Tuesday, March 16, 2010

how capitalism works: food

One of the biggest insights of my life was this: the purpose of capitalism is profit. Capitalists will tell you capitalism is about efficiency or superiority or any number of things, but the truth is capitalism is only about profit.

Case in point: Obesity: The killer combination of salt, fat and sugar | David A Kessler | Life and style | The Guardian

(via James Veitch)


  1. I don't understand why that was a big insight, or why you think efficiency and superiority are mutually exclusive of profit. Efficiency means getting the optimum results with minimum efforts- a classic formula for profit, for example.

    As to the food examples in that article, what's new? Gee, salt, sugar and fat taste good? My grandmother's fried chicken recipe- which predates the birth of Col. Sanders, let alone KFC- also includes sugar in the batter... because it tastes good. My father's favorite breakfast meal was thick sliced jowl bacon and peanut butter sandwiches- higher salt, fat, and sugar than any egg McMuffin. You don't need any capitalist conspiracies to explain why we're fat- the American diet has been a fat explosion waiting to happen for 400 years; the only thing different today is that we spend the day sitting on our asses in front of the computer instead of doing work that involves physical activity. Look at pictures from a hundred years ago- those who worked with their brains instead of their bodies have ALWAYS ran to fat; that's where the expression "fat cat" came from. Capitalist food merchants are merely trying to optimize those things we demonstrably want at the minimumcost to themselves- which sounds like efficiency.

    That high-fat fast food isn't healthy isno secret, and not news; books on the subject are old enough to be grandparents. But what people are willing to pay for is a whole lot different from what they say they want. If people start buying healthy food, then restaurant chians will start competing in that instead. Or do you think it's their duty to offer only those items nobody will buy and go bankrupt on principle?

  2. Look at pictures from a hundred years ago- those who worked with their brains instead of their bodies have ALWAYS ran to fat; that's where the expression "fat cat" came from.

    Er- according to my handy-dandy book of word and phrase origins, which is admittedly not always accurate, the expression "fat cat" was coined in 1928 to describe people who made large political donations.

    I'm not sure "people who work with their brains instead of their bodies" and "people who make large political donations" are really the same group even if there might be a certain amount of overlap. /ending nitpick now

  3. Of course efficiency is desired only when profitable. If you have 99% efficiency and go bankrupt, what purpose has been served? Did you know that the old fashioned steam locomotive was only about 3% efficient? Paddlewheel steamers hardly moreso? But they were both effective and profitable. Modern cars are more than ten times as efficient- because it is now profitable to make them so.

    The size of the plate doesn't change the nature of the food. My father's jowl bacon and peanut butter sandwhich is still a heart attack on rye even on a smaller plate.

    Of course corporations exist to serve the shareholder- that's the stated reason for their creation. Let me re-phrase my final question from above: do you think that if the public suddenly demanded smaller portions of healthier food, Burger King would refuse to serve them? Would they say, "I don't care what you want, nor how much money I'd make selling it to you- we're only going to cook crap!"

    You can't divorce the corporation from the customer. If the customer buys, the corporation makes money. If the customer doesn't, the corporation doesn't. Vegan and health-conscious restaurants exist- but they're a niche market only. If people patronized them in numbers, they'd steal market share from MickeyDee, and so the clown would start selling tofu... but the people don't so the clown doesn't.

    serialbabbler- a "certain amount" of overlap? How many sharecroppers, coal miners, factory workers, and construction workers made huge political donations in 1928?

  4. Joel, plate size often dictates how much is consumed. The admonition "clean your plate" wasn't as likely to make you fat when the plate was smaller. I'm not discounting other factors here. I'm adding to them.

    People tend to eat and like what's available. Capitalism tends to be conservative--don't mess with what works. Even if "what works" is killing your workers or your customers in the long run.

    The biggest lie of capitalism is "the customer is king." Or rather, it points to a truth about kings--everyone can only choose from what they're offered.

    I would have more sympathy for the argument that fast food places must serve what they serve if we weren't subsidizing the meat and sugar industries.

  5. I'll sidestep the food debate for now (although DairyStateMom, who's been reading all about the topic, is definitely on your side, Will). But this story, about booze, not food, makes a similar point, even more sharply.

  6. I'm not sure that example does make a similar point. It's entirely possible that the intent of that company is to corrupt school girls; there are unethical people in all walks of life- I haven't investigated this particular product or company. But not all marketing ploys are attempts at evil; there are other logical explanations possible.

    Take the packaging- yes, it looks like energy drinks. But it looks like a lot of other things, too- I have in my cupboard a laundry detergent and an oven cleaner using the same color schemes and similar modern type fonts. And, tragically, some children drink household chemicals; that's why they invented "Mr. Yuck" labels- but I doubt the corporations made them those colors to entice children to drink them. Bright colors and snazzy fonts are used to sell all kinds of products to all ages- because they work; adults also prefer the snazzy packaging. That's why the energy drinks are brightly colored, too- and I wouldn't want my child drinking them, either.

    And yes, young girls like fruit flavored drinks- so do young adult women. In my day, it was Boone's Farm. And if you look at the picture, you'll see that Boone's Farm also comes in brightly colored bottles with fruit on the labels, and could easily be mistaken for fruit juice by a child. Knowing the popularity of Boone's Farm, and other sweet drinks such as Long Island Ice Tea and cocktails with umbrellas among women, don't you think it's probable that Smirnoff and Mike's are just trying to get a piece of that market?

    Which gets back to my point- corporations are customer driven. If you want a gag-making drink that tastes like medicine, they'll sell you scotch; if you want a drink that tastes like pop, they'll sell you Boone's Farm- or Smirnoff alcoholpops. If you want an artery-hardening sandwich, they'll sell you a burger; if you want low fat, they'll sell you one of Jared's Subway sandwiches. The choices are out there. All they want is your money; if you ask for it, they'll make it, if you stop buying it, they'll stop making it. Just don't ask for it and then complain when they give it to you.

  7. Joel, customers buy for lots of reasons. If we had a great public education system that taught people how to be critical consumers, I would have more sympathy for the argument that businesses should be free to get away with anything that doesn't immediately kill people. How many people know the difference between corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup? We have a highly-illiterate society--I haven't followed the sources, but Wikipedia's article says, "All over the U.S.A. 30 million (14% of adults) are unable to perform simple and everyday literacy activities."

    Why don't we have critical consumers? Because there's no incentive under capitalism to make consumers more critical. Workers only need to know enough to work, and to buy.

    To make this more precise: the logic of socialism requires educating people to do what's best for them and their society. The logic of capitalism requires exploiting people to the full extent of the law--which is made by the capitalists.

    Oh, a last point: you seem to think advertising doesn't work. That's all education is, advertising. Burgers are before people constantly. But truly healthy foods in healthy proportions? They ain't there.

  8. Joel, you're pointing to the folks for whom our schools work. The schools are not designed for everyone to succeed.

    What capitalist governments want you to believe is that capitalism is best for you. That's especially obvious in the Texas textbook discussion going on now. Right-libertarians want less government--but they still want enough government to protect the rich and promote the idea that rich people deserve their privileges.

  9. serialbabbler- a "certain amount" of overlap? How many sharecroppers, coal miners, factory workers, and construction workers made huge political donations in 1928?

    How many teachers did? College professors? Writers? Artists? Local preachers? I was mostly objecting to the "people who work with their brains" side of your comment. Being rich doesn't mean you're working although I suppose you might have a brain.

    Wendy's wraps aren't really all that healthy, by the way. They tend to be very high in sodium. For example, the "Spicy Chicken Go Wrap" has 960 mg of sodium. They're healthier than most of the hamburgers, but they still aren't good for you. Wendy's isn't likely to put that in the advertising, though.

  10. You have a point about teachers, etc., but the only thing I meant by the "working with their brains" comment was that being a stockbroker or whatever doesn't involve much work in the newton meters per second category that burns calories.

    Yeah, the wraps aren't great, but they're better than a Culver butterburger. I've not been arguing through this that fast food corporations are great for nutrition- only that they don't exist in a vacuum, and they are making what people want. Yes, if that's the only thing you ever eat, it will kill you... but the same thing can be said about 3/4 the items on the grocery shelves, too. The sodium level in most canned vegetables is as bad as those wraps, and they've had most of their nutrition values boiled out of them in processing. Remember the talk about ketchup being a vegetable in school lunches back in the Reagan years? The laughter stopped when it was pointed out that the ketchup actually had more nutritional value than most of the institutionaly canned vegetables that were being served...

  11. Oh, I knew what your point was. That's why I called my comment nitpicking. :)

    If most of the fast food is crap, and most of the food on the grocery shelves is crap, and the advertising is designed to make us think things are healthy when they aren't, and we've all got to eat something... How is it that we're supposed to be able to tell the corporations we want healthier food through our buying habits? I'm not really prepared to go on a hunger strike.

  12. Serial, if you went on a hunger strike, they would interpret it the same way they interpret folks who stop hunting for work: obviously, you're content.

  13. If *I* went on a hunger strike, it would probably be good for me. I've enough stored up to last a lot longer than Jesus did.

  14. Food, health and the sources of each are subjects near and dear to my heart. I'll try to restrain myself from going on and on, but I have to admit, it will be hard. :P

    It is true that corporations will make what the public demands, up to a point. However, even taking into account public demand, the mandate of a corporation is to provide a profit to its shareholders; their job is not to give consumers what we want, it is to derive a profit for shareholders. Be very clear on this point, and be aware that it is true on any scale at which you choose to look at a corporation.

    When a corp, like McD's, decides to produce wraps, change to efficient lightbulbs and eliminate styrofoam packaging, they are doing it because the consumer demanded it. AND because they can earn a profit from it. If the consumer demanded those changes, but the corporation couldn't accrue a profit from it, they would not have made the changes, no matter how loud the public howled.

    Joel Monka said: "The failures of our public schools are the failure of government- hardly an argument for more government. Even so, I wonder about those literacy figures. How many of those adults are illegal aliens who never went through our schools?"

    This is me, opening up a big can of worms.

    It can be argued that the failures in the public school system could be rectified with more governmental oversight. I certainly think that better funding for schools, even up to government subsidies for schools instead of for corn would be fantastic. In this case, throwing money at the problem would help to fix it.

    Imagine if the schools had enough money to lure away top tier intellectuals, recruit master's and doctoral students, buy the most recent textbooks, stock their libraries with primary source materials, attend scholastic competitions, expand their afterschool programs, do outreach to the sector of their communities that are outside the traditional school ages... What if schools had enough money to actually thoroughly educate the community that they serve?

    What if public libraries had enough money to do everything they wanted to do? Continuing education, seminars, speakers, hosting club events, expanding the book selections, and on and on...

    Downsizing schools is not the answer to a worsening public education experience; reducing governmental oversight and assistance to schools is also not the answer.

    Government exists to aid its citizens. Government does not exist to aid its corporations, despite the decisions by the Supreme Court to make corporations into citizens (a set of decisions that I sharply disagree with.)

  15. As for the idea of a 'hunger strike' type of response to corporate food: the corporations will assume you are content, for a while at least. Once they start to realize that they've lost a significant percentage of their consumer base, they'll start to react. After all, McD's did institute the changes I listed above in response to loosing a percentage of their customers. And it worked, because McD's earned those consumers back.

    My personal version of a hunger strike goes thusly: we don't buy fast food. When we want to go out to eat, we choose a restaurant that is aggressively sustainable, buys local produce and groceries, is locally owned, and pays it's workers a living wage. Even in our small town, there are a few places that meet our requirements, and the food they serve, in addition to being green, sustainable, local and fair, is also tasty, delicious and nutritious.

    For grocery shopping, we utilize the farmers markets, the locally owned grocery store (even though the prices are higher), and have a garden in the front yard. We also have chickens in the back yard for both eggs and meat. We use a local butcher, too. I'm sure the corporations haven't noticed our specific four hundred dollars a month missing, yet. But I also know that we're not the only ones making buying choices like ours.

    There is a reason there is a growing movement that's been getting a lot of press lately, and starting to get mentioned in the business pages. Look for references to 'slow food', 'locavores' and 'sustainable food.' We are here, and we are starting to make a difference. It started with the rise of the organic foods, and will continue with us dirty hippie weird food folks.

    (oh, and, just to toss out another log for the fire: our family of four, with that four hundred dollar food budget, pays for all our food with food stamps. So in our own little way, we're helping the government subsidize non-corporate food.)

  16. If I had a garden in the front yard, the neighbors would have no place to beat each other up... Well, okay, they could technically use their own yards, but that would suck all the drama out of it. *grin*

    Flint and Detroit both have excellent year round farmer's markets. Unfortunately, the farmer's market where I currently live is mostly for tourists. It's the go to place for stinky soap, fancy cheese, and potato knishes, but fresh produce is a bit harder to find. (The local politics can get pretty nasty. A lot of the vendors get driven out by poor treatment at some point.)

    One of these days I'm going to buy a half share in a CSA, though. That'll show those corperations.

  17. Oh, and, if you're interested, here's a blog from a high school teacher who decided to raise awareness about school lunches (an interesting overlap in the issues of both food and education) by eating school provided lunch every day, and blogging about her experience.


    Very interesting and illuminating.

  18. artisticzenlife, excellent link! I hope they keep working on that issue.