The Federalist’s Case for Workplace Misery Is Absurd

A specter is haunting America — the specter of negligibly higher chicken bowl prices at Chipotle. That’s the latest talking point in the conservative crusade against fair wages and unemployment benefits.

The Federalist is panicking over the rising price of Chipotle food. (Photo courtesy Chipotle)

Were you to stumble across it in screenshotted form on Twitter, you could be forgiven for thinking that the words “My Chipotle Bowl Just Got More Expensive, And It’s The Federal Government’s Fault” represented a recent effort from satirists at ClickHole or the Onion. With all due respect to the talented writers employed at both websites, their finest work sometimes peaks at the headline. This entirely real and completely earnest recent intervention from an editor at the Federalist, on the other hand, only gets better as you dive in.

In many ways, the salvo is just another paint-by-numbers entry in the burgeoning genre of right-wing complaints that federal unemployment and COVID relief checks are hurting the restaurant industry — a genre whose existence is owed, in large part, to a concerted industry campaign that aims to defend the chronic underpayment of millions of American workers in perpetuity. Stripped of the artifice characteristic of the standard Chamber of Commerce agitprop, however, the Federalist’s contribution rather hilariously lays bare the combination of untested assumptions, facile grievances, and rank class entitlement that so often animates the conservative media ecosystem.

Here’s how the piece begins:

Chicken bowl, brown rice, black and pinto beans, pico, hot salsa, lettuce, cheese, sour cream — that’s all I want. And I want it for $7.60 plus tax. Thanks to the ill-named American Rescue Plan and remarkably short-sighted employment decisions, the federal government has jacked up the price of my Chipotle order. Sure, the restaurant is the one raising its prices by about 4 percent, but the federal government is the cause.

Assuming this figure is accurate, and Chipotle has indeed raised its prices, that’s a hike of about 30 cents, a development that hardly sounds like a profound moral or political crisis. In any case, things only get better from there. Quoting from an NBC News report about companies like Chipotle, Starbucks, and McDonald’s raising wages in a bid to attract new workers and retain existing ones, the author continues:

Did you catch that? Restaurants have had to bribe current and prospective workers with fatter paychecks to lure them off their backsides and back to work. That’s what happens when the federal government steps in with a sweet unemployment deal, incentivizing workers do a little less labor and a little more lounging.

Petty grievances about slightly more expensive chicken bowls aside, paragraphs like the above get us a whole lot closer to what the corporate-stoked panic about COVID benefits and service industry hiring is really about. A little later on, the author laments: “It’s no surprise then that burger joints and my beloved burrito heaven have struggled to get workers back on the payroll . . . You can’t pay people handsomely to stay home and then expect them to jump back into Chipotle uniforms.”

Disregarding the hyperbole (a few hundred dollars a week scarcely qualifies as “handsome” considering the cost of living, especially in major cities), she’s not altogether wrong. As the business lobby complains that a few months’ worth of fairly meager government checks is making it harder for them to attract workers, the subtext is obvious: millions of jobs really are so underpaid and exploitative that a few hundred dollars a week is enough to make staying home more attractive than taking them. The labor market, in other words, is a coercive mechanism in which the low-paid are granted the “freedom” to choose between a job that offers peanuts in compensation or starve. That a slightly higher wage at Chipotle or Starbucks can be described in any context as a “bribe” makes this inherently slanted power dynamic all too clear.

Worry not, though, says the author, who proceeds to assure us that these are “entry-level jobs” that were “never intended to support full families” and are performed in large part by “low-skilled teens.” Though this is indeed a common talking point seeded by right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation (which incidentally makes an appearance elsewhere in the piece), it simply isn’t true. As journalist Michelle Chen explained in a 2015 article for the Washington Post, the median burger flipper is most accurately described as “an independent adult of about 29 with a high school diploma.” Contrary to the popular stereotype, nearly a third are single parents raising families, and many fast-food workers struggle so much to afford basic household expenses that some end up borrowing money from friends or even find themselves homeless.

As icing on the cake, the Federalist piece concludes by lamenting that higher wages, because they supposedly lead to higher fast food prices, are “harming many of the same low-income Americans who dine there . . . Chipotle broke my heart a little today, but big government is breaking my budget.” Putting aside the question of how exactly said low-income Americans would be harmed by paying 30 more cents for a burrito if they were also earning higher wages, the flourish is a fitting finale for what has to be the most unintentionally revealing piece in the “COVID benefits are hurting the economy” genre of conservative commentary.

The good folks at ClickHole can do their utmost, but to satirize something so inherently ridiculous may prove impossible.