Flippy the Burger Flipping Robot Mocks the Wage Naivete of Left and Right

Flippy the Burger Flipping Robot Mocks the Wage Naivete of Left and Right
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Back when Ronald Reagan was president, he pointed to many pages worth of “Help Wanted” ads in the Washington Post as one of many pieces of evidence that his economic policies were working.  His enemies on the left predictably responded that Reaganomics was merely producing jobs of the “burger flipper” variety.  The market that was the voting booth revealed Reagan’s critics as hopelessly deluded: with elections always and everywhere about the economy, he won re-election in 1984 in landslide fashion, 49 states to 1.

But to show readers just how similar and tribal left and right in the U.S. have become, consider the rollout of Flippy.  Flippy is a robot “employee” of the Caliburger chain, and he is apparently able to cook as many as 2,000 hamburgers per day.  Interesting about all this is that while Reagan’s backers once defended him against the assertion that his policies were only creating fast food jobs, modern members of the right are now criticizing lefty policies that are allegedly – drumroll please – destroying those same jobs.  It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. 

In response to attempts to automate cooking, the right have happened upon what they naively presume is political gold.  They promote the illusion that the minimum wage mindlessly supported by the left is behind the rise of Flippy.  One conservative op-ed claimed that “raising the minimum wage will accelerate this [automation] trend by making even costly robots a better deal than increasingly expensive, minimally skilled workers.” The jobs the right decried in the ‘80s are apparently now really good ones that would be preserved if it weren’t for the evil left and its endless desire to foist wage floors on us.  In truth, Flippy reminds us how ridiculous both sides are. 

Up front, the minimum wage should be abolished.  People should be free to transact with whomever they want, and at any wage.  They should even be free to pay companies and individuals for the right to work for them.  Many would do just that if they could apprentice under Jeff Bezos, Anna Wintour, Nick Saban, or Jose Andres. 

Still, what’s missed by the right is that Flippy and others like him would be even more common if the minimum wage were zero.  As for the loony left, Flippy is a reminder that companies don’t seek out low-wage workers as much as they go to great expense to avoid them.  Caliburger’s experimentation with Flippy vivifies each of the previous assertions. 

Regarding the silly notion that excessive wage floors brought on Flippy, let’s be serious.  What led to Flippy is the basic truth revealed by Caliburger executives that human burger flippers were tough to keep employed.  Simply stated, they were quitting too often.  Well, of course they were.  Low-wage jobs have long been marked by high turnover.  That’s why they’re low-wage and entry level.  People don’t stay in them long.  They attain skills, then trade them for better pay.  The turnover is very expensive for businesses given the time-wasting cost of training new employees.  Automation is a logical response to turnover; turnover that – if anything – would be exacerbated if the minimum wage were zero.  Think about it.  Are people more likely to leave low wage, or high-salaried jobs?

Furthermore, if conservatives had been able to read about Flippy free of a desire to score points against their surely mindless lefty adversaries, they would know that one Flippy costs $100,000.  Think about the previous number for a minute.  The cost of Flippy loudly reveals how little the wrongheaded minimum wage hikes have to do with Caliburger’s purchase of same.  $100,000 amounts to much more than a forced wage increase.  Flippy is a reminder of just how expensive employee turnover is.  To reduce that cost, Caliburger is spending in the six figures

All of which brings us to the popular view on the left that investors and corporations migrate to the lowest wages possible.  What a laugh, except that such economic illiteracy is disturbing.  How could even the ignorant believe what is so brightly incorrect? Back to reality, much as Caliburger has found that low-wage workers are incredibly costly thanks to endless turnover, so do businesses of all stripes strive to pay wages and salaries that keep workers around. 

Turnover is once again very expensive.  It’s so expensive that a hamburger chain is willing to spend $100,000 on a robot in order to avoid what is a costly headache.  All this is a reminder that cheap labor is the opposite of cheap, but also a reminder that handsomely rewarding entry-level work would be the path to bankruptcy for businesses.  It would be simply because entry-level workers don’t want to do entry-level work.  They’re once again looking to move up in the world. They want their work skills to evolve.  Walmart isn’t greedily paying low hourly wages as much as high pay for entry-level workers at the retail giant would still occur in concert with costly turnover. To be clear, low-wage workers are paid low wages precisely because their inevitable departures are very expensive.  

All of this helps explain why low-wage workers should lovingly embrace the robot.  That robots are job-destroyers speaks to their genius.  Robots have the potential to destroy the entry-level jobs that workers plainly don’t want.  If robots can erase what’s not desired, they won’t erase work as much as the definition of “entry level” will change.  And it will change for the better as first-time jobs involve the exhibition of more in the way of skills, all at higher pay.

Until then, left and right need to try to be serious.  Fun as it is to expose either side, the wage/robot debate reveals each tribe as clueless.  Flippy isn’t “taking our burger flipper” jobs, and the fact that he isn’t reminds us how much businesses of all stripes would love to compensate exponentially more fulfilled workers at exponentially higher pay. 

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, Director of the Center for Economic Freedom at FreedomWorks, and a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research and Trading (www.trtadvisors.com). His new book is titled They're Both Wrong: A Policy Guide for America's Frustrated Independent Thinkers. Other books by Tamny include The End of Work, about the exciting growth of jobs more and more of us love, Who Needs the Fed? and Popular Economics. He can be reached at jtamny@realclearmarkets.com.  

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