Saturday, October 06, 2007

Nightmare at McDonald's No. 4553!

This morning I decided I deserved a McDonald's steak-bagel breakfast. OK, whether I deserved one is debatable—but I decided to have one anyway.

Inside, I saw on the wall menu that it costs $3.69, so I peeled four crisp singles out of my wallet and announced my intentions to the 17-ish counter-girl: "I'd like a steak-bagel breakfast."

"Anything else, sir?"

"No, that'll do it."

"And what would you like for your drink?"


"Regular size?"


She did her obligatory tapping into the register, while I prepared to surrender my four bucks.

"That'll be $4.13," she said, smiling brightly.

"That's too much," I replied.

She looked stunned. "It's $3.69 plus tax, sir," she said. "Which comes to $4.13."

"Not in this state," I said. "The sales tax is 6 percent, right?"

She shrugged.

"So, that'd be 25 cents, tops. Actually, more like 23. Definitely less than four bucks in any case."

"I don't know about all that, sir. I only know what my register tells me." (We'll come back to that in a moment.)

"Well, I don't know about your register, but I do know that if you're charging me almost 50 cents tax on a $3.69 item, it's way too much, percentage-wise."

By this point the manager had become aware of the ongoing dialogue and interceded. "What is the man ordering?" the middle-aged woman asked her young employee.

"A steak bagel. He says it costs too much."

"No," I corrected, "I didn't say it 'costs too much.' I said that if the basic item costs $3.69 and you're charging me $4.13 with tax, you're charging too much tax."

The two of them did some little exercise in the computerized register, and then the manager, noticing the line that had begun to form behind me, said to me, "That'll be $3.89." Which, I knew, still wasn't quite right. (At my table later, I calculated the precise amount to be $3.91.) But at least we were on the proper side of four dollars. As I took my tray and walked away with my meal, the counter-girl was looking at me as if I'd embarrassed her horribly.

Personally, I think she embarrassed herself. (And just so you know, I hate to see people needlessly embarrassed, and I have a particular soft spot for kids in that area. I know what it's like to feel awkward and stupid. Been there, done that. But how's it my fault that the girl has no concept of what 6 percent of $3.69 could possibly be?) As I document in my book, it's no secret that the U.S. has fallen woefully behind other industrialized nations in math and science. We're shockingly low on the list, overall. (We even trail Latvia, for God's sake. Now that's embarrassing.) And in SHAM, I lay a good part of the blame on self-esteem-based education, which—in seeking first and foremost to protect the student's feelings—has conditioned kids to think they're giving a GREAT EFFORT! (as teachers will write on substandard papers), even if they add 2 + 2 and get 9. A more pertinent factor here, perhaps, is the school system's landmark decision, a generation ago, to allow kids to use calculators in class*. This is also what allows them to reach college age (and beyond) without being able to perform some of the most basic numerical operations in their heads.

Recently in Vegas I had drinks with a small group of people in one of those restaurants that "suggests a 15% tip for your convenience." The tab came to $102; the suggested tip was $21. When I mentioned the discrepancy to the waiter, the young man said something along the lines of, "You're always free to leave less than 15 percent, sir, if you were unhappy with the service." And I told him, "You're missing my point. The service was fine. But your suggested tip here is actually 20 percent, not 15." Now, you'd think that in this case especially—where the number we're working from (100) is, in fact, the very base-number from which all percentages derive—it would be a snap to prove one's case. You'd think that the waiter would readily concede that 15 percent of 100/102 would, in fact, be $15 and some change. Not $20 or anything close. But no. This fellow stood his ground, acting as if I were a Vegas magician using some strange mathematical sleight-of-hand to deny him his due. I honestly don't think he ever got it. I handed him six twenties, told him to keep the change, and he still looked miffed.**

No doubt he too—like my server at McDonald's—was a product of calculator education. They only know what their register tells them....

* And regardless of the justifications given at the time, I don't think that decision, either, was entirely unrelated to self-esteem-based goals. Schools wanted to level the playing field: to give kids with less brainpower and/or interest a means of competing "fairly" with their more skilled peers.
There may be an additional point to be made here about narcissists, who get angry at being criticizedeven when they're dead wrong. Certainly America of recent vintage has been very effective at raising a generation of self-centered, narcissistic young adults.


Cal said...

I have read that the same thing is happening to writing and speaking because of the use of e-mail and all its abbreviations.

By the way (or BTW in e-mail speak) Deborah Norville has a new self-help book out. I believe she may be trying to become a female version of Dr. Phil. I would think if you looked like her, you wouldn't need any self-help...

Anonymous said...

Steve and Cal, everything that used to be considered part of "being educated" is deteriorating in American society. And this is true no matter what you look at, math, English, geography and anything else. I hate to say it because this is what the older generation always says, but things just aren't like they used to be, period.

Cal said...


You are right about that. There was a media sensation about Miss South Carolina and her answer to a question about how 20% of Americans can't locate the U.S. on a map.

gregory said...

"And in SHAM, I lay a good part of the blame on self-esteem-based education..."

ok, but what is to be blamed for that? What is America doing wrong? Could it be a mistaken understanding about equality? When in fact some people are smart and some are not, and why educate the dumb ones at the expense of the smart ones?

Why do we expect a fast food counter worker to to be any different than your example? If they could do something else, they would be.

Human life contains all levels, from evil to angelic, from idiot to genius, from incompetent to competent. It is only America that has been running an experiment to try to elevate every different type to the same level.

This experiment is both the blessing and the burden of America. In fact this is what the human potential movement is all about, improving your lot... it's the American way, futile to protest against...


Matt Dick said...

Steve, I feel you. I hate the feeling I get when I'm dealing with someone who isn't understanding something basic, but who thinks I'm an idiot because of *how* badly they are missing my point.

I had an electrician in to rewire some things, and I asked him to please make the dual light switch in one hallway work such that the light is on when both switches are in the same position. He said, "You can't do that."

I said, "Yes you can."

He said, "No, you can't do that, no matter how I wire it, you'll sometimes have to turn one of the light switches to the 'down' position in order to turn on the light."

I have a *lot* of electrical engineering classes in my background, with all the formal logic associated with that, so at this point I realized our misunderstanding. I said, "Oh, what I meant to say is not that I need you to wire it so that 'up' is always on, because I know that is impossible; what I want is for you to wire it so that on is when the switches are in the same position and off when they are in opposite positions."

He looked at me like I was a complete moron, sighed and explained again that this was impossible. This time he demonstrated how he could always get the switches in a position where 'down' would turn the light on. This is when I realized that in his 20 years of electricianing, he'd never seen the difference I was trying to explain. If 20 years wasn't enough, I wasn't going to get him there.

I am still, 5 years later, annoyed that he left my house thinking how stupid I was.

Anonymous said...

Bill Clinton's Mandate For Fuzzy Math:

Steve M said...

A lot of people are also proud to be ignorant of things like maths and science. Its a weird culture we live in where on one level such things are encouraged and applauded (like getting good grades etc) and the other are actively discouraged (peer pressure, not wanting to be a nerd) etc..

Steve Salerno said...

That's a good point, Steve. As it happens, I have a movie on in the background--some Lifetime thing about a woman who begins a single-handed crusade against online predators--and at one point she's putting together a personal profile that mimics that of a 14-year-old, so she can masquerade as one in chat rooms. She runs it by her teenage daughter. The daughter says, "Mom, everybody is gonna know right away you're not 14. You say, 'I like to read.'"

So the mother says, "But YOU like to read!"

And the daughter says, "Yeah...but I'd never, like, admit it..."

Steak-Bagel w/o the egg please! said...

I think I can solve this mystery for you.
If you would have asked for your receipt, it would have been obvious.
McDonald's has a little-known, "take-out" charge.
I don't know if it is arbitrary or not, but in my area its about 43 cents.
If you try to avoid the take-out fee, you still have to look at your receipt, because some McDonald's also charge an "eat-in-fee", which in my area is also about 43 cents.
I wish Mickey D's would serve this item all day. And all night. I could probably eat this sandwich 3 times a day.

poolpool said...

the sandwich has been discontinued to my amazement!~WHY!!~!