18
Sep
10

In which I defend Matt Yglesias from Andrew Sullivan

What’s next — a rain of frogs?

So here’s Yglesias saying intelligent things about chain restaurants:

[I]f we ever see the kind of changes in agriculture and food consumption that Philpott and I would like to see—something healthier and more ecologically sustainable—it’s likely to happen largely through the mechanism of chains and branding. As long as technology keeps advancing, human time and human labor will keep getting more valuable. That means that people will increasingly want someone else to do their food preparation for them, and also that innovations that allow food prep to be done with less labor power will be more and more rewarded. That means chains and franchises that can rationalize the production process and who have sufficient scale to reap the rewards of investing in organizational innovation.

From a public health standpoint, there’s a lot to like about chains. Since they have scale and standardization, you can get them to disclose nutritional information and many already do so to at least some extent voluntarily. What’s more, there’s nothing impossible in principle with the idea of a chain serving organic food—I get salads from these guys all the time. And with large chains and brands it’s actually feasible to monitor the claims people are making about their supply chain. It’s pretty well known at this point that a lot of “big organic” stuff is in many ways fraudulent, but the whole reason we know that is that we’re talking about large-scale producers whose operations people took the time to look into.

More generally, the vast majority of people won’t consistently do any one “right thing” unless it’s convenient to the point of transparency.  For example, hypermilers can achieve ludicrously high fuel efficiency with techniques like “pulse and glide” — essentially, turning the engine off and coasting in neutral when it makes sense to do so.  No-one who’s not an enthusiast is going to shut off their car’s engine at 60mph in the middle of rush-hour traffic just because they see an opportunity to shift into neutral down that hill.  But if they’re driving a car using a transportation appliance like the Toyota Prius, they don’t have to think about it. The car’s ECU and transmission controller will do it for them.  Bingo: now you can get 50mpg without knowing how or why.  It makes car nerds like me cry ourselves to sleep, but it does the job far better than my pontifications about the obvious and natural advantages of modern diesel engines.

Similarly, as Yglesias points out, with “sustainable agriculture”.  I don’t think it’s happened yet, but if good food makes it to the mainstream it’ll be because some chain like Panera — or, more likely, McDonald’s — makes it trivially convenient for J. Random Consumer to buy a healthy meal.  As it is, if you want healthy you have to cook it yourself (don’t kid yourself about that Booster Juice or noodle stand on the corner: most fast food is shit no matter how much you paid for it), and most people who can afford not to aren’t willing to do that.  (Furthermore, most people who can’t afford not to cook their own food can’t afford to eat healthy, either, unless they shop at Wal*Mart.)  But if I can get cheap fast food that has plenty of protein and fibre and won’t set off an insulin avalanche?  Score!  That’s a huge market just waiting to be tapped, and big chains are in the best place to do it.

Andrew Sullivan isn’t convinced:

Sure, McDonald’s, Chili’s, The Cheesecake Factory, and countless other chains disclose their nutritional information – and their customers ignore it. Meanwhile, they’re serving enormous portions of relatively unhealthy food.

What’s this?  Consumers are thinking for themselves?  And they’re making decisions of which Sullivan does not approve?

So, uh… maybe listing “nutritional information” (calorie and macronutrient counts) isn’t such a big fuckin’ deal after all.  But Sully misses the point with verve and enthusiasm: big chains are a (potential) vector for “healthy” food habits, just as car companies are a vector for fuel-efficient driving habits.

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4 Responses to “In which I defend Matt Yglesias from Andrew Sullivan”


  1. September 18, 2010 at 22:55

    I don’t think it’s happened yet, but if good food makes it to the mainstream it’ll be because some chain like Panera — or, more likely, McDonald’s — makes it trivially convenient for J. Random Consumer to buy a healthy meal.

    Fast food chains are already doing this. All one could get in the bad old days (when dinosaurs roamed the earth, or about 1977) at McDs was soda pop and burgers. Today, one can order a salad and a bottle of water. You can order your kids fruit and not french fries. Milk instead of soda pop. And so on.

    We’ll get there, bit by bit. And when the Glorious Day arrives, the professional worry-worts will easily find something else to be unhappy about. Like my littlest dog barking at the mailman, it’s what they do best.

    • September 18, 2010 at 23:05

      Sticking to my automotive analogy, I think fast food these days is in the same place as car companies in the Malaise era. “You can get a salad at McDonald’s” is about on par with “You can get an I4 in your Fox-body Mustang”. (Let’s not talk about the engine options in the C3 ‘vettes… it’ll make me weep.)

      Yes, we’re getting there. By no means are we there yet, but we’re getting there.

  2. February 11, 2014 at 21:31

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