Better Pizza, Bitter Politics

By now it’s well known that Papa John’s Pizza CEO John Schnatter is claiming—or threatening—that compliance with the Affordable Care Act would force him to reduce employee hours or raise prices. This was one of a number of post-election “job-creator” tantrums based on the curious belief that the Obama’s re-election (and the continuation of his policies) had somehow changed the political and regulatory landscape.

Schnatter was quickly skewered for his inflated estimation of the ACA’s burden—he claimed it would increase prices 10 to 14 cents—which Forbes calculated to be about one half of one-percent of the chain’s operating expenses—or between 3.4 and 4.6 cents per pizza. With Papa John’s charging $1.50 for each extra topping, this is about the cost of a single slice of pepperoni on a large pizza (if we assume a generous portion of thirty pieces of pepperoni per pizza).

But, more important, in the big picture the Affordable Care Act does not impose new burdens or new responsibilities on employers. It is a response to a long trend of employers abandoning those responsibilities. After the Second World War, employers routinely championed job-based provision as the best route to health security. But the reach of job-based health insurance coverage insurance, provided by one’s own employer rather than a spouse’s, peaked in the late 1970s at about 70 percent of the workforce. It is now just over 50 percent. Despite its own “better pizza, better benefits” claims, Papa John’s only extends health coverage to about a third of its employees.

The requirement to insure employees is new for many low-wage service firms like Papa John’s. But, in this respect, the ACA simply closes off the ability of these companies to shuffle those costs onto the backs of responsible employers, public programs (Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program), or the employees themselves. Papa John’s is losing some of the public subsidy (to which the light corporate tax burden contributes little) that has long sustained its miserable employment standards.

The graph below traces the decline of health care and pension coverage in private sector employment by gender, race, wage level, and educational attainment, from 1979 to 2010. Health-care coverage has fallen across the board, and the losses are starkest for the most vulnerable workers. Black and Hispanic workers (men especially), low-wage workers, and those with only a high-school education began this era with lower rates of coverage, and they have lost coverage at a faster rate than others. As health-care coverage has slipped, the out-of-pocket costs (premiums, co-payments, deductibles) for enrolled workers have continued to climb.

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While the reach of private pensions has declined less dramatically for other groups, and actually inches up for some women, coverage remains sparse—and is getting sparser—for low-wage workers. And again, these numbers understate the damage. As pension coverage has slipped, defined-contribution plans—which expose workers to both investment risks (the poor performance of invested contributions) and longevity risks (the possibility of running out of money in retirement)—have largely displaced traditional defined-benefit plans.

While “Papa John” Schnatter and his ilk would have us believe that big government is crowding out private initiative and imposing burdens on employers, in fact the reverse is true. As “low-road” employers shirk responsibilities to their workers, it is public programs—Social Security, Medicaid, the ACA—that pick up the slack. The security and productivity of their workforce is not threatened by these programs, it is sustained by them.

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.