Of Chicken And Ice Cream And Politics

ChickFilA-ChickenSandwich Reduced

I keep seeing it in the news – last month the San Antonio City Council voted against bringing a Chick-Fil-A restaurant into the city’s airport.  I am puzzled, but perhaps I should not be.

Chick-Fil-A (for the nine people who do not already know) is owned by the Cathy family.  S. Truett Cathy opened an Atlanta, Georgia diner in 1946.  He hit upon the right recipe for a fried chicken sandwich in the mid 1960s and soon thereafter opened his first Chick-Fil-A restaurant.

The rub, it appears, is that Truett Cathy was a religious man, a tradition carried on by his descendants.  Cathy donated generously to causes he found praiseworthy and made the costly decision to close the restaurant chain on Sundays in furtherance of his faith’s legacy of a day of the week for rest – something his employees likely appreciate.

As you might expect in our modern society, the principles which have been emphasized by the company rub many folks the wrong way.

What puzzles me is that the company is almost universally recognized as a model employer and corporate citizen.  The restaurants are exceptionally clean and the food is quite good.  They treat their employees well and have been generous with people in need.

I recall another company many years ago that was much like Chick-Fil-A, except in one way – Ben & Jerry’s.  In 1978 Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield sunk their money into a little ice cream shop in a former gas station in Burlington, Vermont.

The pair made and sold top-quality ice cream which made for happy customers.  As they grew they, too were model corporate citizens in treating their employees well, making high quality products and supporting causes which were important to the founders who remained active in running the business.

It is no secret to readers here that I hew towards the conservative end of the political spectrum.  And I can recall a time in my youth when I avoided buying Ben & Jerry’s ice cream because I disagreed with some of the ways they chose to spend their money.  But then I finally realized that I was being a hypocrite.  Here I was, a believer in free enterprise and private property, begrudging a couple of guys in Vermont the right to support things they found important.  I also decided that if they were going to be a good company that made a fabulous product, why should I penalize myself by choosing something not as good?

And so I changed my mind.  I could eat Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.  Not because I agreed with much of their politics, but because they made ice cream of exceptional quality and sold it from a company that treated its employees well.

I don’t eat as much Ben & Jerry’s as I used to.  First, I am older and fatter so I need it less than I once did.  Second, they sold their company to a big conglomerate so that the feeling of supporting a relatively small yet high quality business has sort of dissipated.  But my reduced spending on ice cream has nothing to do with Ben’s or Jerry’s politics.  (Rewarding the people who ruined Klondike Bars, well that is something else entirely).

It appears, however, that the modern mind  does not engage in the same kind of analysis.  Chick-Fil-A seems to attract opposition whenever it tries to expand into some of the more progressive communities.

I could certainly understand objections to a company that treats employees badly, runs dirty restaurants or sells poor quality food.  Or do folks in San Antonio, San Francisco and New York City just not like chicken sandwiches?

I get that my tendencies towards supporting free markets and free people (thank you for that phrase, Wall Street Journal) might not fly among those unfriendly to the Cathy family’s views.  But here is another way of looking at things.

Much of the political left rails against Big Business – and I am actually sympathetic with that view, to a point.  Modern corporate methods have relentlessly squeezed pennies from every source.  The rap on modern business is that temporary carpet-bagging management-types make short-term decisions to jack up stock prices so that they can maximize their bonuses before they jump to the next big growth opportunity.  (I am probably surprising more than a few of you).

It is a theory of mine that businesses run by founders or by their families tend to do a better job, even when the businesses are big. In a modern company there are owners (shareholders) and there are managers.  In theory the managers work for the owners.  In practice, however, it is not uncommon that ownership is dominated by investment funds that gauge success by little more than ever-higher stock price.

Managers who are beholden to the big mutual funds that focus on stock prices tend to make decisions that support high stock prices, usually to their own private profit as well.  These managers often share a short-term outlook with the funds that own the shares, and voila – everyone is trying to juice short term results at the expense of almost everything else.

I do not mean to turn this into a treatise on corporate governance but let’s just say that a company like the ones run by the Cathy family (and formerly by an actual Ben and an actual Jerry) are, all things being equal, going to be more likely to make better stuff and be better places to work.  At least as long as the owners’ hearts are in the right place.

And when a company is run by a family that takes care of those in its organization and pitches in to help the less fortunate, isn’t that something that should be encouraged rather than discouraged?

Every day big companies support charities and causes important to those in charge.  Is that a reason to support one over another?  Not in my book – at least not automatically.  The company that can take care of business, take care of its employees and be good corporate citizens (all at the same time) is the one that will, more often than not, get my hard-earned dollars.

So if some company is run by people who disagree with my politics but who also serve a better ice cream cone or chicken sandwich through a better and more generous organization – I see no trouble with them getting my business.

Modern politics is a nasty business.  Perhaps a delicious chicken sandwich and some really good ice cream to chase it down is one way to take some of the ugly out.

 

Photo credit: J. Reed Photo of Chick-Fil-A’s chicken sandwich from Flicker via Wikimedia Commons under the Share And Share Alike 2.0 license.  Changed only by size reduction from original file.

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19 thoughts on “Of Chicken And Ice Cream And Politics

  1. Going out on somewhat of a limb here…As one whose views are somewhere between conservative and libertarian (yeah, that’s a wide gap at times) it is always amazing how there are some who espouse inclusion and tolerance but then don’t practice it, such as often seems to be the case with some cities and some chicken-eating places. Isn’t there is a word for that, a word that springs from the same source as the name of the oath medical doctors have to take?

    Like most I frequently have interactions in areas in which I possess philosophical disagreements. For instance I bought a suit last night. Do I agree with the prices at the men’s store from which I purchased it? No. Do I agree with the pendulum that is the ever-changing width of lapels, swings that render suits obsolete with only a short passage of time? No. So did I picket the store, entice others to throw a hissy-fit in the parking lot, or threaten it with legal action? No, because I knew they had what I desired and it was of a quality that couldn’t be touched elsewhere. Such trivialities as these should not be enough to make my world cease to function.

    Sorry; it’s early and, Jim, you’ve hit upon a great point.

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  2. Well, I guess I’m one of the nine people. I have peripherally heard of Chick-fil-A but never been there. Not buying food from folks you don’t completely agree with is a slippery slope. I enjoy Indian food, and a good taco. Actually in my country a taco is more likely to be made by a bearded hipster or someone from India than from Mexico, but I digress.

    So next time we meet up in the US it’s Chick-fil-A and Ben & Jerry’s. I can fill another hole in your political spectrum, I’m moderate conservative here which probably makes me moderate liberal there. But what to drink? Taybeh beer from Palestine?

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    • I presume that Tim Horton’s cuts across political lines in Canada? And when it comes to drinking the only one I am aware of where folks take sides is in Irish whiskey where Jameson’s is the Catholic stuff and Bushmill’s is for you protestants. I am not sure that is really a thing anymore, but perhaps we can finish up by a trade of our respective whiskeys for a complete multicultural experience. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I personally boycott Tim Horton’s as their coffee is so vile that I don’t understand how anyone of any political stripe can drink it. It’s an embarrassment that our national coffee is so bad!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yikes! And here I was thinking that it was the place where Canadians came together to celebrate everything with donuts and coffee. We are starting to see locations in my area but nowhere near me. Now I am curious about that coffee.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes many people like it…..I’m way outnumbered. A few years ago they changed it to a dark roast which I find too bitter. I think most people go to Timmie’s just by habit, as they don’t have much competition, although we do have a few Starbucks here mostly in the cities. I also find Starbucks too strong. MacDonald’s coffee is my favourite. But every small village has a Timmies and there’s practically one on every corner in the towns and cities….talk about market saturation. I hope they do well in the States as I recently bought some stock (on the advice of my financial advisor) because they are branching out, including China.

        Liked by 2 people

      • No worries, it’s not our national coffee anymore, since it’s owned by a Brazilian conglomerate.

        It’s not the best coffee, but it’s better than the coffee we have at work.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Your theory about the distinction between ownership and control is well known in economics (one of my fields). In the 1930s, Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means examined the same issue:

    http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mizruchi/tsweb.pdf

    One question is why big business supports ideologies and social policies that, whatever their merits in the abstract, tend to degrade and destroy the existing social order. My own hypothesis, which someone else might have investigated, is that owners and top management skew leftist for reasons that would warm Karl Marx’s evil heart:

    * Multiculturalism / subsidized barbarian immigration: Instead of using federalism to divide the government and antitrust to divide the market, thereby preventing government and corporations from oppressing or exploiting the people, you use multiculturalism and mass immigration to *divide the people*, thereby preventing them from uniting to resist oppression and exploitation by government and giant corporations.

    * Feminism: Marx justly gets slammed for his disastrous political ideas, but his work in economics was mainstream. On his view (like Adam Smith and other classical economists), the “natural price” of anything was determined by the amount of labor needed to produce it. Marx’s innovation was to apply the same principle to workers *themselves*. He argued that instead of paying workers for the products of their labor, capitalists were paying for their “labor power,” and the natural price of labor power is determined by the amount of labor needed to produce it. Intuitively, this means the lowest wage that companies can pay is the lowest wage workers can accept: i.e., enough to sustain their ability to work, support a family, and produce the next generation of workers. If only the husband works, then companies must pay that amount for the output of one person. But if *both* husband and wife work, then the companies can pay almost the same amount for the output of *two* people. That increases profits for owners and bonuses for top management. Hence, on Marx’s view, feminism is the best thing to happen to capitalists since the invention of the corporation — even if it’s one of the *worst* things for women, men, families, and society.

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    • These are certainly interesting thoughts. I too have training in economics and have had a theory bouncing around about modern diffuse ownership of shares. Modern corporate governance seems just a little like socialism in that ownership is widely diluted among the many while control is concentrated among management (and maybe among fund managers). None of the managers (including fund managers) are owners in the classical sense so they are, in essence, running someone else’s machine. We all know that a car you buy with your own money is likely to be better cared for than one you rent for awhile, and perhaps this is the problem with modern corporate governance.

      Modern managements have been exceedingly efficient in wringing costs out of their processes and maximizing revenue over the near term but much less successful in building stability over the long haul. I have no solution and recognize that alternatives could always make things worse.

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    • Thanks Annie. It is good when we agree – it encourages me that two people who see some things very differently can have a good respectful conversation.

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  4. Sorry Jim, but I think you’re avoiding the issue at stake here. In the past, the Cathy family has explicitly taken anti-gay positions and supported anti-gay organizations. That is not about politics; it’s about tolerance and human rights. To be fair, my understanding is that they have backed down, though not apologized for their views. Do they have the right to hold those views? Sure, just as communities have the right to reject their business. For what it’s worth, there are none of these food restaurants anywhere near where I live, but their infantile billboards by the side of highways, offend me when I travel. There’s no excuse for using bad spelling as humor. Of course, I also get annoyed by tire shops which advertise “wheel alinement”.

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    • It is my understanding that most of the heat generated over this issue was around 2012 when the legal status of gay marriage was being hotly debated (and could have gone either way). Since that time the legal landscape has shifted and the Cathy family has withdrawn from that argument (which, from a legal standpoint is over anyway). My information on this was point found here: https://www.thedailybeast.com/its-time-for-gays-to-forgive-chick-fil-a

      “Anti gay” is kind of a broad brush too, isn’t it? It seems to me one thing if someone supports hateful groups that go out and beat up gay people who are simply minding their business and quite another to support religious groups that have (or perhaps had) an issue with the concept of gay marriage somehow rolled into their larger mission (which is not focused on sexual orientation). If there is no distinction here then I suppose every Catholic institution or organization under Catholic ownership is “anti-gay” too? I will not attempt to speak to the Cathy family’s conservative protestant position on these issues because I have no grasp of the particulars (and because there is so much variety on Luther’s side of the Tiber River).

      But isn’t there some public benefit to be gained from pulling back from the boycotts once a company has responded positively to the boycotters’ agenda? Because if there is not, where is the incentive for a company to make changes? The Cathy family believes what it believes, but it also provides a place where people less fortunate than you and I earn a paycheck to support their families (probably through franchise owners whose beliefs may well be different.) If the company’s record was one of refusing to hire (or treating badly) people because of race, sexual orientation or a whole host of other factors, I would agree with you. But I think some credit is due where a company owned by a family who may be uncomfortable with certain aspects of gay rights (to use a very imprecise term) goes to great lengths to treat individual employees and customers (gay, straight or any other group) fairly and equally.

      FWIW, it took me a long time to get past the idea of using cows to advertise chicken sandwiches.

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      • Articulately and thoughtfully put … you have made me think about this more carefully. Thanks. Though I still have trouble with their billboards …

        Liked by 1 person

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