Thursday, March 16, 2006

Out of Order

I was going to do the wombats first, but Lee Harris's article at TCSDaily moved McDonald's into the next slot.

What is it about McDonalds that draws the ire of so many? It is large and visible, which is certainly a great factor. Eurofear of the US always includes a mention of the Golden Arches® as a culturally hegemonous soul-grabber, and Americans often apologize for it when discussing international relations. “You can see why they’d be suspicious of our culture which has to date mostly exported McDonalds and navel rings to them.” There is this enormous European worry that their cultures will be unable to withstand the onslaught. Once fast food becomes available it will inexorably push out all those unique, quaint places to eat. Oh, the horror!

Picture this, then: You and the missus are taking a weekend holiday and have driven several hours from home, and as night closes in and you grow hungry you begin to search for a place to eat. You approach a small seafood restaurant with a tacky name in a bad neighborhood. Well, it might be a really find, eh? Inexpensive little out-of-the-way place with excellent mussels and no one knows about it! But you’re not going to find out, are you? Because you aren’t going to stop there. You’re going to look for Someplace Else. Theoretically, I like searching out interesting little inns and cafes when I travel. But I also like clean restrooms and wiped tables and the aura of quality control. These sets of restaurant values do not always coincide in Europe, where even in Great Britain the loo at the restaurant could be strongly reminiscent of the facilities at American gas stations. Or summer camps.

In the 1960’s my mother would almost weep with relief at seeing a Howard Johnson’s while traveling. She knew there was zero chance of discovering a quaint little out-of-the-way place she would like better.

Eurofear. McDonalds. Where was I? I don’t think McDonalds-hatred stems from anyone’s deep concern for my nutrition (though that is put forward as the reason). And though the vegetable eaters focus on McDonalds as a primary enemy, that’s not a very logically sustainable position, so that’s not it either. Then there are folks who hate it when someone else makes money -- but even that’s only a partial explanation.

There is an arrogant elitism in the disapproval. We who are wise and discerning know how to avoid all this cultural coarsening, but the great unwashed are unable to resist. Worse, McDonalds is not a secret that only those special few know about.

These American imports succeed because Europeans also choose to go there and spend their money, BTW.

A common refrain is “No one was clamoring for a McDonalds before it came. It wasn’t supply and demand.” Oh, but they were and it was. There was already a market for 1) beef sandwiches, chips and coke long before these foods were purveyed at the golden arches. There was already a desire for 2) quick, accurate service, and a preference for 3) clean tables and restrooms. There was already a market for 4) restaurants in high-traffic areas. Did I mention 5) inexpensive? What else could you possibly characterize as demand?

There are still old-style pubs of course, and bully for them. They are offering something that people actually find worth paying for. Money is not the measure of all things, or even most things, but it’s an excellent measure of what we actually do prefer, rather than what we say we prefer.

Bill Bryson gets halfway to the right answer as he bemoans the loss of disappearing Britain. Certain trains no longer run because “They don’t pay for themselves,” and Bryson correctly notes that very few things in life pay for themselves. Public libraries don’t. Parks, zoos, and museums don’t. For unknown reasons he stops his reasoning there, not proceeding to the question “Who does pay for them, and why?” Not only those things that make for local culture, and quaintness, and tradition, but public safety, public health – we agree to pay for some and not for others. We don’t buy all possible good things, so how do we choose?

Alarmists to the contrary it is not true that there are only two types of water, clean and dirty, or only two types of vehicle, safe and unsafe. How clean? How safe? Or would you rather have whatever’s behind curtain #3? If you want a McDonalds-free town there are costs, and ultimately towns find that the hidden costs are much higher than they projected. There are a thousand ways that we wish the world would be instead of the way it is. Here’s the key: you have to find someone willing to pay for it.

1 comment:

pst314 said...

"A common refrain is 'No one was clamoring for a McDonalds before it came. It wasn’t supply and demand.' Oh, but they were and it was."

Spot on. I was born in the 1950's, and I well remember the problem of finding a good restaurant and a good motel.

'course some people have a very casual attitude toward food poisoning and dirty sheets...especially when they happen to somebody else.