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Commentary: The hidden link among burgers, drop-outs and tax reform

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 23, 2017 - Occasionally, one stumbles across an unexpected harmonic convergence. The experience is similar to déjà vu, but without the “already done this” part.

Rather than reliving the past, you undergo a minor epiphany in the present when you suddenly realize that seemingly unrelated events are, in fact, different faces of the same coin. Recent news provides a case in point.

A Beacon story on Friday by Dale Singer told of the closing of a charter school, Shearwater High on Finney Avenue. The school’s mission was to “recruit students between the ages of 17 and 21 who were at risk of not earning a high school degree and giving them another chance to do so.”

The goal appeared to be both modest and reasonable. After all, the usual age of a high school graduate is 18, so the sponsors cut themselves four years of slack. Unfortunately, said goal also proved to be unattainable.

Chief Executive Stephanie Kraus explained, “We weren’t really set up to be a school for students who were pushed out. The reality is that over the years we were operating, we had an increased number of students who were kicked out of school and encouraged to apply to Shearwater, and as a public school, we take who applies.”

In the Saturday Post-Dispatch was a wire service story by Leslie Patton of Bloomberg News about revisions to the menu at McDonald’s restaurants. It seems the Angus burger is headed the way of the Edsel. Joining it on the road to extinction are Fruit & Walnut salads and Chicken Selects. Also considered for elimination: Caesar salads, the McSkillet Burrito, the Southern Style Biscuit and steak bagels. Burgers and fries appear to be safe as of his writing.

The problem, according to franchise consultant Richard Adams, is complexity. “It’s gotten to the point where the operation has kind of broken down and that’s all a symptom of the complication of the menu. … They can’t make the food fast enough.” The restaurant’s offerings have expanded by about 70 percent to 145 items since 2007.

Q: What does simplifying the menu at McDonald’s have to do with closing a charter school in St. Louis?

A: Actually, quite a lot.

One can reasonably presume that the corporate management at McDonald’s and the faculty at Shearwater High are both comprised of smart, well-trained professionals with significant expertise in their respective fields. Yet, each fell victim to a common shortcoming: namely, the failure to properly understand the clientele they serve.

People who patronize McDonald’s want a cheap, tasty meal served in timely fashion. Hence, the term “fast food.” They’re not overly concerned with the kind of home life the chicken enjoyed before it made the ultimate sacrifice to furnish the consumer an order of McNuggets. And they don’t want to spend half their lunch break waiting in the drive-thru.

If you’re looking for free-range poultry, go to a gourmet restaurant with a French name where your order will be served on a large, square plate that contains more parsley than potatoes. You want a cheeseburger and a shake; go to Mickey-D’s…

Management thus made the always-fatal mistake of trying to please their critics rather than playing to their fans. Calorie-conscious food snobs aren’t going to buy a Mc-anything while the regular customers come in for the standard fare. As the saying goes, “you gotta dance with who brung ya.”

Similarly, the Shearwater experiment — though born of noble intention — failed because of misconception. It sought to give a second chance for individuals to obtain the much-needed credential of a high school degree. But many of the students there lacked the fundamental academic skills and desire needed to succeed. Some came from the correctional system as the last chance – to stay out of jail.

And evidently the faculty at Shearwater was trying to teach “high” school material to students in need of “low” school instruction. A remedial English Lit course will invariably fall on deaf ears if most of the class doesn’t know how to read.

Misinterpreting an audience is a mistake made by others than fast food executives and well-intentioned educators. President Obama, for instance, has just unveiled his proposed budget that would raise an additional $1.1 trillion in new revenue over the next decade by significantly raising taxes on high-income earners, large inherited estates and smokers.

At first blush, the plan seems tailored to traditional Democratic tastes.  The working class usually supports strategies to soak the rich; and sin taxes are popular within the holier-than-thou branch of liberalism -- the kind of people who recycle dental floss and burn gluten-free gasoline in their Priuses. Upon further review, however, unintended consequences become apparent.

The poor are the most likely demographic to smoke cigarettes. Whether that fact is a function of ignorance or indifference is debatable. It may only indicate that the economically disadvantaged are reluctant to surrender one of the few pleasures their daily lives provide. Because studies consistently indicate that most smokers became addicted to nicotine before they became adults, it could also mean that they suffer from a legally defensible disability.

In any event, low income workers contribute payroll taxes to Social Security and Medicare and then, as smokers, die before they can collect on their investment. Now their president seeks to penalize them for their inadvertent patriotism.

Republicans can swing this cohort by simply opposing the new tax. Tell a minimum-wage smoker that Democrats want to add 94 cents to a pack of butts and you’ve just recruited a new member to the GOP.

Whether you’re hawking burgers, offering diplomas or promoting tax reform, it pays to study your target audience.

M.W. Guzy
M.W. (Michael William) Guzy began as a contributor to St. Louis media in 1997 with an article, “Everybody Loves a Dead Cop,” on the Post-Dispatch Commentary page. In addition to the St. Louis Beacon and now St. Louis Public Radio, his work has been featured in the St. Louis Journalism Review, the Arch City Chronicle, In the Line of Duty and on tompaine.com. He has appeared on the Today Show and Hannity & Combs, as well as numerous local radio and television newscasts and discussion programs.

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