Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Republicans want to steal from employees earning a modest wage and give it to their employers.
For many on the left, Republicans' reverse Robin Hood principle is obvious — even though it sounds like an agitprop caricature of the GOP. But in the case of new rules being considered by the Trump administration's Department of Labor, it is quite literally true. If the administration adopts the proposed rules, employers will be permitted to pocket their workers' tips, as long as those workers are paid minimum wage. One left-leaning think tank plausibly estimates that this will result in an annual loss of billions of dollars of income for restaurant service workers and a consequent gain for their employers.
In the scheme of our $18 trillion economy, that may sound trivial. But it's obviously significant to the waiters and waitresses who will see a major salary cut if the changes go into effect — and it's especially revealing because of what it tells us about today's Republican Party.
The GOP was the U.S. party more likely to defend the interests of big business long before Ronald Reagan brought supply-side economics and the Laffer Curve into the Oval Office. Still, those innovations were significant — not least in the ideological justifications that accompanied them. Why should ordinary Americans vote for and cheer on a party that primarily helps wealthy capitalists by cutting their taxes and eliminating burdensome regulations? Because it's the latter who start the businesses and create the jobs. Make things easier for capital, and capital will reward workers with income and the benefits that go along with it. That rationale helped re-elect Reagan in 1984, and then elect George H.W. Bush in 1988 and his son in 2000 and 2004.
With President Trump, things got more complicated. Here was a Republican who ran against the status quo instituted by Reagan and overseen with a minimum of adjustment by Republican and Democratic administrations alike over the past four decades. The implication of Trump's campaign for president was that the populist rhetoric of standard-issue post-Reagan Republicans was a crock. But Trump promised he would be the real deal, transforming the GOP into a true workers' party and fighting for the interests of ordinary Americans, even over the objections of the fat cats on Wall Street and in Washington.
But over the past year — and especially since house populist Stephen Bannon left the Trump administration last August — such rhetoric has begun to sound even more hollow than normal, as the president has signed off on a standard-issue Republican agenda of tax and regulatory cuts that benefit big business. Working-class Republican voters cast ballots for populism but got plutocracy instead.
Of course, Republicans would argue that this is a tendentious way of describing the party's priorities. Yes, they would say, their policies benefit employers. But conferring such benefits on businesses is the surest way to encourage economic growth, job creation, and higher wages for workers. A rising tide lifts all boats.
It's true that in the weeks since the Republican tax plan became law, this is exactly what has appeared to be happening. Tens of millions of American workers have seen an increase in their take-home pay, and many have also reaped the additional benefit of a one-time bonus check, which several large corporations have given out to employees while making a point of crediting the corporate tax cut for having made it possible.
This makes it difficult for the left to press its case politically against the pro-business agenda of the GOP. After all, if drastically slashing taxes for big business has clearly led directly to a windfall for workers, then the Republican story of everyone benefiting from policies that further enrich the wealthy sounds, well, plausible.
That's why the changes proposed by the Trump Labor Department are so significant. They show the populist mask of the Republican Party slipping to reveal the plutocratic face so effectively concealed behind it.
The wait staff at most restaurants earn very little money by way of traditional salary. That helps to keep overhead down in the restaurant industry, which notoriously operates on very slim margins. In compensation, waiters and waitresses have traditionally been permitted to supplement their income with tip money. They've come to depend on the extra income — which typically represents the huge bulk of their take-home pay — just as patrons have come to view a tip given to a server as an expression of personal appreciation for a job well done.
The restaurant industry, which has pushed hard for the rule-change, would have us believe that restaurant owners will use the confiscated and pooled tips of the wait staff to reward other low-paid behind-the-scenes employees, like bus boys and kitchen staff, for their hard work. But the proposal being debated by the Labor Department does nothing to require such disbursement; restaurant owners would be perfectly within their rights to confiscate the tips and keep the money for themselves.
The consequence will be a marginal increase in the income for restaurant owners — and a substantial drop in the already meager income earned by restaurant workers. Will some restaurants teetering on the verge of bankruptcy be saved by the change? Maybe. But it will also result in vastly more waiters and waitresses being pushed closer to or below the poverty line.
Why would the Trump administration so badly screw one group of citizens just to provide a modest windfall to another?
Because in 2018, that's what it means to be a Republican.