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I Was a Merchant of Death

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