Incompetence of Americans in service jobs is a sign of a vibrant economy or an uncompetitive workforce?

Going to Daytona Beach shortly after returning from Shanghai was a bit of a shock. About a third of the people working in retail stores and restaurants were barely capable of doing their jobs, no matter how simple.

Theory 1: this means the U.S. will have trouble competing with the world’s high-education countries (see “China’s Schoolkids Are Now Officially the Smartest in the World” (Fortune)). Our country is packed with people whose intelligence and education is not sufficient to do the jobs required in an advanced economy, e.g., pour coffee sooner than 30 minutes after a customer is seated in the hotel restaurant for breakfast.

Theory 2: the U.S. economy is so strong right now that all of the decent workers have been snapped up by high-paying employers, thus leaving people who ordinarily wouldn’t be in the workforce to be picked up by desperate service industries.

Supporting Theory 2 is that, even in Daytona Beach, there are some spectacularly profitable enterprises. The luxurious new art museum was funded by J. Hyatt Brown, who made over $1 billion via insurance commissions from an office in Daytona Beach. His collection of Florida-themed paintings contains at least one item that would be considered problematic today:

(I had some fun posting the above to Facebook. With only the text #NotOk “Watermelon Dreams”, I was able to generate more than 20 angry comments. A Trump-resister kicked it off by demanding to know “why are you posting this image and text?” (response: I am hoping for a revival of )

Readers: What do you think? People who can’t keep a ham restaurant stocked with ham or deliver breakfast in less than one hour at a not-busy breakfast restaurant is a sign of long-term economic health or decline?

Unrelated… Merry Christmas from Krispy Kreme:

Check out the gender balance at the Pokémon card tournament that brought us down to Dayton:

Where are the demands that those identifying as “women” be allowed to participate in this activity, which is surely more fun than coding PHP or C++.

Being a pilot is tough, but someone has to do it… (at Yelvington)

We visited the Daytona Turkey Run and learned something about Family Mobility:

32 thoughts on “Incompetence of Americans in service jobs is a sign of a vibrant economy or an uncompetitive workforce?

  1. If theory 2 is correct, what explains the Chinese service business competence? Does it mean that the Chinese have a “reserve army” of workers who are effectively underemployed, given their competence?

    • Chinese service is totally horrible on average. Phil went to tiny rich people enclaves and doesn’t understand that.

    • Alex: The United States has roughly 6X the prison population, on a per capita basis, compared to the Chinese. So if you’re looking for a country that has max potential for maximum prison slave labor, you don’t need to look beyond U.S. borders (we are #1 in incarceration rate).

      tygertgr: It is true that I was in the Yangtze Delta, a relatively rich part of China, but to call it “tiny” seems odd. The population is about 140 million, according to ; that’s about the same as the total U.S. population at the end of World War II. Was the entire U.S. “tiny” in 1945?

    • You went to Shanghai and places directly connected to the international airport. You did not explore the delta, come on. Be honest.

    • tygertgr: If you look at my public Facebook posts, it is clear that I was in Suzhou and Hangzhou as well as Shanghai. Maybe you mean those are also directly connected to the Pudong airport because you can take a train from those smaller cities to Pudong? The combined population of greater Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou is around 50 million. That’s a large collection of humans by my standards! Is there a poor village to which I could have taken a 3-hour train ride followed by a 10-hour bus ride? I don’t doubt that such a village exists. But that doesn’t make China poor any more than the poor rural villages of the U.S. (or bombed-out cities like Detroit and Baltimore!) make the U.S. poor. Is an opioid-addicted welfare-collecting town in West Virginia the “real America”? Or would you look at Los Angeles and Miami instead?

    • By at least one measure, the size of the middle class in China surpassed that of the U.S. in 2015:

      The Chinese middle class was about 400 million people in 2018:

      How many in the U.S.? We could take 330 million minus 70+ million on Medicaid = 260 million. So even after an Elizabeth Warren win and subsequent leveling of the tall poppies, China would have way more of a middle class than the U.S.

    • I stand by my assertion that you visited highly controlled tier 1 city destinations and neighborhoods, because it is impossible for an american to do otherwise. Americans cannot freely travel in China. Hotels will demand visa information and need the capacity to phone your information into the government systems. travel permits. Generally, the hotels lack that capacity. Police and/or PLA personnel will arrest and harass you if you are anywhere near where you’re not upposed to be..

      Americans who routinely travel back and forth from Hong Kong to tier 1 cities have to report to a regional police station on every journey to get re-certified documentation. With all due respect, you don’t really know what you’re talking about. China is absolutely a police state. Americans cannot freely explore the place and gain a clue about it. You are a man of means. I dare you to return to Shanghai, buy a cheap car, go on a tour, and see what happens. First of all, you won’t be able to get independent transport. Secondly, You will rapidly find yourself unable to book a hotel. You will be arrested. It is impossible for an American to move about China.

      I can show you beautiful philadelphia and baltimore as long as I can carefully control your movement.

    • tygertgr: If it is impossible for Western travelers to get around independently in China, how do we explain online China travel diaries from budget/backpacker tourists? for example. She’s biking from town to town, taking the bus, etc.

      has folks staying in hostels for $10/night.

      Here’s a Floridian who claims to have rented a car in China:


      says “there are, in fact, a few places in China where foreign travelers aren’t allowed to visit and a few that require special China travel permits.”

      and there is a map of the restricted areas: Tibet, Xinjiang, and some places along the border.

      Anecdotally, American friends who have married people from China or of Chinese descent have traveled to all kinds of remote places within China (usually to see elderly relatives of the spouse) and never encountered any hassles. These people don’t get special breaks due to their marriage. They are just showing up in China on a U.S. passport.

    • Because of its “diversity”, the USA has a much larger proportion of people with IQs below 85 than China has.

      (BTW, Theory 2 is correct.)

      The fact that these incompetent employees are finding jobs is a positive sign of health for the US economy, although it sucks for many employers and some customers.

    • tygertgr: I pointed a (white non-Mandarin-speaking) friend whose wife runs an import business to your comments. Here was his response:

      I go places like that all the time (accompanied, though) and only have to show my US passport. Factories in inland China, cultural sites way off the beaten track, family villages and farms. Even had a big hoo hah lunch with the Chief of Police in one area. No pre-approval required, no extensive background check. The only place I’ve stayed where any sort of pre-check was required is at the Communist Party resort hotel in Mao’s old mountaintop retreat villa area in Lushan. Only Sr. Party officials are allowed to stay there anyway ([wife’s] dad was a bigwig in the Army).

    • tygertgr: I agree that you that Chinese service level is pretty bad on average (except at restaurants, where they are usually VERY competent). However, what you said about travel permits and lack of free travel is totally rubbish. The only two areas in China that are tightly controlled are Tibet and Xinjiang (and even then, it is still possible to sneak in).

      Hotels do not demand visa information, but they are required by law to scan your passport (especially if you need internet access). In fact, there are two tiers of hotels in China: ones that can take foreign guests, and all the rest. Most “normal” hotels chains will take foreigners. However, due to the service-sector incompetence, it is still possible to stay in hotels that are not authorised for foreigners. Many hotel staff will accept foreigners because they are ignorant of the law (I have stayed at several myself). Most foreigners won’t be able to drive in China (need a Chinese drivers license for that, and need to read kanji for that), but you can easily travel independently if you hire a driver, or just by taking local transportation. There are also countless reports of foreign cyclists going around China with no questions asked.

    • @Philg: ..and the Bloomberg 2020 campaign got caught using a subcontractor that relies on female prison labor in Oklahoma to do its robocalling. Billionaire Mike’s Prison Ladies, we’ll call them. It looks like the campaign was working through a third-party vendor who contracted with the call center company ProCom (based in Jersey), which hires the prison labor. So, two levels of separation and you, too can use prison labor to advance your Presidential campaign. At least the Bloomberg campaign owned up to it and say they’ve canceled the relationship, so now those prison workers are unemployed and ready to go for someone else’s campaign. Entry-level service jobs are getting better all the time.

    • > it is still possible to stay in hotels that are not authorised for foreigners.

      Yes, exactly. Incompetence, or malice? It doesn’t matter. Try camping out after getting turned out of three hotels (You’ll be arrested). I am triple-dog-daring Phil to do a China road trip. Guess what: Americans can’t travel freely in China. Americans can’t get a legitimate driver’s license in China. You have to get on cattle train cars to get most places. Hey, even near major 2nd tier cities there are ongoing kidnapping problems. But it doesn’t happen walking distance from the places Phil would check in for a cozy night in luxury.

      Shockingly a couple rich pricks piped up contradicting me. I know where you went, and no you had no real freedom of movement. Try a meandering road trip and report back.

    • Hah! The AWOL coffee was ordered by Senior Management, not me. And the ham restaurant that ran out of ham and was taking 30-45 minutes to deliver sandwiches to a handful of customers was messing things up on an equal opportunity basis.

  2. > About a third of the people working in retail stores and restaurants were barely capable of doing their jobs, no matter how simple.

    I could make a joke about how that’s actually pretty good for Daytona Beach during the off-peak season (i.e., not spring break) but that would be glib. More seriously, this sounds like a great winter break case study for an ambitious Sloane School student, particularly because what you saw wasn’t confined to just a single establishment, in which case you could explain it by looking at the terrible management of just one place. In all of these places, the management should be tarred and feathered, but I also lean toward Theory 2. You have a combination of marginal workers, high turnover, relatively low pay, dismal management and then it becomes a malaise phenomenon that spreads like a disease throughout an entire region. I read the other day that something north of 40% of the service workers in this country make less than $18,000 a year. In Daytona Beach that means you’re basically going to be living in a trailer park. If that’s the worker pool these businesses are drawing from, and there’s not much opportunity for advancement or higher pay, the workers get demoralized, the management becomes ineffective, and the whole region starts to resemble a slightly warmed over third-world fiasco.

    I’d like to also note that where I live in Massachusetts, we’re seeing a mini-exodus of service-sector businesses that are shuttering because they can’t afford to pay the new minimum wage, and this is established chain establishments like Burger King. Something like a dozen of these restaurant establishments are closing in my area, strong national economy notwithstanding.

    There has to be someone at Sloane who has seen this kind of thing: that in a full-employment economy you get these pockets of malaise where the dead-end jobs are in a head-on collision with the bottom of the worker pool. currently has 4,499 job listings for Daytona Beach. I think that supports Theory 2, at least indirectly.,-FL-jobs.html

    • Tired of schlepping around in the hospitality industry filling coffee cups for international travelers returning from Shanghai to express their surprise at how awful the service is? Here’s another typical service sector job offered in Daytona Beach, in the fast-paced, big-money world of high technology:

      “Part Time Chat Specialist” – $9 – $10 an hour.
      “Gubagoo is hiring for inbound chat operators for our Volusia County location. Our chat center provides individuals the ability to engage in online conversations to inquire about automotive and recreational vehicle sales, service, finance and general dealership questions….We are seeking positive and energetic people who understand the importance of great customer service and enjoy being on a computer and around technology. ”

      On $9 – $10 an hour, part time, , you have to either drive or bus yourself to the location and know enough to handle a pretty complex set of requirements. I wonder what the churn for that job is?

    • How about being a security guard for $9 an hour in Daytona Beach? You have to “pass an extensive screening process” – presumably including a criminal background check, so to aspire to your $9 an hour job guarding staff and assets, you’d better not be in trouble with the law yourself. “Education” requirements aside from a HS diploma or GED are nil, but you have to be able to “read and write detailed reports” and “enforce client procedures, regulations and standards.”

      If security guard jobs are paying $9 an hour, what do they get for filling coffee cups?

      The overall takeaway I’m getting from perusing Indeed’s listings is this:
      “Whatever you do, don’t fall out of the upper middle class. It’s a long way down.”

    • “…Daytona Beach…”

      On Jan. 1st, the minimum wage in FL increases 10 cents to $8.56 per hour.

  3. I’d also like to compliment this blog because in the past few months, reading the posts about the economy, consumer debt, entry-level service jobs, and all the rest (even divorce litigation and travelogues of Shanghai!) has given me a pretty good picture of the state of our economy, our country, and the political correlates. We have great employment numbers, a roaring stock market, historic wealth inequality and a very large number of people are just barely holding on, doing things like taking on huge amounts of credit card and loan debt, and trying everything they can think of to avoid sliding farther down the scale, to even worse places where you don’t want to go, like Macomb, Michigan:

    “Occupations of those arrested include an insurance agent, an OnStar technician, bank employee, a college student, civilian military employee, builder and iron worker.”

    Is there any real mystery about why our politics have changed in the ways they have? Does anyone have any serious questions about why, on the left, we have so many candidates promising enormous, structural change, Medicare for All, free tuition, guaranteed income, etc., and on the right, we have so many people who desparately want America to be Great Again? It’s pretty clear to me. We’re exactly where we should be.

  4. If the Democrats were really smart and understood economics, they could point out all probems of Trump’s Fake Economy. That’s the real story here…

    But since they wanted to be the players of the Keynesian economics game, and not Trump, they are smoking mad about that. Endless QE and low interest rates were supposed to be theirs to inherit from Obama and to run with, not Trump.

  5. Did you rent a car and drive around China? Did you take an hour rail trip away from international airports? No? You have no idea what China is. You visited theme park China. “Tier 1 City” as their own system classifies.

    “The Real China” has an ongoing problem with child abduction for beggar and prostitution gangs. A thing that would be national headlines in America happens weekly in China. I too am frequently annoyed by American clerks’ inability to make correct change, but am not so naive as to pretend this is remotely an American problem.

    As Steve Sailer has extensively documented, the American education is actually shockingly effective. We have an “ok” rank in the PISA system. But once you dis-agregate by ethnic group it becomes clear that American teachers are amazing at getting the best out of everyone. American Finns outscore Finns. American blacks outscore west africans by a huge margin. American chinese blow away chinese nationals. If you isolate european americans as a nation they score #1 globally.

    The Chinese just straight up cheat in PISA and only give the test to smart kids in Beijing and China. Cheating is a Chinese characteristic (look into withdrawn scientific papers). If they didn’t do that we would outright trounce them.

    • To clarify, no, you can’t rent a car and experience China. That’s illegal. You can’t stay in most hotels without per-approval. It is impossible for a normal American to travel in China.

      Oddly enough, we let them go anywhere they want when in America. Probably time to rethink that.

    • tygertgr: What trips have you taken to China yourself? Where and when did you go? says that a tourist can get a three-month temporary license and then rent a car from Avis. Not sure why you’d want to go 60 mph when you could be going 195 mph on the train, but apparently at least some tourists do it. The expats with kids whom I met seem to have cars. Every downtown shopping mall seems to have an extensive multi-story parking lot.

      There are Chinese hotels on Orbitz in every city where a tourist might want to visit. So I don’t know why it would be “impossible for a normal American to travel in China”. I now have a 10-year tourist visa. I booked my hotels online. To get the visa, I didn’t have to tell the government anything about my plans other than the name and address of the first hotel where I was going to stay. For subsequent trips, I could just show up in any Chinese city and book a hotel at the last minute.

    • You have a link. your link is wrong. Which is pretty much how the internet works these days. Go try it and report back.

    • ” the American education is actually shockingly effective” – claims that wild could use some supporting evidence.

    • Everything can become the subject of a Ph.D. thesis. See (“WILLIAM R. BLACK is a doctoral candidate in history at Rice University.”)


      It may seem silly to attribute so much meaning to a fruit. And the truth is that there is nothing inherently racist about watermelons. But cultural symbols have the power to shape how we see our world and the people in it, such as when police officer Darren Wilson saw Michael Brown as a superhuman “demon.” These symbols have roots in real historical struggles—specifically, in the case of the watermelon, white people’s fear of the emancipated black body. Whites used the stereotype to denigrate black people—to take something they were using to further their own freedom, and make it an object of ridicule. It ultimately does not matter if someone means to offend when they tap into the racist watermelon stereotype, because the stereotype has a life of its own.

  6. China’s test scores are the result of skimming from the cream of the crop. I would not describe our education system as “shockingly effective” but China’s is full of shit.

  7. It is definitely sign of long-term economic health and decline. In the past the “elite” needed the “general population” to run the factories, repetitive jobs and etc. There was no outsourcing and not too much automation, so big down pressure on the salaries. This was not good, because profit for the 1% was limited. Today the elite (aka 1%) only require the professional class (doctors, lawyers and engineers, aka the 10%), the rest of the jobs have been outsourced or replaced by technology, this resulted in greater profits, which in an a capitalist economy is all that matters. There is also a rent-seeking, growing connected political class that has developed as a response as protection from the 1%, to secure good paying jobs for people that would be otherwise useless to the modern economy, the 1% tolerate this class just as long as they do their bidding. In today’s business world you must compete or die! It is an economic hunger games, you must financial kill your competition or they will financial kill you, leaving you destroyed with nothing and no human connections, everybody will run away from you. The elite laugh at this and enjoy the entertainment and place bets in the Wall Street casinos on who will win and who will die. The number of unimportant people to the modern economy is larger and larger. A person with average intelligence and no connections to the elite or the political rent seeking class has no chance in today’s economy, they have been so badly beaten up and all that remains is a job in retail. It is no surprise that their service sucks, why should they serve you? What will they get for providing good service, a worker of the week sticker? They work in a minimum wage job with no future.

    • This is very accurate. And it’s going to get worse because the next generations of automation are going to increasingly wipe out even the menial jobs, the service-sector jobs, to an increasing extent.

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