DRI-258 for week of 8-3-14: ’10 Things You Shouldn’t Order in a Restaurant’ Are Really 11 Signs of Cultural Decay

An Access Advertising EconBrief: 

’10 Things You Shouldn’t Order in a Restaurant’ Are Really 11 Signs of Cultural Decay

Mainstream economics has become overwhelmingly quantitative. Economic theory is exclusively mathematical while empirical economics is highly statistical. Alas, this is faux quantification, since the theoretical mathematics is wrongly focused, badly used and too narrow to be of much practical use. Statistical economics, consisting of ever-more-complex regression and simulation models, is even more dubious. Leading economists have committed a succession of embarrassing faux pas, notably an obsessive misuse of the concept of “statistical significance.”

These errors have diverted attention away from cultural study. Economic consultants blithely assumed that they could convert the Soviet Union into a kind of blackboard version of a market economy by advising central planners. When this proved chimerical, the consultants collected their fees and went back to their figurative drawing boards full of models.

This space has often cited the observation by F.A. Hayek that free capitalist markets promote rational behavior rather than requiring it for successful operation. That is, by rewarding those who behave rationally, free markets tend to impart an evolutionary bias in favor of reason, much as the principle of natural selection tends to reward characteristics conducive to survival of a species.

It is time to ponder the reversibility of this relationship. We should ask whether the disparagement of capitalism and suppression of free markets does not, in fact, tend to encourage human irrationality.

A recent article generated by the website answer.com and syndicated on the Internet provides a case in point.

10 Things [Really 11] That You Shouldn’t Order in a Restaurant

The article is a familiar sort of contemporary “insider investigative writing.” Somebody purporting to be in the know offers special knowledge to the hoi polloi as a gratuitous prophylactic gesture.

You, among millions of Americans every day, walk into a McDonald’s restaurant. You consider your order. To energize your system, you choose a McCafe…

No, you don’t. Because, according to the anonymous author of this article, “…the machines are routinely neglected and rarely cleaned at most McDonald’s restaurants. Most employees are not even trained on its cleaning and maintenance. All the McCafe beverages [are] run through the dirty machine.”

This is a representative specimen of the 10 Things You Shouldn’t Order In A Restaurant. In fact, there were actually 11 cautionary cases in the particular article sampled, not 10 – but that is probably the least important thing about the piece. Indeed, it is not even a defect; since when does a consumer object to getting more goods and services than promised? The phrase “particular article sampled” highlights what will soon emerge as an overpowering irony – answer.com is actually serving up previously prepared content, repackaged and recycled with new titles and spruced up with a fresh example of two. That is, it is giving its readers exactly what it accuses the ‘offending’ restaurants in this article of serving their customers.

 

For our purposes, it is best to group these cases according to the unifying logical principle that unites them.

Restaurants Are Guilty of Implicit Dishonesty in Product “Labeling”

According to the author, restaurants are guilty of implicit dishonesty because they produce and present their products in ways that you would not approve if you knew about it. Notice the use of “you” above rather than “we.” The difference between “you” and “we” is “me” or, in this case, the universal “he” represented by the author. He does know about it – or claims to. That is the tenor of the article; an insider explaining to the suckers how they are being taken for a ride. We might compare it to a con man gone straight, explaining the tricks of the trade as expiation for his sins. Readers are expected to suck in their breath and wince at each new revelation.

“Wendy’s Chili” is a prime example. “The meat in the chili is the leftover meat that dries up until there is enough for a batch of chili…they just add hot water to [unsold leftover chili] and mix it up.” Shocking! But compare that with the depredation represented by “Meatloaf.” “There is often more filler than meat in most meat loaf served in restaurants. They drown the meatloaf in sauce and seasonings, so you won’t notice the lack of taste and meat.” Who knew?

The “BBQ Sandwiches at KFC” example offers a truly stunning expose. “The BBQ sandwich is made up from old chicken and soaked in BBQ sauce.” The news that BBQ sandwiches at Kentucky Fried Chicken are composed of chicken soaked in BBQ sauce – rather than, say, veal marinated in white wine – is a crushing blow. But at least we can hope the higher-quality menu items live up to their implicit billing. No, nothing escapes the author’s merciless gaze. Even the “Gourmet Burgers” are destined for infamy. “Many restaurants try and use one expensive ingredient in a burger, and then label it ‘gourmet’ with a significantly higher price tag. Most so-called expensive ingredients are overrated, used in extremely small amounts, or mixed with other ingredients making them cheaper to use.”

What about the specials? No good; “restaurant[s] usually put…extra ingredients about to expire…out as the next day’s special, disguised in a sauce. They use the sauce to hide the fact that the ingredients are… past their prime.” Well, we can surely patronize the “Best Sellers” and be assured of top-quality dishes of fresh vintage, right? Certainly not. “Many think that best sellers have high turnover. However, to keep up with demand, restaurants will pre-make the top sellers, leaving them to sit around and develop food borne illness. By ordering a less popular item, it is more likely to be made to order.”

Restaurants are Ripping You Off

Why are restaurants behaving like jerks? Do they have a focused dislike for you particularly? (Indeed, it would seem that the prior question should be “why are restaurants ‘behaving’ at all?” since bricks, mortar, stone and wood do not ordinarily assume human characteristics and perform human actions.) Although the author does not address this question directly, he does provide an indirect answer: Restaurants are trying to rip you off by providing poor value for price.

Take the outrageous case of “Ice Cream.” “…Unless it is made in house or is some sort of exotic ice cream, it is not worth it. You can go to any grocery store and buy the exact same thing they are serving you for ten times the price (sic).” Not content with a 1000% markup, the author doubles the ante. “Iceberg Lettuce” is “…one of the cheapest items that you can buy in a grocery store… ninety eight percent water and then marked up at least twenty times at a restaurant. Plus germs can hide in the cracks of the lettuce.”

Restaurants Are Criminally Negligent of their Customers’ Health

Speaking of germs, that brings us to a really serious matter. Restaurants aren’t merely trying to take your money. They’re trying to rob you of your health, too. It isn’t just that they don’t clean their machines. Why, they deliberately “leave” their biggest-selling items to “sit around and develop food borne illness!” (And you thought it was people who became ill, not foods.)

In “Hot Dogs at the BallPark,” the author slaughters a venerable American sacred cow – or perhaps a porcine metaphor might be more fitting. “[Hot dogs] are kept in water after [!] they are grilled. Any hot dogs left at the end of the day are put back in the refrigerator, and [sold subsequently].” Presumably, the bacteriological horror committed here is so ghastly that it must be left to the imagination.

We should note that the change in venue illustrates the recycled nature of the answer.com product. Since the “ball park” is hardly a restaurant, this example is obviously cribbed from another article such as “10 Things You Should Never Order Out.” Curiously, readers did not comment on this clear-cut violation of the article’s product “label.”

Reader Comments

And that brings us to reader comments, often the most interesting and enlightening aspect of these articles. This author was able to peruse only a representative sample of comments, but they proved as chillingly illuminating as a proverbial slap in the face.

With a few exceptions, readers were scathing in their condemnation of the author’s writing style (“he’s lucky to have a job”) and his impressionistic approach to his subject. Yet the comments were most memorable for what they did not say. They apparently failed to recognize the implicit absurdity of the diatribe against fast food in general. They missed the utter economic illogic running through the entire piece. Worst of all, they missed the ideological implications with which the article was pregnant.

The comment by one David Goodwin is particularly meaningful. After refuting several of the author’s specific examples – apparently on the basis of Goodwin’s personal experience in the restaurant business – Mr. Goodwin continues in this schizophrenic vein: “…Almost ALL fast food joints use already prepared food that the store just customizes. It mostly comes from Sysco Foods, PFG and US Food Service. Yes, everywhere you go uses PREPARED food from these companies. Even a 5-star restaurant I was sous chef in used one or more of these companies. If you want good wholesome food you will have to make it yourself. Capitalist America does NOT CARE ABOUT YOUR HEALTH. [italic emphasis added]”

Mr. Goodwin, like most readers, recognizes the factual inaccuracy of this article. Yet this does not stop him from embracing the author’s pejorative view of the restaurant industry in general or fast food in particular. To top off this contradictory evaluation, he blames the shortcomings of the status quo on capitalism – opening the door to the implication that “socialist America” could produce the “good wholesome food” that as of now can only be had through self-sufficiency.

The Truth About Restaurants and Fast Food

The truth about restaurants and fast food lies at the opposite pole from the rantings of the answer.com author. It is equally distant from the reactionary leftism of Mr. Goodwin.

It is unnecessary to employ statistical regression to verify that restaurants in general and fast food (or casual-service) restaurants in particular, constitute a ferociously competitive sector – arguably, the most competitive in the U.S. economy. Entry into the business is easy. Franchising has given countless average Americans a paint-by-numbers entrée to the corporate business world that was heretofore unimaginable. But new restaurants fail in large numbers because the discipline and demands of the business are fearsome.

Each of the abuses complained of by the author could conceivably exist in the United States of America on a random, occasional basis. But the author clearly intends that we consider them universal, permanent features of the restaurant landscape, as witness his title “10 Things You Should Never Order in A[ny] Restaurant.” This is insanely ridiculous. Evaluated in this sense, his article is dreck.

Let us consider the charges and specifications brought by the author against restaurants and fast food. First comes the charge of dishonesty in product labeling. Contemplate the “phony meatloaf” charge leveled against restaurants that substitute “filler” for meat, then “drown the meatloaf in sauce and seasonings so you won’t notice the lack of taste and meat.” If there were laws of logic, the author would be charged with a capital crime for this passage. How can a dish “drown[ed] in sauce and seasonings” suffer the defect of “lack of taste?” But setting aside this mammoth contradiction, ponder the implication of the words “so you won’t notice.” Taking those words at face value, this restaurateur (or chef) has achieved a feat worthy of a James Beard culinary prize and a Nobel Prize in economics. He has substituted flavorings for meat and cheaper for more costly inputs while producing a final product that the consumer likes equally well. And we are supposed to complain about this feat of magic?

Of course, the truth is that the author was so blinded by his prejudice and inner need to prejudice the reader against restaurants that he lost the ability to write coherent prose. Examine the one case not yet discussed – “Anything With Steak or Beans at Taco Bell.” “The beans look like cat food when they come to the restaurant. Employees just add water and stir…When the steak sits too long it becomes like hair gel.” Here, the author has no crime to allege and is reduced to hurling insults – and not even at the final product but at the inputs. Do the beans taste bad? No, they “look like cat food” – a quixotic sort of insult since cat food looks just as appetizing as human foods like canned tuna and salmon. The author does not say whether the steak “becomes like hair gel” in texture, taste or appearance, leaving the reader to puzzle over what hair-gel experience the author is bringing to the table.

His overweening prejudice leads the author to criminalize food-preparation practices followed by every household and every reader of this article. Is there a household in America that does not take food uneaten during a meal and “put [it] back in the refrigerator,” to “come out again the next day” like the hot dogs at the ball park? Is there a reader of the article unfamiliar with the concept of leftovers?

Similarly, the author criminalizes acts of standard restaurant business practice that are followed by every household. What household chef has not had to “pre-make” dinner for a working spouse or children engaged in extra-curricular activities? If a precise estimate of demand is not available for the average household of 2.1 persons, why is it a crime for a restaurant unable to precisely gauge its dinner demand to pre-make food? Or retain excess or unordered food? Could a household remain solvent if it followed the food-retention policies implicitly demanded by the author; e.g., discarded all “ingredients” still usable but “about to expire?” Indeed, could the author? Does he?

The acid test of fast food or any restaurant food is not what the author thinks its inputs look like or how it was put together or what the author thinks consumers think they are getting. It is not even what regulators think or what the health inspector thinks. The acid test is what consumers think about the food’s taste, its effect on their health and well-being and about their reaction to the dining experience – if any. It is superfluous to point out that consumers don’t need the author’s opinions to render their judgments. The fast-food industry alone accounts for $117 billion in annual sales in the U.S. The tacit premise of this article is that those consumers are idiots.

The usual effect of substituting filler – whatever that might be – for meat is a less palatable meatloaf. And the usual effect of that is consumers stop buying the product. That is how markets work. Any restaurant that can reverse this presumption is rewarding consumers as well as itself; it should be lauded, not condemned. It is the restaurant’s job to use sauces to improve dishes, whether by “disguising” flavors or enhancing them. How well it succeeds is decided by consumers; that is how markets work. If restaurants follow practices that promote the spread of “food borne [sic] disease,” than consumers get sick and attribute their illness to their restaurant experience. When that happens, other consumers shun the offending restaurants in droves. Disease-spreading restaurants go out of business. That is how markets work.

And that is the most insidious effect of this answer.com article. Without ever admitting what he is up to -perhaps even without conscious intent – the author is nourishing the suspicion in the minds of his readers that markets don’t work. If we take him at face value, they don’t work because you – the consumer – are too bloody stupid. You can be taken in by those evil geniuses, the “restaurants,” who trick you with fillers and sauces and grillers and just plain hot water – boy, you’re dumb. Not like the author. He is smart. He is on to those evil restaurateurs.

If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?

The great economic historian Deirdre (formerly Donald) McCloskey would interrupt the author at this point with what she calls “the American question”: “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” Our author is a restaurant insider, wise in the ways and wiles of the industry. He knows what is good for consumers, who are being hosed by incumbent producers – according to him. Sellers are enjoying 1000% and 2000% markups on some items that can be had in groceries – or so he claims. He wants to help consumers; that is why he writes articles like this. But why stop at telling them their troubles? Why not actually help them, and make a fortune in the process? After all, a successful restaurant can make good money; that is the return for all those long, hard hours of work and the expertise needed to give diners what they want.

The author could go into partnership with Mr. Goodwin, who – unlike capitalist America- cares about the health of Americans. Their business plan is already written; their blueprint is clear. Mr. Goodwin knows that prepared good is not “good wholesome food.”(Notice that Mr. Goodwin levels two charges against the Syscos and US Foods of the world; their food is neither palatable nor is it safe to eat.) Mr. Goodwin, the former sous chef, also has restaurant experience. Why don’t these two join forces to show Taco Bell and Wendy’s and McDonald’s how it’s done? Since they are convinced that one of the world’s largest countries is crying out for something good and safe to eat, they presumably are assured of a market for their products. With industry expertise, a guaranteed market, a pricing umbrella spread out by corporate price leaders and yawning pricing margins just waiting to be exploited, they certainly shouldn’t have any trouble attracting investors for their venture. New restaurants still open up every day with poorer prospects than these.

The two share a gospel for restaurant practice: When in doubt, throw it out! Prepare no dish before its time! Make only products that consumers cannot make for themselves. “Gourmet” foods must not only taste exceptional, their cost must also be exceptional. And everything sold at low prices and no markups, just as it is in those gastronomic paradises, the socialist countries of the world.

And no long lines, of course. It wouldn’t be fast food otherwise, would it?

What are they waiting for?

 

Reader Reaction

The cultural inferences stemming from this article do not flow from its poverty of fact, logic, grammar, or punctuation. They are unrelated to its ideological tendentiousness, lamentable though that is. They derive from readers’ reactions to it.

As noted above, readers intuitively grasped the basic falsity of the article itself – its contradictions, its factual deficit, even its absurd implications. Yet despite this, they said hardly a good word about fast food or restaurants in general. And they showed no realization of the blessings bestowed upon them by free markets.

 

There is no doubt whatever that these blessings are real. Even ignoring longtime mainstays like McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wendy’s and Taco Bell, America is embracing fast food with increasing fervor. Regional favorites are overtaking the industry leaders. The favorites are a mix of old and new. Some of them, like WhiteCastle, Krystal and Friendly’s, date back to the 1920s and 30s. Others, like In-N-Out Burgers, Whataburger, Blake’s Lotaburger and TacoTime, are relics of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Bojangles, Culver’s and Raising Cane’s are part of the newer generation. If we are to assume that this massive, widespread and growing embrace of fast food is some grotesque market failure, some huge bamboozle of consumers by “the big corporations” – penetrable only by wise guys who write badly like the answer.com author – then it has been ongoing for nearly a century, affecting four generations of American consumers.

During the rise of fast food, America has become a nation of restaurant diners. Unfortunately, the proliferation of subsidies – ultra-low interest rates midwived by the Federal Reserve, loans and other subsidies at every level of government – has produced a restaurant bubble that has been deflating since before the Great Recession. But nobody can cogently deny that Americans can choose from a greater variety of restaurants serving more and better food than ever before. All this has coexisted with rising standards of living, rising life expectancy and falling incidence of disease.

Americans owe all of this to capitalism and free markets. (Not coincidentally, they owe much of it to relative freedom of immigration as well.) But the readers of the answer.com travesty were tongue-tied when it came time to defend the system. They were all-too-willing to be mute witnesses to the libel of the fast-food and restaurant industries.

Economic freedom is under assault. The outcome is in doubt. When the primary beneficiaries of the system approve of the attacks or abstain rather than taking up arms, the battle is very nearly lost by default. This is happening today. Why do the beneficiaries of a process refuse to defend it? The gradual diminution of freedom in markets over the course of the twentieth century has produced successively less rational generations of Americans. This is not the same things as being less educated or less intelligent, because economic reasoning is a specialized form of abstract logic. The answer.com article and reader comments show the effect of this across a range of the political spectrum, but much more incisively on the mainstream. There have always been ill-conceived attacks from the political left, but over time we are losing both the will and the ability to answer those attacks cogently.