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Saturday, April 1, 1995

The Prejudice Against Midnight Dishwashing

Why Is a Taxpayer-Funded Basketball Program Considered Superior to Private-Sector Employment?

Ralph R. Reiland is an Associate Professor of Economics at Robert Morris College and owns Amel’s Restaurant in Pittsburgh.

Child Labor Regulation No. 3 mandates that 14- and 15-year-old kids can’t work more than three hours on school nights. As a restaurant owner I can be fined up to $10,000 per incident if a 15-year-old works an extra half hour on a busy night.

These same teenagers, however, are permitted to participate on school nights in Midnight Basketball leagues, funded in the 1994 crime bill. Once again the private sector has been double-teamed by prejudice and erroneous economic reasoning.

It’s assumed that everyone involved with Midnight Basketball is compassionate and well-meaning, and that a program that keeps kids busy and out of trouble at night is worth millions of tax dollars. But a different assumption applies to a restaurateur who keeps the same 15-year-old busy till midnight cutting vegetables for soup. He’s seen as some kind of slave driver—a capitalist robber barron who exploits neighborhood youth for profits.

When my two sons were teenagers, I often thought how fortunate I was that on most Friday and Saturday nights, and plenty of school nights, my kids were here with us in our restaurant grilling shish kabobs and busing tables instead of out driving around. They were never forced to do it, but somehow over the years my sons became as committed to the restaurant as my wife and I. It was a team effort and on Saturday nights it was as exciting and challenging for them as being on a basketball team. Serving 250 perfectly cooked meals in an atmosphere of hectic fun was our goal.

One morning we got a call at the restaurant from the grandfather of one of our employees. “Jay was riding his bike home from a friend’s house last night” he said, “and he was hit by a car.” Jay, 15, was a dishwasher on school nights and a busboy on weekends. He had left work at nine o’clock. At eleven he was killed.

I think about the irony of that night when I hear Labor Secretary Robert Reich assail Burger King because some kid worked an extra hour. The reality is that kids can be a lot safer in a restaurant kitchen than they are in the streets.

When it came to funding for Midnight Basketball many politicians understood the importance of keeping kids busy and off the streets. Far better to play ball than be drinking and driving, doing drugs, or getting some tenth-grader pregnant. But there’s no three-hour limit on the games and the labor secretary won’t be there at 4 a.m. to regulate the coaches or hand out multi-million dollar fines if someone cuts his finger.

Those who get the largest number of kids dribbling till dawn will be invited to the Rose Garden to pick up kudos from the president and a big check from the taxpayers. The most successful restaurateur, on the other hand, who creates real jobs for the largest number of kids, is more likely to find himself demonized.

“These kids will be learning sportsmanship,” said a Labor Department spokesman when I questioned him about the double standard. “The difference is that you’re involved in commerce.” Somehow it’s not commerce or trade when millions of dollars are extracted from a taxpayer’s pocket to buy basketballs and pay coaches and administrators. And because I have a bottom line, there’s no White House ceremony when I keep a kid out of trouble by having him do real work—learning how to clean, cook, and work with people, seeing the connection between work and reward, earning tuition money, helping his mother pay the rent, building self-confidence by earning income.

“The myth of the Triumphant Individual may have outlasted its time,” proclaims Secretary of Labor Reich. “To the extent that we continue to celebrate the traditional myth of the entrepreneurial hero, we will slow the progress of change essential to our economic success…. We must begin to celebrate collective entrepreneurship.” Mr. Reich is fond of hyperbole, condemning the private sector, indulging in wild accusations about companies “who sacrifice workers on the altar of profits.”

Since the health-care debate, I’ve developed a sensitivity about public officials who tour the land condemning business owners. “These are greedy people who have no social conscience,” said California Congressman Pete Stark. “These people don’t care about their employees,” said Senator Edward Kennedy. And it was, of course, the first time a First Lady has taken to the road to insult business owners as “freeloaders” if they weren’t paying for health insurance for every worker.

The assumption is that we are to be mistrusted and stereotyped as greedy profiteers. Midnight Basketball is smart and moral, while midnight dishwashing is exploitative and illegal. It’s an ideology that has delivered billions of tax dollars to failed public sector programs and excessive fines, confiscatory tort law, and regulations to the business sector.

When Secretary Reich dismisses the “entrepreneurial hero,” as he so cynically puts it, as a “myth,” he ignores the reality that small businesses create the bulk of the jobs—and the virtues that go with these jobs—in this economy. Collectively the Fortune 500 provide fewer jobs than they did ten years ago. One can only speculate as to why Reich has such a distaste for triumphant individuals.

The labor secretary has deliberately missed the key economic and political lesson of our time. In every part of the world, the arrogant and counterproductive policies of overblown governments have flunked the test. Does anyone in the Labor Department ever wonder why the thousands of Cubans fleeing “collective entrepreneurship” never see anyone paddling in the opposite direction?

  • Ralph R. Reiland is an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University and a columnist with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.