Saturday, February 27, 2010

Continued Stratification

I wrote a review of Chipotle for my Watery Gourmet blog where I referred to the restaurant as the new fast food. As America's palate grew, be it caused by just greater interconnectedness or the Food Network, traditional fast food would fade and be supplanted to a degree by higher-quality food.

This is definitely happening. Burger King, Arby's, and Wendy's are all facing difficult times. McDonald's has managed growth, but is that at the expense of Chipotle or other fast food joints? I suspect it's the latter.

I also suspect that McDonald's has been aware of this market shift for a long time, going all the way back into the early 1990's when they created the Arch Deluxe. We're seeing it to an increasing degree, with McDonald's selling lattes, Dunkin' Donuts selling panini sandwiches and deli meat, and Subway overhauling their entire menu a number of years back.

Again, if you watch documentaries like Food Inc. or Super Size Me, you'll hear all of the arguments against fast food and the government subsidized cheapness of it. Cows are treated poorly, meat is of low quality, and as long as the food won't kill you, they'll sell it.

Ok, I exaggerate a bit on that last one, but it's obvious that the price point is of greatest interest to the fast food companies. The introduction of the dollar menu by Wendy's has pushed the entire industry to, effectively, a race to the bottom. The primary goal is to lower prices, but that will inevitably mean lower-quality foods. And, what with McDonald's and Dunkin' pushing out higher quality stuff, that none of them want to be part of that race.

For evidence of this, just look to the recent lawsuits between Burger King franchisees and BK corporate. The $1 double cheeseburger was actually losing money in an attempt to grab customers from the other dirt-cheap competitors. A race to the bottom means a race to zero profits.

But in much the same way as there is growing stratification in the economic and educational worlds, will we actually see increased delineation between classes in the world of food? Where the only people going to the cheap places are those to whom price is the primary determinant? Because there's certainly a market segment for whom price is more important than quality. How far will that market separate from the market where they'll pay for extra quality like Chipotle or Panera Bread? Will we get to a point where people go to McDonald's to have slop shoveled into their mouths while anyone who can afford to do so goes elsewhere, thus perpetuating a fat, ignorant, and poor lower class?

That just sounds horrible. That's Time Machine/Soilent Green level shit. But is it also inevitable? Is the necessary end result of classic capitalism social stratification perpetuated by the levels themselves because of economic forces? The lower class wants cheap food, for obvious reasons, but that only serves to send them ever-lower on the SES ladder.

That's the classic conservative model, where those that deserve a good life rise to the top. The classic liberal model would be free, good food to all. Obviously, the classic liberal model is too expensive and pie-in-the-sky to work, but is the conservative model, while feasible, what we want? Do we want to live in a world where the lower class are all but fated to stay fat, dumb, and poor?

I know that I don't. I'm a free-market capitalist like the day is long, but if that world is the end result of capitalist forces, I don't want it. I want stops and measures in place to stop that slide. We got out of that shit in the 1800's and I don't want to go back.

I'm not making a moral statement about that, mind you. I don't think that it is amoral for poor people to die in the streets. Nor is it amoral for other people to not care. But that's a nasty world in which I wouldn't want to live.

I remain hopeful. I love capitalism and democracy because both systems have pressure release valves, as I call them, built into the nature of the system. Democracy can get unbelievably broken, like it is now, but once the pressure gets bad enough, we throw all the bums out... Unlike old political systems which generally required violent revolution. Capitalism is based on the money. If the social system underlying the economics gets so out of whack that huge chunks of the populace can barely live, it collapses and we start again. At what point the system is broken enough for that to happen is a matter for the academics, but that is the backstop for the entire mess.

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