history of economics
lecture - 2080
One day in that year I stopped in
at a McDonald’s on Wall Street in the rain. A small army of
lawyers was skulking by the door trying to look disinterested, but I
knew otherwise. Ever since the litigation riots there had been
out-of-work lawyers crowding every corporate lobby and fast food
chain hoping that a physical plant lawsuit would drop into their
laps. They targeted anybody with over a billion in yearly revenues,
figuring that sooner or later the wealth would trickle down to them.
These same lawyers used to play the lottery, back when people
believed in odds.
The glut of lawyers clogging up the
sidewalks had become a real problem. They would do things like wait
for a rainstorm (like the one we had that day, not coincidentally)
and steal the caution signs from the store entrances, hoping for a
slip and fall case to tide them over until better times. They would
walk around with pressure testers to see whether doors were easy
enough to open to comply with ADA regulations. Oh, they knew all the
tricks. Law school can have many uses, and those days something like
40% of the population had attended one, though only a few of those
graduated, and even fewer found they could pass the New York bar
exam. But let it be said once again, a little knowledge is a
Of course the corporations fought
back. In the case of McDonald's, there would be someone guarding
every caution sign until the sidewalks were bone dry. They could
claim to be creating jobs, and they didn't pay much anyway, so they
had nothing to lose. And since they knew none of the doors met the
specified ADA ease-of-opening regulations, another employee would be
dedicated to opening the door if someone in a wheelchair stopped in.
Speaking of wheelchairs, New York
in the 60s had become intolerable for the disabled. Nobody ever
allowed them to do anything for fear of legal reprisal. Not that the
disabled were more litigation happy than the rest of the country
(how could they be?), just that those cases had become slam-dunks
for the most part.
So I walked, as I said, into this
McDonald's on Wall Street. The executives lined up at the counter
were all trying to look exactly alike. From their slouch hats and
side curls to their watch chains and thick belts (suspenders having
been outlawed after an especially recriminatory series of actions
against a congressman who popped a clasp during a windy barrage of
invective against the Plastic Housing Act and scratched his female
aide's cheek with the rebounding metal) to their LED-soled wingtips,
not a hair was out of place.
They turned and looked at me like I
didn't belong there, and in fact I didn't. Gone were the days when
fast food chains were the ultimate symbol of class blindness. Once
it was realized that other food supplies were fast drying up, it
took no time at all for the local populations to appropriate the
nearest fast food chain for whatever elite they represented.
McDonald's had become a venue for race and class wars unparalleled
on the streets of Watts. People of the wrong class or color couldn't
even get the door job, with the result that the Wall Street
executives were served at the counter by out-of-work lawyers who
grew their side-curls to blend in.
I didn't belong there, no. But I
thought I could risk it. At least I wasn't identified with one of
the rival factions, like the bartenders in the Chelsea McDonald's or
the artists in the arrondissement bovine. In fact, I was part of one
of the few unaligned groups in New York at this time: the musicians.
This particular McDonald's had a piano on a glorified shelf above
the entrance, thinking, I guess, that the ability to become a
cabaret venue at a moment's notice set them apart. So for all they
knew I might have belonged there. Not that musicians were allowed to
mingle per se, but it was tolerated in such situations if we wanted
to buy some McSynth-offee or the like.
Nowadays, of course, the tide has
turned. Confront the man of today with a choice between the need for
music and the need for the purity of the socioeconomic group, and
purity wins easily. So naturally musicians have started to just play
for each other, which is much better in any case.
It wasn't so long before this time
that the discovery had been made that musicians had diverged so far
from the evolutionary continuum as to actually constitute a new
species. After that, of course, we were more or less shunned by the
I don't say that inter-breeding
never occurred, of course, but the offspring were not viable.
Although substantial numbers of them did exist, I regret to say they
were all forced to live and work around and in the Staten Island
McDonald's. It used to be thought that the ferry represented the
most effective means of monitoring and, in fact, limiting their
movement into Manhattan. The large concentration of money-makers
around South Ferry and what used to be called the "Financial
District" never looked kindly on those half-breeds, and
sometimes resorted to violence.
I made my way to the counter
without incident, apart from the usual hostile glances and cold
shoulders, and stated my business.
"Giant ersatz 'fee,
"What're you, one of those
truth in advertisers?" said the lawyer-cum-financier behind the
"Nah, I just find 'McSynth-offee'
difficult to pronounce."
A shudder went through the whole
establishment at the mention of a potential linguistic handicap.
"Listen," he whispered
conspiratorially, "you're not gonna do anything about it, are
you? 'Cause if that happened on my shift…"
"Relax, friend," I said.
This suggestion of familiarity caused a look of the utmost revulsion
to cross his features, but he couldn't really give vent to it. I had
him over a barrel. "All I want is some caffeine."
"OK, OK, good. You want an
upgrade? Got a good deal today."
This was the moment of truth. I
took a deep breath. "No thanks," I said.
In an instant his revulsion and
fear were replaced by good old-fashioned KGB thug suspicion and
hostility. "Why not?" he demanded, pulling himself erect.
For those who aren't terribly
familiar with corporate history, this will require a little
explanation. The process of upselling had been conceived back in the
twentieth century as an acceptable irritation of the marketplace in
exchange for one out of twenty or thirty increased sales. The idea
was that if the irritation were low-level enough to not drive the
customer out, which it never did, nothing was lost.
At first upselling was introduced
as a "suggested" practice and consisted of a little more
food for a fixed extra price. Initially this meant additional items,
but that type of upselling unfortunately contained an implicit
suggestion that the clerk knew better what the customer wanted than
the customer him- or herself. This was back in the days, you
understand, when such things were thought to matter. It was soon
realized, though, that the upselling of larger portions was much
more lucrative, in keeping as they were with the already stated
desires of the customer.
It didn't take long for the
practice of upselling to become compulsory for employees, and for
the failure to do so to become a firing offense. From there it was
no more than a logical next step to make the acceptance of the
offered upsell compulsory for the consumer. Naturally this could not
be effected in so many words, it had to be accomplished through
advertising. The concept was to make people feel inadequate in some
way if they refused.
One series of ads ran that made the
refusal an admission of financial inadequacy. Another suggested that
refuseniks possessed a not sufficiently robust constitution to
digest the extra calories. But the most effective ads of all,
naturally, were the ones that made it clear that a refusal to accept
the upsell was tantamount to an impugning of the quality of the
This last had become, under a broad
interpretation of the old defamation of character laws, an offense
which allowed giant corporations to bring lawsuits against private
citizens, and of course meant certain ruin. Virtually the only class
immune to these suits was the disabled, who were protected by a huge
body of precedent cases that had been historically decided in their
favor under almost every conceivable circumstance. Defamation suits
countered by lack of access suits were almost always defeated.
This set of circumstances led to
another peculiar historical footnote: the rise of the plastic
surgeon class. Plastic surgery had begun rather humbly in the
twentieth century as a method for stretching the wrinkles out of TV
and film personalities and politicians, or catering to the
"size is everything" cult of sexual organ enlargement. But
after the litigation riots, plastic surgeons came into their own as
artists of the disability. Not even a trained professional could
differentiate most of the time between a genetic birth defect or
trauma-induced disability and one that had been artificially created
by these master craftsmen.
Given the choice between financial
ruin in the wilds of Staten Island for the crime of not liking fast
food, or paying a few thousand dollars to a plastic surgeon to
create a physical deformity, few sane people would choose the
But to return to the history of
upselling: once the process of making the acceptance of the upsell
next to compulsory for the consumer was completed, it was realized
that the subsidization of corporate interests by the lower classes
need not be related to food at all. With a million stores each and a
captive audience, they began to sell all kinds of corporate logo
paraphernalia, even succeeding in making it a fad so that consumers
would compete to see who could do the most free advertising for the
corporate product. And finally, when the thirst for logo products
had died down, they turned to the most abstract and effective upsell
item of all: stock certificates.
During the period of time in which
this event took place, the term "upgrade" had come to
signify that each customer was expected to purchase a sum of stock
in the company in proportion to the amount they were spending on
food. In theory it was still a choice, of course, but in practice
one would be harshly and thoroughly ostracized by the community for
failing this particular obligation. Naturally with so many
certificates being issued every day all over the world each one was
worth exactly nothing, and no single person was ever able to own
more than a tiny fraction of a percentage, so the voting
stockholders never had anything to worry about.
Furthermore, each issue of stock
over the counter came with a waiver stating that the customer
automatically agreed through the purchase to waive any rights of
notification or action as to the company, and the stock was
structured to carry no dividend. The only thing, in fact, that
justified the name "stock" for these worthless
transactions was that they represented a huge windfall of public
subsidy for the parent corporations.
By the time of my visit to
McDonald's that day a refusal to buy the upgrade with your meal
might as well have been a signed confession of murdering a disabled
person delivered to the secret police. It just was not done. So when
I refused the upsell, the cashier's first reaction was that I must
be joking. This gave way rather quickly to the notion that I might
in fact be from the secret police. What he couldn't possibly imagine
was that I was a rational private citizen who had decided that the
time had come to take a stand against this process of corporate
As the ripple moving through the
line to my rear began to crescendo into a roar of indignation, a
look of fear came over the face of the cashier.
musician," he said.
"Indeed," I replied
impassively. I smiled.
"What, uh, instrument, do you
play?" he asked, trembling.
"It used to be the
trombone," I said.
"Used to be?" He saw it
coming, like the Apache nation in full battle cry over the crest of
the hill. It didn't look good. The color began to slowly drain from
"Before the accident." I
smiled again. "Now I sing."
Reaching inside my overcoat, I
unstrapped my right arm from it's moorings on my shoulder and let it
slide out of the sleeve, finally landing with a sickly thump on the
counter in front of the terrified lawyer.
"Now, would you mind terribly
delivering me that sewage that passes for coffee in this dump?"
Wordlessly he passed the styrofoam
cup across the counter, his eyes still fixed on mine. The line of
executives stood like statues of the Great Depression as I gathered
up my drink and my arm and passed out of the McDonald's.
Well, that was my little protest.
The McSynth-offee never improved, and "stock" never left
the menu of any McDonald's I happened into in later years. But I
like to think that being confronted with the reality of basic human
rebellion that day made a couple of people pause for reflection,
somewhere behind their desks up in the citadels of unthinking power
on 42nd Street. The fad for artificial disabilities eventually
passed like all such things, and plastic surgeons lost their
momentary place in the sun.
My lost arm, by the way, really did
happen in an accident. I was playing the trombone in a marching band
in the St. Patrick's Day Parade up Fifth Avenue. We were playing
"When Irish Eyes are Smiling", as I recall. Suddenly a
rogue float belonging to the Daughters of the American Revolution,
who had been denied access to the parade, careened in from a side
street and leveled much of the brass section and most of the
percussion. In a desperate attempt to save my instrument I leaped
onto the float, and though I was immediately pushed back off by an
indignant matron I managed to keep one arm on the deck as the rest
of my body dragged underneath. Seeing what was happening, the Grande
Dame seized a ceremonial saber and chopped my arm off, leaving me
bleeding and trombone-less in the gutter. Fortunately about a
hundred thousand people saw clearly what had happened and I'm happy
to report that she worked the fryer at the Hoboken McDonald's for
the remainder of her natural life, never wielding a saber again.
Leave your homework assignments on
my desk, and I'll see you all tomorrow.