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TinotopiaLog → McJobs and McMansions ( 9 Nov 2003)
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Sunday 09 November 2003

McJobs and McMansions

McDonald’s is upset at Mirriam-Webster’s inclusion of the word ‘McJob’, meaning poorly-paid dead-end work, in the newest edition of their dictionary. Mayor McCheeseThe CEO of McDonald’s has responded with that most deadly of ripostes, the open letter.

In an open letter to Merriam-Webster, McDonald’s CEO Jim Cantalupo said the term is “an inaccurate description of restaurant employment” and “a slap in the face to the 12 million men and women” who work in the restaurant industry.

Is cantalupo Italian for cantaloupe? If it is, it might offer an explanation: instead of brains, this guy’s head is full of orange goop and seeds. And I’ll bet he made more money last year than Tino, too.

He seems, first of all, to misunderstand that dictionaries of the English language are descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, they record the language as she is spoke, not as the lexicographers think it should be spoke. And McJob is certainly widely-used to describe lousy jobs.

(Incidentally, I think that Webster’s has it wrong; a McJob isn’t just a low-paid dead-end job. Elementary-school janitor is a low-paid, dead-end job, but it’s not a McJob. A true McJob is one where neither the employer nor the employee expects that the job is going to last long or that either of them is going to do any more than is absolutely required by the three-ring binder. A true McJob is one that would be done by a robot, were robots cheaper and more effective.)

And second, note that he seems to think that the dictionary has done some disservice to people who work at McDonald’s by describing their employment as poorly-paid and dead-end, not that McDonald’s has done some disservice to them by paying them poorly and providing few routes for advancement. It’s not as if McDonalds’ sales are likely to be hurt by this. I can’t imagine that those who currently dine at McDonald’s are under the impression that the people behind the counter are well-paid. Frankly, given the incredibly inept job that almost all fast-food workers do, I can imagine people being upset if they did think that these workers were being paid much, or being considered for advancement. You get what you pay for, and McDonald’s has determined that the cost to them of lousy service and the need for constant close supervision of most of their employees is less than the cost of paying enough to get better employees. It seems kind of silly to willingly put up with the real consequences of your policies, only to get all bent out of shape when a dictionary acknowledges that people think that your low-wage dead-end jobs are ones that are not particularly desirable.

I have not heard a peep — undoubtedly because a dictionary has not yet taken notice — of complaint out of McDonald’s about the word McMansion. McJob just makes a point about the quality of employment at McDonald’s — which even the company would have to admit is pretty low. But McMansion calls into question everything about the company.

A McMansion is a suburban house, usually constructed on speculation by the builder and as part of a number of other similar houses. A McMansion differs from ordinary suburban tract houses simply by being much larger and fancier than tract houses have traditionally been.

Until fairly recently, tract houses have mostly been aimed squarely at the middle of the market. As this middle’s requirements have changed and as their wealth has grown, trace houses have changed over time, adding bathrooms and ‘great rooms’ and growing larger kitchens, but they’ve retained their relative place in the market. In the past, if you wanted a house that went beyond the basics provided by a tract house, you hired an architect and a contractor and built a house yourself.

A great many people could afford a tract house; a fairly small number of people could afford the enormous capital investment and risk involved in a custom-built house. There was a gap, which the market has now efficiently filled. You can now quite easily buy a house that can only be called a ‘mansion’, and you can buy it as easily as you can a three-bedroom, two-bath tract house, provided you can pay for it.

These new tract-mansions are well-adapted to their purpose. They tend to be plunked down in the middle of nowhere on the edges of suburbia, and their design takes this into account. When you live miles from the nearest restaurant, you’re more likely to eat at home, and so you want a nicer kitchen in which to cook. When you live miles from the nearest cinema — and when the experience of going there is getting worse all the time — you’re more likely to want to watch movies on a giant screen at home. And when you’re driving all over the place to things that you can’t bring in-house (so to speak), you’re more likely to have more and better cars, so you’ll want at least a three-car garage.

I’m not saying that I’m a fan of this state of affairs; on the contrary, I think most people would be much happier living in denser surroundings with a meaningful community around them. For a variety of reasons I’m not going to go into here, living like that generally isn’t possible in the United States. What is possible is suburban tract housing. Along with the benefits of living in the suburbs — fresh air, quiet, low taxes, etc. — come certain disadvantages, like an almost total lack of society. The physical form of most tract-house-heavy suburbs cuts people off from one another, and from communal amenities like restaurants, bars, and cinemas.

We accept the fact that the Kennedy family retreats to their famous ‘compound’, and while we might goggle and feel envious, we don’t question the sense of the people on MTV Cribs when we see that they have equipped their residences with movie theaters, basketball courts, nightclubs, and other things that are normally thought of a public facilities. Big-enough celebrities can’t go to the movies, for instance, without being so hassled by fans that it’s not worth their trouble to go out — and, what’s more, big-enough celebrities have the money to solve this problem for themselves.

Well, the fact is that a lot of middle-class, non-famous people now can no longer go out to the movies without being hassled so much that it’s not worth the trouble. In this case, it’s not autograph-seeking fans who are the problem, but traffic, endless ads before the movie, rancid popcorn, sticky floors, limited parking, and ever-rising prices. While the cost of going out to the movies has risen, the cost of staying in has fallen, thanks to new technology. Where once only people like Hugh Hefner could afford private screening rooms, now nearly anyone with a job can. So people buy bigger houses and build their private home theaters. They invite their friends over, and feed them from that giant showplace of a kitchen. The suburbs don’t have decent public space any more, but the human needs that gave rise to the pub etc. are still there; so in the absence of other options, suburban man creates in his private realm the spaces that his emotions require.

There are some people who are are bothered by this. Most of them seem to live in small apartments in the city, and they appear to believe that everyone should do likewise. Whatever the merits of their arguments — there are some, in fact — city living in the United States is fantastically expensive, largely because there are artificial limits on how much ‘city’ space there is. There’s a lot more demand for dense, livable areas than there are dense, livable areas; and so the old cities, within which most of this dense area exists, are free to charge high taxes, deliver little in the way of effective services, and generally make life difficult. The cities can stay ‘in business’ this way because their relatively rare older, denser communities are a big draw. But the fact that the supply is artificially limited means that only the people who most value this kind of thing, and who are willing to make substantial sacrifices elsewhere in order to live in this environment, will live there.

People who are less enamored of the city — or people whose needs are not well-met in the city, skewed as it is toward the particular demographic that’s willing to make sacrifices to live there — move to the suburbs and adapt to life there. For those who can afford it, this adaptation involves, in part, building large houses.

People who don’t like these houses derisively call them McMansions, which is more accurate than the complainers probably even mean.

McDonald’s has its origins in 1937 as a hot-dog stand with carhops in Pasadena, California. The initial restaurant, and its larger replacement in San Bernardino, were financial successes, but the management of the company was complicated and the costs were high. By switching, in 1948, to what the McDonald brothers called ‘Speedee Service’ — which involved eliminating carhops, dishes, and the like — they were able to lower their costs, and thus the prices they charged. McDonald’s was not then and is not now elegant; but it’s inexpensive as a result of cost control, economies of scale, and industrial production methods.

So it is with ‘McMansions’, except that elegance is a component of the product there as much as it is not in a McDonald’s restaurant. The anti-McMansion crowd seems to mainly be motivated by envy and aesthetic horror. That is, they seem to think that the people who can afford these houses don’t deserve them, and that this is made plain by the fact that a lot of these ‘McMansions’ are ugly. There’s also often more than a hint of class warfare.

One satirical website, Swineopia (I’ll have to get around to suing them, soon, over the name), bills itself as ‘A home on the web for the clueless rich’. It has a section on McMansions that reads thusly:

Do you own a McMansion, one of those houses made out of flimsy boards, sawdust and glue that have sacrificed everything - shrubbery, style, comfort, even structural integrity for the sake of the really big impression?

Is this visual incarnation of your desperate insecurities part of a suburban tract with a fake French or English name, something like “Le Duke of Earl at Stoat Mews” ?

Do you own a vehicle

  • weighing more than two tons
  • with four-wheel drive
  • able to tow a small house
    just so you’ll have enough nerve to drive places that aren’t peopled entirely by wimpy rich jerks just like yourself?

    If you’ve answered yes, you just might be a Swineopian.

    If you’ve made your pile, and you’ve discovered that life’s only real pleasure is reminding your fellow citizens that they don’t have as much money as you do, you definitely are a Swineopian, and you need this Web site.

    We know how hard you work, and we know that your work is doubly tiring because it’s pointless and probably evil. You don’t have time to learn about the latest bloated excess for status seekers. You need us.

  • This person — who appears to live in Reston, VA, by the way, a whole town built out of sawdust and glue — appears to see the entire world through the lens of class and money. Furthermore, he assumes that people who have more money than he does are also Marxists, and that they choose the house they live in and the car they drive not because these things are well-adapted to the way they live, but rather for the benefit of chance observers.

    There are certainly elements of truth in what he says. I’ve never seen a tract-mansion development called “Le Duke of Earl at Stoat Mews”, but the actual names of some of these places are not significantly more literate or tasteful. There certainly is an element of the pretentious and pointlessly ‘impressive’ about a lot of these houses, but this comes less from some deep-seated insecurity on the part of the people who live in them than it comes from the fact that these houses are products that have to be sold, and so they have perhaps a bit too much of what real-estate agents call ‘curb appeal’.

    The Marxists appear to not like these houses because they see them as a mechanism for class mobility, and class mobility scares Marxists to death. The Marxists, though, have it wrong as usual; these houses are profoundly middle-class artifacts, but they’re artifacts of a middle class that is choosing to use its increased buying power to live more comfortably.

    And this is what McDonald’s should be worried about. Jobs at McDonald’s are lousy jobs, and everyone knows it. Nobody really has any problem with this, as is made clear by the fact that people keep applying to work there. The description of large tract houses as ‘McMansions’ strikes much more of a blow at what McDonald’s stands for, and much more nonsensically.

    Posted by tino at 17:32 9.11.03
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