Not everyone considers socialism a Cracker Jack idea

Capitalism seemed untouchable several decades ago, but not today. Many politicians aspiring to high office, such as Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist, are making the case for the inevitable and Darwinian triumph of socialism.

It is unclear what socialism means to them. It is a word that means many things to many people and has taken many forms. The modern version is different from the textbook variety of public ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, leaving to individuals only the free discretion over consumer goods and creating a paradise on earth. Publicly owned property is preferable to private enterprise, with everyone acting virtuously and focusing on the greater good.

Is it the ideal commonwealth in Plato’s Republic, with a ruling class that has no property of its own and shares all things in common? Or a more robust version of New Deal Liberalism, or perhaps Northern European social democracy? What about the path taken in Venezuela, North Korea, and Cuba?

Or is it a planned economy with benevolent bureaucrats taking the place of free-market capitalism and playing the omniscient busybody in economic affairs to create more opportunity for the underprivileged; open the horizons of education to all, eliminate discriminatory practices based on sex, religion, race, or social class; regulate and reorganize the economy for the benefit of the whole community; protect the environment; provide adequate Social Security and universal health care for the sick, unemployed and aged in a utopian ideal of total equality of opportunity and outcome?

The term has become a blank canvas as presidential candidates embracing some of these ideas become more outspoken about socialism as the solution to problems of social and economic equality, and embracing a political wish list that includes Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and free public college. All grand ideas if they work.

These proposals have great appeal to millennials, the term generally used to refer to people born after 1980 and before 2000. Millennials outnumber baby boomers as the largest generational cohort in American society.

Recent surveys of Americans 18 to 34 find that 45 percent have a positive view of socialism. It gets even higher marks from Hispanics, Asian- and African-Americans. This attraction may have less to do with their understanding of socialism and more to do with their discontent with the current economic system. In contrast, only 26 percent of baby boomers would prefer to live in a socialist country.

Why the generational disparity? Is it because many of these folks reached adulthood in a dismal job market with crippling student loans caused by the brutal 2007-2009 recession that left them with less disposable income than their predecessors? They end up hating their own culture, even as millions around the world dream of coming to the land of milk and honey. Many agree with Governor Cuomo’s comment that “America was never that great.”

But these proposals also create agita for many politicians. That is why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a recent interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” said socialism is “not the view” of the Democratic Party,” and that lawmakers on her side of the aisle “know that we have to hold the center.” The Republicans are trying to paint Democrats with the socialism brush, using accusations of rampant amnesia about the failures of socialism as a 2020 campaign weapon.

Former President Ronald Reagan once mocked Fidel Castro’s brand of socialism with a clever joke. He said Castro was immersed in one of his long speeches when a person in the crowd was heard shouting, “Peanuts, popcorn, Cracker Jacks.” Castro continued on with his speech when a second voice was heard shouting the same thing. This time Castro became angry and screamed, “We will kick the tush of the next person I hear say that all the way to Miami Beach.” At which point the whole crowd yelled, “Peanuts, popcorn, Cracker Jacks.”

 Originally Published: April 27, 2019

Fast food food fight

Fourteen years after the publication of “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser, with its fierce indictment of the industry, consumers prefer a healthier brand of fast food. This is especially true of millennials, those 18-to-34-year-olds who have increasingly busy work lives and eat out a lot.

This spells trouble for traditional fast food restaurants like McDonalds, which need to make up for lost time when it comes to adjusting to new customer preferences.

In addition to wanting the convenience of paying for purchases with mobile devices, this generation’s preference is for locally and humanely sourced meats, seafood, and produce; natural ingredients; and freshly prepared, bespoke food.

Fast food behemoths such as McDonald’s have dominated the fast food landscape for decades with an industrial model defined by providing cheap and convenient food in a way that maximizes volume and reduces costs.

McDonald’s has been around for more than 60 years and operates more than 36,000 restaurants worldwide, of which about 14,000 are in the United States. The company feeds nearly 69 million customers in over 100 countries each day. While the beef and potatoes may not be locally sourced, more than 80 percent of their restaurants are franchised, owned and operated by independent local business persons.

McDonald’s named a new CEO last month amid a worsening sales slump. In 2014, the firm posted one of its worst performances in years. Revenue fell 2.4 percent to $27.44 billion as net income declined 15 percent to $4.76 billion. It was the first time both measures have declined in the same year since 1981. Its same-store sales, a key metric for restaurant chains, fell by a stunning 4 percent in the United States and 1.7 percent worldwide, which suggests that interest from existing customers is declining.

One major factor contributing to McDonald’s disappointing performance is its failure to evolve with a new generation that has different attitudes about what they buy and how they buy it. The changes add up to a new playing field for traditional fast food firms. Being slow to respond to changes in customer tastes has created an opening for so-called fast casual restaurants that have responded to changing expectations of what fast food can be.

Restaurants like Chipotle and Panera offer fresh ingredients and customized food at prices that are higher, but still affordable. While these restaurants still make up a much smaller portion of the market than their traditional fast-food counterparts, they have grown very quickly, spreading like kudzu across the land. A food fight is brewing for sure.

The three largest segments of the restaurant industry are full service, fast food and fast casual. While the fast casual segment is the smallest of the three, it accounts for $34 billion of the overall $710 billion restaurant market. It is also the fastest-growing segment, with an 11 percent growth rate. And while the average McDonald’s customer spends about $5 a visit, the average Chipotle customer spends more than twice that amount.

McDonald’s and the other traditional fast food firms will have to make some difficult decisions if they hope to attract regain their historical rate of revenue growth Millennials, that fast-growing demographic of young, single, health conscious professionals who earn above-average incomes and eat out twice a week or more, represent a gold mine of sales and profits. Appealing to such new market segments may well require McDonald’s to develop its own fast casual concept in the United States.

One thing is for sure, when it comes to satisfying changing consumer tastes and expectations, announcements like those recently made by the McDonald’s new CEO that all the chicken served at its restaurants will be free of antibiotics used to treat humans and that the 120 menu items in its 14,000 United States restaurants will be rationalized are unlikely to do the trick.  

originally published: April 4, 2015