You can sit in a building in West Coast Park in Singapore and get a reasonably clear view of America.
On one side, you can find a drive-thru fast food vendor with a full carpark, selling fries and burgers. On the other, you see a cafe nestled in the trees of one of the largest and nicest parks in the city.
Both are branches of an American multinational. The cafe food and coffee is tasty enough for a franchise; it’s easy to get worse food at more expense. The burgers are fresh.
Look right: Red state. Look left: Blue state. HBO / Fox. New York / Dallas. Thesis / antithesis.
Now, not only are these two eateries under the same roof, but they’re actually the same company – McDonald’s, and its McCafe offspring. (How it achieved a pocket monopoly with no neighbouring hawker centre is another question.)
When McDonald’s was founded, people mostly got paid to exercise. There were more blue collar, manual jobs. Cheap meat, from the first wave of agricultural mass production, was a welcome boon. Now we get paid to sit still at an office, and incomes have increased to a point where, in a rich or middle income country, it is easy to be poor and fat. It’s so easy it’s rather undesirable and déclassé – hence the backlash against fast food brands in recent years. Books and films like Fast Food Nation are as much passive economic data points as active shifters of public opinion. The threat of regulation shouldn’t be discounted, but is itself only made possible by a cultural shift.
So the popular palette has shifted, and a corporation that likes profit has shifted to match it. This hasn’t just happened on the cafe side, either. They have, for instance, healthier Happy Meals – same insidious toy hook, apple pieces instead of fries. Premium options are always good for businesses like McDonald’s with large rent and labour costs relative to the cost of their food. In the past this is why upsizing was useful. Now that leaves us terrified of being giant tubs of heart-seizuring lard, you have options like the Mighty Angus Burger, which is a more expensive cut of meat. “It’s a little bit fancy,” the Australian ad campaign runs.
Posh things have got cheaper and are more widely consumed. So cheap you can buy them at McDonald’s. This is now widespread. It’s almost the entire business model of Starbucks and Gucci. This was not so clearly the case during our journey from the Industrial Revolution. Things were often cheap and standard but not as nice as the craftware they replaced – at least what little you could afford. (Social poshness is a relative good and as scarce as ever.)
This is not an original observation, though the scale of it is, mayhaps, not appreciated enough. Marx, Schumpeter, or any economic historian could tell you about it. I asked an economist for the short technical name for it, and he replied “capitalism”.
Amusing as that is, capitalism drove price drops and standardization as much as it drove the current push to quality. I prefer the term mass gentrification. The process of luxurious unattainables becoming commodities.
For all the recent chatter of capitalism being destroyed by its own contradictions, I’m not quite sold. It has a history of transcending them.
“Are you having the thesis or the antithesis?” I asked, as my wife returned to the table at one tentacle of global McCapitalism. “The synthesis,” she said. “And it’s good.”