere in between. Me? I stand by my friends.

In any case, I am pretty sure my grandkids are all right.


john c. halasz 05.23.14 at 3:35 am

O.K. This subset of discussion belongs on another thread. (Though I myself didn’t start it; I just linked to the Worstall article as a further example of his obfuscation, after he’d commented, and Matt, without quite getting the point, started it by denouncing EROEI, regardless of Worstall’s signal contribution to the issue).

But…if EROEI calculations for, say, coal don’t include actual useable energy output, they are just simply short-circuited and poorly done. (There are a lot of complicated technical issues here, concerning “system boundaries” and the like). The main point of the criterion is, as I said, its relation to net energy flows, and thus where various alternatives start or stop being viable. (Solar PV calculations don’t include storage capacities, which is a big problem. However, part of the point of “smart grids” is to bypass the storage problem, and, for that matter, the “peak load/base load” issue, which is largely an artifact of centralized coal or nuclear generation, and which can be largely eliminated by simply re-scheduling economic/energy-usage activity without such a distinction).

I don’t know where B.W. comes up with his 4-5 conservation factor. As is, according to the Lawrence-Livermore chart from 2008, 58 of the 99 quads of U.S. energy generation is “rejected energy”, basically, in abstract physical theory, waste heat. So there is large room for improvement in conversion efficiencies. Though it might be useful to distinguish between “conservation”, as a demand-side, consumption or usage factor, and “efficiency”, as a supply-side production factor, even though transforming the energy system would involve blurring that distinction. But what should be clear is that it is not just the direct costs of energy that is at issue, but also the underlying costs of energy-using capital stocks and infrastructure, which, I would surmise, exceed “normal” economic depreciation.

So, as TM said, EROEI is just one criterion for evaluating alternatives. Because, as I said, there are multiple criteria for “rationality” involved in the issue, (and energy production and usage is not the only environmental or resource issue involved). Economic criteria are not reducible to technological issues, any more than they can resolve all the political conflicts that arise. But likely, poor EROEI, while not an economic measure, would partially also involve poor returns on physical and financial capital, and thus the risk of a lot of stranded sunk-cost investment. (The technical and financial issues are not identical, as with, e.g. fracked NG being currently produced below its production cost, even as it likely also has poor physical returns, not to mention all the other environmental problems,- and something of the same might be occurring with PV solar, which is why improved efficiency and integration should be a focus). The whole process of energy and resource transformation is likely to be messy and highly conflicted, but that’s just why different criteria addressing different aspects of a complex “problem” need to be respected and attended to, rather than over-ridden from one or another specialized perspective. So Matt is right that rhetorical abuses can (and will) occur, but that doesn’t mean the issues raised are spurious or that problems have already been solved. Specifically, it doesn’t make sense, economically speaking, to build expensive and unintegrated “green” energy capacity, without attending to how the remaining budget of dirty energy is used to build out the alternatives. That would just prolong the process, by increasing the short-term attractiveness, in price-elasticity terms, of the legacy systems in need of replacement.


Bruce Wilder 05.23.14 at 8:34 pm

I guess the motto here is to never waste a good thread hijack.

Matt is right to emphasize that EROEI, like any good analytic insight, is prone to being isolated from context and rendered meaningless. We’re talking about extremely complex systems — systems of systems — and we’re struggling with producing just enough conscious, centralized coordination in the system of systems to prevent unintended self-destruction, without paralyzing it.

We’re at the end of the Second Industrial Revolution — a very long wave that started in the mid-19th century and accelerated in the mid-20th century, driven by coal and then by coal and petroleum and electricity. Much of the infrastructure of that system of systems was built out when the EROEI of petroleum was very high; the tolerance for the pollution from coal was remarkable. The scale of that 2nd Industrial Revolution system is now global and enormous, and though its operating efficiency has increased very gradually, efficiency has increased — viewed over very long period that gradual improvement is pretty large, though, obviously, overwhelmed by the increase in scale and by the Jevons effect, whereby efficiency has driven increased consumption. That system is being driven over a cliff by the decline in petroleum EROEI — peak oil. It is no longer possible even to maintain the infrastructure of that system; it’s crumbling. And, there will be a very strong temptation to accept increases in pollution to keep that infrastructural system running. The political world is run by rentiers, whose wealth is tied to that system. But, the scale of the system is now such that even small increases in pollution or related risks will put civilization at risk. Climate change is the headline; ecological collapse is quite possible as well from “business as usual” which is to keep that system running.

There’s a kind of Third Industrial Revolution underway, in computing and communications, which might allow us to dodge the bullet on civilizational collapse. The rapid advance in solar power, wind power, fuel cells is part of this, and the potential to improve the operating efficiency of the infrastructure is another. As solar breeders become practical, it will be possible to build out an energy generation infrastructure, which can reproduce itself.

I fear the optimism about technology as savior, though, because it seems so focused on a deus-ex-machina, which can just be plugged in to the existing infrastructural world, replacing petroleum and coal, but allowing the preservation of all that is near and dear. I don’t think that’s a realistic vision at all. The greatest potential from the advance of control and communication technologies is to reduce all energy consumption, and with it, all waste. There’s one concept of waste, which says that all energy generation that isn’t applied to doing useful work is waste. But, all energy generated is wasted. Not because it does or does not do work, but because that’s the physical relationship: entropy. If humans are going to survive, we’re going to have to reduce our impact on the natural environment. On the present scale of civilization and its use of energy, we don’t have time to notice the unintended consequences of the things we do — hairspray punching a hole in the ozone; lead in gasoline causing a crime wave, who-knows-what causing an obesity epidemic, etc.

The economics of all this is very basic: we need to generate a surplus, to feed a civilization. An agricultural surplus and an energy surplus. Many kinds of dynamic processes built into civilization’s production and consumption of surplus work against us. Depletion. Congestion. Climate change.

The emergent Hayekian market economy has all the central intelligence of a slime mold. It will adapt and spread. But, if we are not careful — if some centralized, intelligent awareness doesn’t emerge in time and take enough control to nudge the direction of emergence — it will also consume everything, before anyone notices the need for conservation and management. The forest will be gone, before anyone starts working on techniques and systems of forestry management.

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