September 11th, 2013

A Purple Straw Hat

Fluffy Unicorns

Earlier this summer, A. went to see Despicable Me 2 with B. We couldn't (still can't, I think) get that on video, so we resorted to watching the original movie, first from Amazon on the TiVo and then, once the kids wanted it on the iPad, R. bought it for iOS, which was mildly silly because he could have played it for her on the Amazon Video Player for iPad, but you know, whatever. I think that's streamed anyway and sometimes those things are a little unpredictable, whereas the iOS version is downloaded and thus, once on the tablet, not subject to network hiccups (farts? Bouts of interruption?).

The youngest of the three girls in the movie (the original and, presumably, the sequels) always has a stuffed unicorn. It's kind of a crappy one at the beginning at the Home for Girls, but by the end, she has a really awesome fluffy unicorn. There is a great fluffy unicorn power up in Minion Rush by Gameloft, which the four of us have all been playing a lot of lately. It was inevitable that after we had stuffed minions in the house (four: two with one eye and two with two eyes), I would go looking around the herd of stuffed animals in the house, thinking, hey, I think we _have_ a fluffy unicorn. Sure enough, I found a Melissa & Doug stuffed unicorn:

that Amazon says I bought in November of 2012. I put a minion on the unicorn (in an appropriate equestrian way, not in a ha-ha let's engage in adult humor with children's toys sort of way), and showed R. This made the fluffy unicorn a go-to toy for the next few days.

Inevitably, once A. was playing with a toy, T. wanted one, but I stalled. And when _A._ started asking for a second fluffy unicorn, R. found another stuffed unicorn that I had managed to forget existed, but T. probably had not. Because it is technically one of T.'s toys.

I didn't buy this on Amazon, so I don't know when it dates from (and R. may in fact have bought it anyway). And it was purchased in response to T. wanting a bigger version of one of these:

I think. Altho again, didn't buy it on Amazon so not sure, and haven't seen it in a while, so maybe we actually have one that is still smaller, or in between in size.

That's a disturbing number of fluffy unicorns, but still not enough for each of the four minions to have one of their own to ride.

Which is not a goal. Of mine.

ETA: The small Beanie Ballz turns out to be "Rainbow", which is a fish. The Beanie Ballz unicorn is "Fable". I don't know why I thought that "Rainbow" was a unicorn. Maybe there's another "Fable" around here somewhere, but I sort of doubt it.

Rainbows and Unicorns. *sigh*
A Purple Straw Hat

Tipping, Tax Evasion and Other incentives

Recently, Pete Wells in the NYT described how some Very Expensive Restaurants in NYC were going tip-free.

This provided an opportunity to generally discuss -- and not in a positive sort of advocacy sort of way, but quite the opposite -- the practice of tipping.

Wells thinks tipping exists for these reasons:

"Americans have stuck with tipping for years because all parties thought it worked in their favor. Servers, especially in restaurants from the mid- to high-priced, made good money, much of it in cash, and much of that unreported on tax returns. Owners saved on labor costs and taxes. And customers generally believed that tips brought better service.

The self-interest calculation may be different now. Credit card receipts and tougher oversight have virtually killed off unreported tips."

He also discusses some front-of-the-house/back-of-the-house wage differentials that have been expanding, and litigation against very expensive restaurants and restaurant chains for violating labor laws that govern what can be done with tipping.

Slate ran an indictment of tipping as well.

Unfortunately, the author appears to be operating under a very odd belief about employment in the United States:

"Virtually every other employee in America knows how much they’ll be paid up front, and somehow the man who sells me shoes and the woman who does my dry cleaning still manage to provide adequate service."

While I can find no evidence that anyone tips their dry cleaners (I'm sure _someone_ does, but there's no general practice), shoe salesmen make part of their money in commission, and there are decades of stories about particularly successful shoe salesmen at Nordstrom's who manage to make $100K+/year as a result -- that's not their _base pay_ by any stretch of the imagination.

So Wells thinks it is all about tax evasion, but acknowledges that when a restauranteur switched from a tip system to a service charge, customers complained. Palmer thinks there's no effective incentive from tipping, but he also thinks shoe salesmen get a straight salary, so there's no reason to believe he knows what he's talking about.

Tipping is clearly serving a whole bunch of purposes, however, there's some reason to believe that servers in general are a little confused about how the law applies to them. If you go digging around in forums where servers are discussing tip practices, quite a few of them are extremely pissed off about things like FICA and similar in their paycheck wiping out all of their base pay, even tho just counting the charge slip tips, their income was such that was sort of inevitable (that is, even if you assume they had $0 cash tips, their base pay was going to get wiped out anyway). Among the more informed, there remains the idea that the law only requires that you claim tips up to 8% of your gross receipts, or perhaps 15% and after that you can keep the rest untaxed. About the most informed recognize that you are supposed to declare all of your tips, but even they believe that this is the result of a change in the written law -- they don't seem to understand that this is just what happened after someone wrangled with the IRS all the way up to the Supreme Court and lost.

Starbucks has been subject to numerous lawsuits about just who can and cannot share in their tip jars. As my friend R. pointed out, there isn't any obvious way to tip using a credit card (no line on the slip) nor is there an option when using a payment card or the mobile app (please let me know if I just missed this). We were wondering why, until I stumbled across California, New York and Massachusetts lawsuits about who can and cannot share in the cash tip pool: assistant managers are out, but different courts have gone different ways about whether shift supervisors can be included.

If _I_ were Starbucks, I wouldn't put a line on the credit slip, either, and I'd be trying to figure out what would happen if I banned the tip jar and started firing people who put one out when no one was paying attention. There are plenty of Dunkin' Donuts, Panera Bread, and fast food places which either don't have any receptacle, or which have put out a penny bin for a charity, rather than have a tip jar.

There are a ton of problems associated with attempting to go tip-free. For one, you lose the tip credit (unless you're in a state that already banned it). For another, you may have pay your servers more than minimum wage -- maybe a lot more, like $20-$40/hour -- in order to compete with the places that still have tipping. If you attempt to address this by putting a "service charge" on the slip that isn't a gratuity, that is, non-optional, you'll run up against customer kickback. If you raise prices to cover it, you might become non-competitive. And some customers are going to _really want to tip_, and dealing with that situation (servers who accept the tip, customers who get mad when turned down, etc.) is not going to be easy.

There is no reason to believe that transitioning away from paper and metal money to payment cards and other forms of money will put an end to tipping, altho of course you can always program the apps and POS to make it harder to tip (see: Starbucks). However, the partial transition may be part of why we've massively escalated the tip expected with a meal over the last few years, creating a probably untenable tension between front- and back- of the house and _definitely_ creating a juicy pool of money for people to litigate over. People who pay on a card tend to tip more heavily than those who pay with cash.

Despite the apparent escalation, however, servers still mysteriously tend to prefer cash. I'm sure Wells is right that some of it is straight up tax evasion. But when servers describe their compensation, it's really weird, at least in states that still have tip-credit: they'll say base pay in dollars, approximate number of hours worked per week, amount of tips earned in a shift, but not the number of shifts OR what the tips work out to per hour. Servers who are claiming all their tips into the POS (even if they never take the cash out of their pocket, except to distribute to bussers and so forth) seem to actually know their real hourly, but the ones who don't claim DO NOT seem to know, and, further, seem to be really freaked out about the 3% they lose on credit card tips (which some seem to believe isn't 3 cents on each dollar of tip, but rather 3 cents on the gross receipt -- can these people do math?), especially since when they tip out to bussers and so forth, they feel like they can't pass that processing fee along.

A lot of servers think of serving as Not a real job -- and that's in a positive way. Like, having a real job is a step down, makes you a mark, and that's not an uncommon perspective among people in sales who are doing well. If you are tipping heavily because you feel sorry for your server, working so hard, so vastly underpaid, You are a Mark. Perhaps the best argument for re-thinking tipping is to separate that gloating-ha-I've-got-it-so-good from the tax evasion. If a sales critter thinks they are so brilliant because they talked me into buying something, I'm basically OK with that. But if the sales critter thinks they are so brilliant because they gave themselves a 10-30% raise by not paying their FICA, state and federal income tax, I feel Real Different About That.

When I started looking at this hard, I thought briefly that tipping was going away. But once I hit the shoe salesmen remark in the Slate article, I changed my mind. It'll be here, probably for a long while. But it's going to evolve.

ETA: Some servers really like cash because they get it right away. Some servers get even their credit card tips right away and like that. Some servers get their credit card tips on their regular paycheck, usually every couple weeks. There are some interesting aspects to frequency with which one gets paid, and the impact that has on the employee's budgeting practices (pro and con), but I'm treating that as out of scope.

ETAYA: Also a bit more about tipping and labor law, courtesy my husband:

Does sort of make you wonder how this might spiral out to include all the weird fees and rules involved in renting a chair at a hair salon.
A Purple Straw Hat

_An Introduction to the Policy Process_, Thomas A. Birkland

I have the second edition, subtitled: Theories, Concepts, and Models of Public Policy Making. I believe I bought this around 2008, but I can't convince Amazon to produce it in my order history and I cannot imagine I bought it anywhere else so I don't really know what to think.

The publisher is M.E. Sharpe, which also published Crunden's fantastic _Brief History of American Culture_ in the mid 1990s and which continues to be in print (because why shouldn't it be? It's amazing.). There is a new edition of Birkland as of 2010.

At the time, I was involved in local politics connected to the library in Mayberry (<-- not its real name) and I had some questions only very tangentially related to the local/library experience, specifically, I wanted to know how laws went from being words in a book to ... something that actually happened. I could sort of imagine some amount of training of police officers, but that didn't address how a law about improving air quality got converted into every year or so having to go someplace, have your car in a special booth hooked up at the tail pipe and a bunch of diagnostics done, then some paperwork associated with that and/or proving you spent such-and-such an amount of money and that wasn't enough to fix it so we're done for now. I was sort of hoping this book would give me an organized way of thinking about the entire process from hey, the air really sucks here to oh, wow, I'd better go do the emissions check this week or I'm in trouble.

Of course, books can only do that if you read them. Birkland entered the read-or-release project (summary: I have books I've been meaning to read for years. Now, I am reading them, one by one, or figuring out why they are not worth my time.) and, as I would expect from an M.E. Sharpe product, it is uniformly good. As the subtitle indicates, Birkland is presenting an overview of theories, rather than a lot of detailed case studies in support of _a_ theory, or just a bunch of case studies about how this works without a theory (<-- which might be cool, if you know of such a thing, I'd love to hear about it). Birkland is a big fan of Deborah Stone's _Policy Paradox_, and also mentions Baumgartner and Jones several times; the latter is available on kindle, the former is not (and neither is Birkland, more is the pity).

The case studies are the weakest element of the book. Honestly, I just sort of wish they weren't there, but perhaps a professor teaching a class and using this as a text (which it clearly is, I mean, duh, it's published by M.E. Sharpe) could do something useful with them and they are side-barred thus ignorable. Here are examples of why I don't like them.

p 16: "Normative and Empirical Analysis of the Abortion Debate"

It's all about "the degree to which a woman's mental and physical health is affected by having an abortion". Needless to say, nothing about the mental and physical health effects of _not having access to abortion_, or having an unwanted child. Yuck.

pp 46-48: "Civil Rights and the Deliberate Pace of Change"

In describing US history from the Constitution through to 50 years after Brown, there's a big gap between 1930s era voting rights cases and 1950s era education cases. There is _absolutely not one fucking word_ about desegregation in the military, which started during WW2 and the Korean War as a battlefield decision and became official in 1954, three years after Truman ordered it to happen.

Many people who write about the civil rights movement think that what happened in the military was an important input into what happened in schools and elsewhere later on. It strikes me as a really big lapse to just Not Mention it, and then ask at the end of the case study, "What features of American history, politics, and government do you think caused the nearly 100-year delay in redeeming the promises made in the Civil War amendments? What made it possible for there to be so much change in the relatively few years between 1954 and 1970?" How can you answer that question with that context?

So the sidebars are pretty weak.

Because the second edition was published in 2005 and necessarily the writing largely predates that, the recent, massive transition away from news_papers_ and newsmagazines (in all forms) towards getting news online (whether from electronic versions of old brands like NYT or entirely new products like Nate Silver and Bill McBride) is absent, and, even more important, internet activism is not mentioned, much less developed as an important component of the process, which is sort of sad because while this _was_ pre-Obama, I think MoveOn was already spamming us at the time of publication.

Don't get me wrong. This is a great book. It is covering exactly the ground I wanted it to cover. It lays out the history of "public policy" as an academic study area (which is recent), and the various other fields that connect to it/feed into it/preceded it. It presents an inevitably weak history of public policy in action (summaries at this level tend to be somewhat useless), focusing almost exclusively on the United States. The good news is that Birkland uses this as an opportunity to explain why making change happen in the context of the United States is really difficult. He _could_ have decided to laud this situation as leading to "hyperstability" and he didn't do that.

On the other hand, while his first examples are almost always policy examples for stereotypically left wing (but, honestly, centrist, or they would never, ever happen), like women's rights, civil rights, environmental protection/anti-pollution measures, etc., he then always has a bit about stereotypically right wing efforts. This is a case of even-handedness that irritates me, but which is actually probably exactly the right tone.

He then rattles through an overview of official actors, unofficial actors, the agenda setting process, types of policies.

Chapter 7 and 8 are the chapters most of interest to me. The former summarizes possible policy goals as part of designing policies and then assessing their success. It also covers policy tools. The case study is the Patriot Act; in this case, the weakness lies in the questions at the end tending to sort people along a libertarian axis. The chapter as a whole, however, spends a lot of time on Deborah Stone's work and while it isn't as clear as I would like it to be, it does dig into how to respond to rhetoric ascribing things to "accidents", "acts of God", the "unforeseeable" etc., to preserve the opportunity to change the way we respond to things in a useful manner. I could nitpick the descriptions of tax incentives as "largely self-executing", given how much enforcement effort winds up going into some deductions, but it hardly seems worth the bother. Chapter 7 provides an extremely useful overview of how to think about choices in accomplishing a goal such as "universal health care". What we wound up with makes a lot of sense, even tho it feels like a failure to many participants, because it resulted from a bottom-up process, involved a lot of negotiation, provides for a great deal of choice, and focuses on multiple goals simultaneously and at the same time making quite limited promises in its efforts to get us to "universal coverage". (I'm pulling some of the ideas from Chapter 8 into this, of course). Chapter 8 is about Making It All Happen (or not), and is the 20 pages that I was really here for. It does a good job describing the recursive interactions between policy choices in design and tools and implementation and assessment of success/failure thereafter. The case study here is about aviation security and terrorism, and again, it feels weak. There's a great theme here of how we build up a bunch of desired changes over time, and then try to get them all at once when some relevant Crisis occurs -- but it's so backgrounded, it is all but invisible.

Chapter 9, models of the process, has all kinds of annoying features that I feel should have been apparent when the book was written (remember: 2nd edition, published in 2005), but are really problematic in 2013. One of the worst of these, _always_ wrong:

p 221: "Laws, rules, and regulations are often thought of as burdensome and challenged on those grounds. And these claims are usually quite true: laws and regulations _do_ impose burdens on some people or interests. The key factor for policy makers is who bears the burden and how heavy the burden is. That a law or regulation imposes a burden on someone is an insufficient reason for supporting or opposing a rule without understanding who benefits and who pays for a given policy."

The Reagan era of deregulation is so embedded in the frame that even tho the author pointed it out earlier in the book, it appears to get away from him here (sorry about the mixed metaphor). Laws, rules, and regulations _do not_ impose burdens. They _shift_ burdens. I'm sure there is an exception somewhere -- a law or regulation that only makes things worse for absolutely everyone -- but I have yet to encounter it when fresh. If you buy the idea that laws impose burdens and then have to decide who gets the pain in exchange for goodies, then Laws Are Evil. You have to accept going in that there is Already Pain Being Imposed By Someone's Actions or Inaction, and that laws etc. are designed to improve that situation: either overall reduction of pain, overall improvement of benefits, or shifting some of the pain back on the perpetrator. There was a polluter, before there was a law against pollution. Somebody killed somebody and then we called it murder and decided what to do to the killer.

"there has been greater pressure, in the past twenty years, to ensure the efficacy of current laws rather than simply make new ones. Calls for more gun control policies, for example, are countered with calls to more effectively enforce the laws that are already on the books." This is a _terrible_ example of "oversight". This is an example of people opposing a policy, and you can tell, based on what they did next (zero budget the people who were supposed to enforce the current laws, type of thing, currently escalating to attempts to criminalize on the state level efforts to enforce federal gun law). "Oversight" is real. People _really do_ try to figure out which laws to get rid of on account of not working -- such as eliminating Reg E, the requirement for a sticker on ATMs warning about fees, in the face of lawsuits brought by people who started their transaction by _scraping the sticker off the machine_ and were caught on videotape doing it. But gun control isn't where you are going to find those people.

The meat of the chapter is devoted to summarizing Kington, Sabatier and Baumgartner-and-Jones on how policy is made, which is fantastic in terms of finding other sources on the subject (the summaries are detailed enough), and a great way to end the book (the appendix on doing research on the web has the inevitable problems).

While I wouldn't recommend reading this older edition (there is a newer one), there is every reason to believe that Birkland's current edition (3rd, 2010, but if you read this later, there will probably be more) will continue to be a usable textbook/introduction to policy, particularly since Birkland's approach is extremely centrist, consensus oriented, and carefully attributed to sources. He's not here plugging his own model; he's telling you what is out there. Since I'm not familiar with the field, I cannot say whether horrifying bias is revealed by what he ignored, but I don't see any obvious evidence of that. It's about the United States; if you want something more general, you'll have to go elsewhere.

On the whole, I remain pleased with M.E. Sharpe's products, and happy that I'm engaging in the read-or-release project. This book will only get more out of date as time goes by.