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June 2003

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11th grade 
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 dangerous thing.

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 money-makers.

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, please."

"What're you, one of those truth in advertisers?" said the lawyer-cum-financier behind the counter.

"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 food.

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 former.

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 subsidy.

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.

"You…you're a 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 his face.

"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.

 

Copyright 2002. All Rights Reserved.