A Thanksgiving IHOP run and my complicity in the failure of capitalism

A Thanksgiving IHOP run and my complicity in the failure of capitalism November 28, 2014

I don’t go shopping on Black Friday, not because I’m a virtuous person, but because it’s the one day when I get to wag my finger self-righteously at the concept of responsible consumerism, i.e. things like doing your homework, writing lists, making plans, comparing prices, and making responsible adult decisions, basically all the things I’ve always sucked at which the girls in my middle school class with the color-coded binders were always so good at. But there’s nothing virtuous about my refusal to take part in Black Friday. I was reminded of that yesterday evening when my family was hungry and we didn’t want to eat the leftovers from the Thanksgiving meal we had for lunch. So we went to IHOP, which destroyed its employees’ Thanskgiving holiday because they knew that consumers like me would make it worth their while. Except they didn’t want to pay holiday pay to too many workers, so they gambled by using only a skeleton crew, not expecting the place to get swamped by families bored with their turkey lunches. So we all waited and looked around to see if the other tables were getting their food. They weren’t either. And the Guyton family left IHOP one hour and fifteen minutes after arriving, having received a grand total of two ice water refills and no food.

Capitalism always outsources accountability for its failures to the lowest people on its food-chain: servers, clerks, that tech support guy named “John” from Bangladesh. When about twenty minutes had passed after we put our food order in tonight, I started getting really angry at our server. Even though I had guzzled my straw very loudly, she had swept right past our table without offering a refill. So the next time she came by, I yelled as loudly as I could, “Could I PLEASE have some water?” She grabbed my glass without breaking her stride and came straight back with a full one and immediately turned around and went back into the kitchen.

And then I realized what a jerk I was. Who had she given up her Thanksgiving meal with to scramble around sloshing ice water for angry customers like me? So I decided I was going to give her a twenty percent tip no matter what, because here she was working on Thanksgiving and she was probably exhausted. That would be my statement of Christian grace. But then I thought about the Boundaries book I’ve been reading. What if she really was being lazy and irresponsible? Wouldn’t it be a betrayal of my faithful role as a customer and an act of enabling an unhealthy family system to overtip her in a way that was incommensurate with her performance?

And then it hit me how impossible it is to assign blame in these circumstances with any integrity. There was absolutely no way for me to know whether it was the server’s fault for neglecting us or the cook’s fault for not being able to multitask under a rush of orders or the manager’s fault for understaffing. But so many consumers like me in our capitalist system have no problem taking our frustration out on the server, the clerk, or tech support. I wonder how much rage is simmering constantly under the surface for middle-class people like me who see out of the corner of our eyes that everything is falling apart, and we need some scapegoat to crucify for the thousands of nickle and dime fissures in our world where technology has never broken so easily and obsoleted itself so quickly, where airplane flights are never not overbooked, where restaurants are not only open on supposedly family-oriented holidays but as understaffed as they can possibly get away with so that you get punished for patronizing them.

But the problem is that I’m the problem. I behave exactly the way the marketing executives expect me to behave. I will go back to IHOP even though its management screwed over the staff and customers last night by under-staffing its store in Sulphur Springs, Texas, and probably a lot of other places too. I will go back anyway, because my youngest son will want the funny face chocolate chip pancake that IHOP used to market to him.

In the same way, even though Amazon has screwed me over before, I will never stop being their slave. I don’t have time to go looking all over town for gadgets anymore like I had to do in the nineties. So I go on Amazon and click free two-day shipping. It’s so easy. I’m part of a giant tidal wave that can’t be stopped, destroying local businesses all over the world every time I click my mouse. Resistance is futile. And even though I hate chain restaurants, when I’m hungry and it’s a holiday, I will go to whatever place the neon lights are on and there are cars in the parking lot. Even a place as disgustingly generic as IHOP.

I don’t exactly have an epiphany that will tie this all together into a little bow. I know very generally what I need to do. I need to live with intentionality. I need to deliberately support local business. How did I learn to feel so easily overwhelmed and exhausted? Why does it feel like such a daunting task that I don’t even want to try? I want to claim that I’ll try my best, but I know that the only way I successfully boycott Walmart is by going to Target. I can’t boycott both Walmart and Target at the same time. I realize I probably should boycott Amazon, which makes Walmart’s scorched earth decimation of mom and pop general stores look like small potatoes. Scratch that. I should DEFINITELY boycott Amazon. But I won’t. Because then I would have to figure out when to budget the extra hours I would need to run around to brick and mortar stores for my supplies. I’m a complete slave to convenience.

I know that this isn’t enough, but the place I want to start is by not being a jerk to the service industry folks I interact with and to treat them like real human beings. Of course, I imagine every other middle-class consumer has similar good intentions when we’re not in the heat of the moment. What does it even mean to treat someone like a real human being? Is that even possible in a chain restaurant like IHOP?

"Reverend Guyton ~Hello again!You and I respectfully differ in our understandings and/or their applications. I’ll ..."

Democratized Theology vs. Theology of the ..."
"That’s a good point. Of course Anselm is reverse engineering. He’s trying to explain why ..."

Five Things to Get Right About ..."
"It seems clear to me that Anslem made a major math error. He multiplied where ..."

Five Things to Get Right About ..."
"The Demos also works politically. Donald Trump could not have run for President in 1984 ..."

Democratized Theology vs. Theology of the ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • We’re all jerks now.

  • Josh Magda

    “I’m part of a giant tidal wave that can’t be stopped”

    The Pirke Avot has some advice for you, reverend: “The task is not yours to complete, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

    The solution is to not go to ihop. (I don’t have much of a choice because beggars can’t be choosers.) You do. Your children are not gods, they are amazingly resilient Godlings (like all of us are, a story for a different time) and they really will get over the crisis of not having a funny face pancake.

    The further solution is for white progressives to en masse use existing capitalist infrastructure (and without explicitly breaking any of its “laws”) move back in with the rest of the World: riding the bus, sending their kids to the bad schools and Living in the “bad” neighborhoods. There’s a whole bunch that (former) church buildings could do too (might pull up the old post and repost later).

    It won’t happen, because we’d all, at the moment, prefer to be corpses walking around, so long as we and our 2.3 can grab our tasty little slice of the comfort cavalcade pie and then die. The possibility of a society of Love and justice isn’t real to us yet.

  • Josh Magda

    The are ways of eroding the logic of capitalism from within. It’s imperfect, but there are things we can do. There is a cafeteria my family has frequented as we have moved to a new house, as our kitchen is literally incapacitated. Yesterday at Thanksgiving we left five times the tip that would be typical, and we are by no means rolling in the dough. My Mom asked our waitress “where she got her earrings” but really she just wanted her to get close enough so she could see if her ears were pierced or not. We’re getting her (cheap) earrings as a thank-you gift, as we forgot her “thank you” card that was planned.

    Tell them thank you for being there for you and your family. As my family is lower class, we swap stories about when we had to work the holidays. My Mom frequents Denny’s and she is always a shoulder to cry on for the waitresses there. People come to her to talk, for her advice, talk about their children, to pass on prayer requests, or just to wait on a table where they know they will be treated like and related to as a human being. It is not unusual for waitresses to be engaged with her for 15-20 minutes, each time she visits. Sometimes, my ego is active and is irritated by never being able to have a meal “in peace.” Men have issues. Other times, when I am more in my right mind, I am grateful such a woman is my Mother.

  • Springs1

    I have worked on Christmas day twice before serving customers. Guess what? I NEVER ONCE was rude or lazy giving poor customer service because I didn’t want to be there. I worked at a donut shop/diner at the time. This was a very long time ago for me over 10yrs ago, but my point is there’s NEVER a reason to take it out on the customers. If you don’t want to do that sort of job, don’t work there. It’s that simple. I always tried my best REGARDLESS of what day it was. I worked on all the holidays when I worked there. What about police, doctors, nurses, firemen, etc.? Some of them are working on these days. I don’t feel sorry for the lazy jerks.

    • Random Former Methodist Reader

      “Don’t work there” is not always an option. Also, police, firemen, nurses, etc. v. waitstaff, retail clerks, etc. is a false equivalency.

  • Bob Pedersen

    As I am on a journey myself, in which I have not stopped at any point
    on the political spectrum, I offer a brief collection of thoughts. My
    first is that we need more love and light, and a lot less heat
    practically everywhere: in places like IHOP (guilty and therefore unable
    to “throw stones” at anyone else), on blogs, on cable TV, etc.

    Those
    like myself, who grew up during The Great Inflation (roughly 1965-79),
    appreciate the much lower inflation we have enjoyed for most of the last
    30 years. Arguably, market forces and “the Walmartization of America”
    (to borrow a term I heard long ago), have contributed to lower
    inflation, which helps support the purchasing power of our incomes.
    Easy to forget!

    I’m old enough to remember what a shopping strip
    on Grand Avenue in my small town of Baldwin, NY, looked like when I last
    lived there in 1964. (Those of similar age and nostalgic leanings are
    encouraged to read Bill Bryson’s “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt
    Kid,” and/or Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Wait Til Next Year.” Goodwin grew
    up about a mile from where I spent my first seven years.) My
    first-grade classmate Kenny Streck and his family lived in a couple of
    rooms behind the delicatessen they owned. Joining them on one block of
    Grand Avenue were a shoe repair shop, a bike shop, a candy store with a
    soda fountain, and a small pharmacy on the corner. Down the avenue
    there was a small hardware store where “Monk” could tell my father about
    the materials, tools and tricks of the trade needed to do-it-himself. I
    don’t remember all the other small businesses that were in that small
    entrepreneurial zone, and I don’t know whether the hardware store is
    still there, but the rest of the stores mentioned have been gone for at
    least a couple of decades. I expect the causes of their demise would
    not all fit easily into an anti-Walmart (or more generally anti-Big
    Business) paradigm but I can’t know for sure.

    This brings me to
    another line of thought. With apologies to Ben Franklin, a dollar spent
    is a dollar earned (roughly speaking and allowing for some technical
    matters such as indirect taxes, in case there are any economists out
    there), so a dollar spent at Walmart is going into some people’s
    pockets. A dollar spent at Bagel Buddies is also going into some
    people’s pockets; I just happen to know a few of the people better than I
    know recipients of funds spent at Walmart (cashiers, managers, truck
    drivers, suppliers, executives, shareholders, etc.). My point is that a
    successful boycott of Walmart would have unintended consequences for a
    large number of hard working people. In a sense, the 2007-09 recession
    (using “official” dates produced by independent economists) was an
    involuntary “boycott” of most retailers, and 1.25 million retail workers
    lost their jobs.

    In September 2007, former Federal Reserve
    chairman Alan Greenspan published his memoirs, “The Age of Turbulence:
    Adventures in a New World.” Greenspan gets blamed for a lot of things,
    rightly and wrongly in my opinion, and he’s sometimes a lightning rod
    for criticisms of what had been consensus views that were held by
    Democrats as well (e.g., Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers and Bill
    Clinton). I bring up Greenspan’s book because I believe it contains the
    most eloquent defense of capitalism that I have ever read. (Believing
    it is most eloquent is not the same as believing in all of Greenspan’s
    arguments.) Greenspan later pointed out that between World War II and
    the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was an economist’s equivalent of a
    lab experiment going on, as East and West Germany had similar starting
    points in 1945, in terms of natural resources, education levels, etc.
    The results of this lab experiment suggest to me that our job is to make
    capitalism work better. (See below for some references to recent work
    that challenge whether Greenspan’s paradigm can hold up going forward.)

    Regarding
    Greenspan’s book, I have found it useful to know and understand a
    libertarian’s explanation of his views. I give the man credit: He has
    well-written why for every what that he believes.

    More recently,
    I’ve come across two other publications worth mentioning: William
    Galston’s “The New Challenge to Market Democracies: The Political and
    Social Costs of Economic Stagnation,” available at http://www.brookings.edu,
    and Robert Reich’s “Why College is Necessary,” on
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com.

    Galston does a very good job of laying
    out the understanding that could exist between management, labor and
    government leaders when the economy was more of less sealed off from
    foreign competition. (In Bryson’s aforementioned book, he notes very
    early that in 1954, more than 99% of the cars sold in the U.S. were
    built in the U.S. by U.S. workers.) Reich does a fine job of explaining
    the economic challenges facing those who do not have a college degree.

    In
    thinking about change during my lifetime and the Reich article, I was
    reminded also of Adam Davidson’s beautifully written essay, “Empire of
    the In-Between,” which was published in the New York Times Magazine in
    November 2012, with a cover that had the words, “Off the Rails” in a
    very large font. In his essay, Davidson noted, “For much of the 20th
    century — and especially in the boom decades of the ’50s and ’60s, when
    U.S. factories had little global competition — manufacturing provided
    something that simply doesn’t exist anymore: a
    job for anyone
    willing to put in a hard day’s work.” I would add that these were often
    jobs that would support entry into the middle class.

    “A
    job for anyone willing to put in a hard day’s work” certainly applied
    to two entities that were at one time among the largest employers in the
    U.S.–Ma Bell and the Postal Service. Ma Bell was broken up about 30
    years ago, of course, but not before providing people like my
    grandfather–a self-taught man who did not complete high school–with a
    middle class living and a decent retirement. The number of employees in
    “Information: Telecommunications” peaked at just under 1.5 million in
    2001, and the number is now less than 900 thousand (but finally starting
    to rise a little after years of relentless decline). Men like my
    grandfather probably would not stand a chance of getting hired in this
    industry today. Regarding USPS, its employment peaked near 900 thousand
    in 1999 (not counting temporary seasonal surges), and now stands below
    600 thousand. Here again, the story is one of less opportunity for decent people whose work ethic may be their primary marketable asset.

    At the risk of stating the obvious,
    many changes in our economy lack an obvious culprit, except for change
    itself. (Schumpeter’s term, “creative destruction,” used to describe
    how a capitalistic society remakes itself over and over through “out
    with the old and in with the new,” is painfully instructive.) I’m not
    sure how to measure the speed of change but I have a strong hunch, to
    say the least, that the pace of change sped up considerably during my
    lifetime.

    If you’ve read this far, thanks. And God bless.