School cooks should be paid like defense contractors

A lot of people have a lot of feelings about food. I think that’s a good thing. What intrigues me about food is how we don’t treat the money with anything remotely resembling that level of passion. We spend paltry amounts of money even on core food delivery systems – like feeding our kids at school.

So to capitalize on the buzz around Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, and to add my two cents from an economic perspective, I want to compare two industries: food service in public schools and manufacturing at defense companies. Last fall, I started a discussion on service-sector wages with this question:

Why is it that an office worker doing, say, supply chain management at a major defense contractor makes $80,000 a year with full benefits and 100% tuition reimbursement to pursue an MBA while the cafeteria cook at the local elementary school both of their children attend makes $8 an hour with no benefits, no career path, and no payments for higher education?

And I’ve left similar questions on some of the recent posts about Oliver’s show. As defense spending shows beyond any doubt whatsoever there is no political opposition to massive government spending in this country. Defense spending has increased through Republican and Democratic Presidents and Republican and Democratic Houses of Representatives and Republican and Democratic Senates. President Obama’s budget request for FY ’11 for GWOT/Long War/OCO alone is greater than all the money proposed for TANF (welfare) and SNAP (food stamps). Resources are not a problem; we can spend huge amounts of money. And that’s a good thing, because it means our only obstacle is political: we can choose to have any food policy we want. We could provide free, healthy, nutritious, good-tasting breakfasts and lunches to every school child in America every school day of the year and we wouldn’t spend as much as we do on defense/military/security/intelligence/whatever.

One aspect that gets forgotten sometimes is that that money is spent on people. Ultimately, stuff is free. We take our basic resources from the Earth without giving her anything. All costs are labor costs.

So, why is it that the government employs so many high-priced mercenaries and business managers and engineers and so forth in the defense industry? The defense industry makes a good case study because it’s the opposite of market forces. The government directly sets the terms of the contracts. Every scientist, engineer, businessperson, and private security contractor working for a defense company or funded by a government research grant is just as much on the public dole as any one receiving Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, TANF, SNAP, unemployment insurance…

We rarely audit these defense contracts, and even when we do, there are hardly ever prosecutions for the rampant amounts of outright fraud and theft. Why is it that people who literally feed our children, in contrast, are driven by insanely strict budgetary guidelines for the wages they can pay and the food they can buy, where they’re literally making choices between the health of kids and the health of the budget? And more importantly, is that how we want it to be?

And the answer that I hear from time to time fascinates me: well, those defense engineers work hard or they spent years in school or they’re smart or they have special skills and so forth.

The more ‘valuable’ you think those ‘smarts’ and ‘education’ are, the more misplaced it is to have those people working in the defense industry. Every person building bombs isn’t building bridges. Every person designing missile defense interceptors isn’t designing trains. Every person doing research on bioweapons isn’t doing research on cancer. Every person doing research on puke rays isn’t doing research on wind energy. Or to generalize, the more valuable defense industry employees are, the more valuable it is to get them working on civilian, commercial technologies. Never mind how crass and elitist justifications for the wage disparity boil down to, that sense of entitlement that is overwhelming once you see it.

At the end of the day, it’s a political statement to claim that feeding our children is just as important as protecting our borders. Just imagine what our schools would be like – and the health of our kids – if we provided sufficient resources such that being a school cook was a lucrative career field and the procurement budget allowed for the best choices of food.

That would be revolutionary.

You can read these words all over again at Daily Kos.

Comments are closed.