I Was a Merchant of Death

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Many
people are surprised to learn that I spent a fair amount of time
slaving over a hot grill at both McDonald's and Wendy's.

They're
surprised, not just because I have moved on to lines of work with
a bit more prestige (or not, depending on what you think of lawyers),
but also because these days I won't touch the stuff those places
serve. I don't eat it because I understand that, with rare exceptions,
fast food is really bad for you, and if you eat it, ceteris paribus,
you will die sooner than if you didn't, and probably be stuck with
a lot of slovenly, unsightly fat in the meantime.

Because
I am aware of this, and have been for a while, I felt kind of strange
helping people cause their own premature deaths while working at
these places. But somehow my conscience hasn't been much bothered.

Still,
my background in this area gave me more interest than the average
person in the new anti-fast food documentary, Super Size Me,
which attacks McDonald's in particular as a cause of obesity and
death in America. I was curious to see if it was pro-health or anti-capitalist,
and found that it was some of both, but mostly the former, and certainly
entertaining.

The
Experiment

The
premise is silly but ingenious: Spurlock, the star and director,
decides to consume nothing but McDonald's food for breakfast, lunch,
and dinner every day for 30 days, as a not-very-scientific experiment
to see just how bad for you fast food really is. His rule is that
he must eat every single item on the menu at least once during this
time period, and every time that he is asked whether he wants to
super-size a combo meal, he must say yes.

Just
before beginning his regimen, and once a week for the duration,
he visits a general practitioner, a gastroenterologist, a cardiologist,
and a nutritionist. They track his weight, take blood samples, and
the like. During this time, he also limits his physical activity,
including even the number of steps he takes, to be more like the
typical fast food consumer.

Unsurprisingly,
as the movie progresses, we see Spurlock's health decline.

Some
of the health costs are objective and undisputable. He gains 25
pounds. His cholesterol goes up by 40 percent. Near the end, his
doctor tells him that his liver looks like that of an alcoholic
who will die if he doesn't stop drinking at once.

Some
symptoms, however, struck me as being of psychogenic origin: he
reports tingling sensations, twitchiness, lethargy, a "weird"
feeling in his penis, and so forth.

In
the most unlikely scene, we see him eat a super-sized double quarter-pounder
with cheese meal. As he does, he complains that it's just too much
food. It takes him something like 20 minutes to eat it all, and
when he's just about done, he vomits it all back up. Then, of course,
because we are living in a post-Jackass world, the camera
moves in for a close-up of the vomit.

I
found it so hard to believe that Spurlock's vomiting was anything
other than self-induced (consciously or unconsciously) that I decided
to perform a little non-scientific experiment of my own. My daily
diet is closer to the Dean
Ornish
prescription than the Ray
Kroc
, which means that I consume very little meat, fat, sugar,
and caffeine from day to day. So while I must admit that I have
engaged in a fair amount of over-consumption of fast and slow food
alike in the past, my system today should be as shocked as any reasonably
healthy person's by a double QP meal. So I headed over to the nearest
ghetto McDonald's and tried it out.

It
did take a little while to eat it all – maybe 15 minutes – but I did
not vomit, and suspect that I could have had a bit more before I
would have felt at all like doing so. What does that prove? Well,
nothing, come to think of it, but at least I enjoyed my meal.

In
another scene, Spurlock's live-in girlfriend, a professional vegan
chef, complains in far too much detail about the declining quality
of his sexual performance, another matter which might have been
entirely in his or her head, or scripted. (I did not perform any
further experiments after eating my double quarter pounder to test
this one out.)

Hold
on, you're saying fast food is bad for you?

Lest
you think the film is nothing but an hour and a half watching a
guy eat burgers, with occasional breaks for vomiting, sex talk,
and trips to the doctor, there is much more.

Most
importantly, the above is more entertaining than it sounds. The
film opens with that glorious hymn, “Fat Bottomed Girls,” set to
a montage of obese women in stretch pants, and most everything thereafter
is presented in a similarly humorous manner.

But
the film also has genuinely educational aspects.

We
learn about the nutritional value of fast food. It has lots of calories
and fat and stuff.

While
McDonald's would like you to believe that eating there occasionally
won't hurt you, most nutritionists disagree, and with good reasons,
all of which are presented in persuasive, entertaining form.

But
some of the film's efforts aren't very meaningful.

For
example, Spurlock is indignant when he finds that many McDonald's
restaurants don't have nutritional information handy when he asks
for it. This is supposed to be an outrage, as if McDonald's doesn't
want people to learn the truth about its products. But even if we
reasonably assume that most people don't know just how bad McDonald's
food is for them, how many of these people are asking? And if people
are asking for the nutritional information and not getting it, do
they continue to eat there anyway? And if so, how is that the restaurant's
fault? These important questions go unasked, of course.

A
look at how fast food portions have grown is more interesting. We
see that McDonald's used to offer one size of french fries. This
size is now known as a "small," and he shows it to us
next to a medium, large, and the recently-discontinued super-size.
We also see that Burger King used to offer one size of drink, which
is now not even a "small" – it is so relatively small
that it only comes with the kids' meal.

Of
course, it is interesting to note that anti-capitalists used to
complain that the free market did not produce enough for
the common man. Here, the implicit complaint is that it produces
too much.

There
is an amusing cartoon the addresses the eternal question of where
Chicken McNuggets come from, but again, you have to wonder what
the point is. All meat has unappetizing origins. So do mushrooms,
which are often grown in manure. So what?

Still,
the primary message of the movie is sound: if you want to be healthy,
you shouldn't eat this stuff, especially not in the large portions
that the restaurants push. And, uh, especially not three times a
day, every day, for 30 days.

The
state, the real poison

All
of that is more or less okay, as far as it goes. It is mostly amusing,
if occasionally disgusting, even if a lot of it points out what
should be obvious to the sort of relatively educated people who
go to see a documentary in the first place. It would be great if
the film were content to make those of us who don't eat that kind
of junk feel good about ourselves and have fun laughing at the fat
slobs who do eat it for 96 minutes before we are on our way to go
have some couscous.

And
if the film could make some people reevaluate their diets and think
twice before they scarf down another Big Mac, that would be okay,
too.

But
Spurlock is more ambitious.

In
his mind, it's not the fatties' fault that they abuse themselves
with junk food – it's the restaurants' fault. They aren't changing
their menus to offer significantly more healthy foods, he alleges
as the film nears its end, because their loyalty is not to you,
the customer, but to their stockholders.

This,
of course, is nonsense, because in a free market economy, or even
the U.S. economy, value for stockholders will not be maximized unless
a business effectively competes with other entrepreneurs to satisfy
consumers.

If
Spurlock's view were correct, and preserving the status quo is
the best possible way to serve stockholders, then it would be impossible
to explain why the McDonald's menu has changed at all since
its first restaurant opened, let alone why it is constantly changing
its menu to offer new items, or why McDonald's and other corporations
have branched into new chains like Chipotle restaurants, which offer,
among other things, delicious, healthy vegetarian food.

How
peculiar that Spurlock performed a 30-day experiment and consulted
constantly with numerous doctors to demonstrate the obvious fact
that fast food is bad for you, but did not feel any need to consult
with economists in making his film's much more controversial economic
assertions.

He
might also have considered undeniable benefits of places like McDonald's.

Before
Ray Kroc, someone traveling the interstates across the country would
have to take whatever food he could find. Often, what he found wasn't
very good, because it didn't have to be – travelers were at essentially
anonymous restaurants' mercy, because there was nowhere else to
go unless you wanted to venture into the center of a city.

With
the introduction of McDonald's and other fast food chains, consumers
could be guaranteed more or less consistent quality across the nation,
anywhere they saw the golden arches. Today, this benefits American
travelers, not only from coast to coast, but also around the world.
And the benefits go well beyond safe food. When you're in China,
for example, and searching for a clean, Western-style bathroom,
McDonald's and U.S. "cultural imperialism" will suddenly
become better friends than you might have previously expected.

Spurlock
also underplays other benefits of McDonald's beyond the food. For
example, he condemns them for luring children with playgrounds.
But which tends to be safer and cleaner: A playground in a government
park, or a playground at McDonald's? Here again, McDonald's should
be praised as heroic.

You
don't have to be a health enthusiast like me to realize that even
if some fast food is useful for people such as travelers who don't
eat all that healthily in the first place, Americans do consume
it to excess. But is capitalism the cause of their excess?

While
Spurlock does not hesitate to blame corporations for simply pleasing
consumers, he ignores the fact that government is, by far, the foremost
promoter of ill health in America and around the world. The U.S.
government subsidizes and therefore encourages obesity and unhealthy
behaviors, and punishes healthy behavior, in numerous ways, including
anti-discrimination laws such as the Americans with Disabilities
Act, and "free" or subsidized medical care for the poor
and elderly, two groups whose members tend to be obese or suffer
from other maladies resulting from self-abuse.

Instead,
he gives far too much screen time to the execrable John Banzahf,
the Georgetown University law professor and attorney behind the
insane
anti-fast food lawsuits
. Certainly this man's assault on individual
responsibility is much more disgusting than the close-up on Spurlock's
value meal vomit.

The
(fat) bottom line

After
all of that, I'm still having difficulty feeling bad about my old
life as a merchant of death. If I hadn't done it, someone else would
have, and if no one had been allowed to do it, then there is no
question that we would all be a lot worse off eating whatever the
government had decided was appropriate.

Capitalism
is great, in part, because it provides plenty. And that's always
going to include plenty of ways to kill yourself. But at least under
capitalism you have a choice, unlike the starving North Korean who
is probably not thanking Kim Jong Il with his final breath for not
allowing him to be tempted by McDonald's. And hey, even if you choose
the self-destructive route, you get to enjoy some delicious burgers
while you're at it.

Besides,
all of life consists of trade-offs, and if some people are willing
to trade a few years of life or their physical attractiveness for
food that they love, who am I to stand in their way? More importantly,
who am I, or who is Morgan Spurlock, to use force to prevent someone
from giving them what they want, or punish them after the fact?

The
costs of eating fast food aren't worth it to me, but I'm
not prepared to make that decision for the whole world, provided
that the whole world doesn't expect me to pay its medical bills.

Thus,
as a film about the health costs of fast food consumption, Super
Size Me is informative and entertaining, and I recommend it.
As a political statement, though, it's worse junk than McDonald's
would ever want to serve you.

June
5, 2004

J.
H. Huebert [send him mail]
attends the University of Chicago Law School, and has a website
at www.jhhuebert.com.

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