A Communitarian Appreciation of McDonald's

So I differ from many other non-libertarian conservatives by appreciating many of America’s huge national and multinational chain institutions, such as Walmart and Waffle House.


I was glad to discover in the NYT a sophisticated writer who appreciated McDonald’s. It’s not because of the food, which is mostly pretty bad. Well, the fries and the fish sandwich are both exceptionally tasty and won’t kill you if you only eat them once in a while. And, let’s tell the truth, none of us should be so snotty as to forget that McDonald’s provides an opportunity for struggling working Americans to take the family out to dinner at a very low price. Recently I was touched by seeing two very old couples—probably on a fixed income and all that—double-dating by getting ice cream at McDonald’s. The ice cream isn’t really ice cream, but you don’t notice that if you cover it with hot fudge, which may or may not really be hot fudge.

The calorie per dollar ratio at McDonald’s couldn’t be better, if you remember that the point of eating is to ingest calories. There is something perverse—contrary to nature—about paying $30 for some salad that has fewer than 300 calories, when you can get 1200 calories at McDonald’s for two bucks. My full stomach won’t believe you when you tell it they’re nothing but empty calories.

But the concern of the NYT article isn’t the food, but community: “All of us, of whatever age, need to socialize in public places to feel connected and alive.” Satisfaction of that human need is often particularly tough for old Americans—those retired and over 65. They’re often quite detached from family. The fastest growing demographic category, I’m told, is men over 65 without a spouse or close relationships with children. And, of course, they’ve been disconnected from the structured community that’s most workplaces. Fewer and fewer of them have secure “church homes.” Freud tells us that love and work are what make human life worth living, and many of these old guys don’t have much going on on either front.

So it might be best, as our author contends, if there were lots of locally owned diners and bakeries around serving as “de facto social centers” for our marginalized elderly. But such places increasingly fall victim to the realities of the 21st century marketplace. They’re taken out by chains—such as McDonald’s and Waffle House and Panera Bread.

The chains aren’t so bad, though. Check out your local McDonald’s, and you’ll probably find  old guys lounging and talking the morning away drinking coffee. McDonald’s can really afford to be indulgent of their marginal contribution to the restaurant’s productivity. The “dining room” of a McDonald’s is typically huge and rarely filled. Most of the business is drive-up or take-out. A big point might be that McDonald’s actually can afford to be more indulgent than a locally owned coffee shop or diner, both of which find it much more difficult to turn a profit.

Panera Bread, where I am right now, has even figured that its niche is creating the fake family atmosphere with the fire place and all that. So my Panera is typically features older Americans hanging out, and, for that matter, Americans of all ages hanging out. The fake family devised in St. Louis morphs in the direction of a real family here in Georgia. But Panera has its limits on this front. It can’t quite be totally indifferent to customer turnover, and those in charge don’t really want you here all day. They want room for those coming to the dining room to each lunch, when most of their profit is made. McDonald’s, to repeat, has less reason to care. Panera, I hasten to add, has a very soft spot for the genuinely homeless or profoundly marginalized, and profit can't explain THAT.

I’ve also noticed that smart and affluent old guys (who go to church and have loving families) in my Rome, GA sometimes develop a morning cycle of communal stops. They spend some time at Panera, go on to Steak and Shake, to a local restaurant called Troy’s to have a real breakfast, and then perhaps return to Panera to top the morning off. The cycle I can see with my own eyes doesn’t include McDonald’s, maybe because the McDonald’s guys are happy enough with their first stop.

Why haven’t I said anything about Starbucks? Well, our local Starbuck’s is a bit too claustrophobic, unless it’s warm enough to sit outside. More importantly, as I’ve said before: Starbucks coffee is terrible. McDonald’s is actually quite good, and it’s gentle enough to allow you to drink several cups without unpleasant effects.

It’s only because I’m out of time that I won’t go on to tell you about the breakfast—and especially about those who ingest the bountiful breakfast buffet—at the Dwarf House run by the highly profitable chain Chick-fil-A. The same with Dunkin’ Donuts, which has, everyone knows, coffee worthy of the name gourmet.

I will return to Waffle House (and Huddle House) on another occasion.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Where do atoms come from? Billions of years of cosmic fireworks.

The periodic table was a lot simpler at the beginning of the universe.

10 excerpts from Marcus Aurelius' 'Meditations' to unlock your inner Stoic

Great ideas in philosophy often come in dense packages. Then there is where the work of Marcus Aurelius.

(Getty Images)
Personal Growth
  • Meditations is a collection of the philosophical ideas of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
  • Written as a series of notes to himself, the book is much more readable than the dry philosophy most people are used to.
  • The advice he gave to himself 2,000 years ago is increasingly applicable in our hectic, stressed-out lives.
Keep reading Show less

An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.