A story has been bouncing around on TikTok lately about a guy who went to a McDonald’s in Idaho in late 2022 and his meal came to $16.10. He posted the receipt, which went viral, and of course as the topic roared across the various social media platforms, a culprit was fingered. Beef producers? Nope. Potato growers? Hardly. McDonald’s itself? Are you kidding?
No, it was all the fault of Joe Biden. Why? It makes no earthly sense, but in today’s America it makes all kinds of sense, because in today’s America all bad economic news is the fault of Joe Biden. The Washington Post reported on McDonald’s-gate last week, noting that the White House Office of Digital Strategy had to spend time fending off allegations that Biden himself had all but ordered the scandalous increase.
This is just preposterous craziness for so many reasons.
First of all, $16 doesn’t strike me as insane for a hamburger, a huge order of French fries, and a massive soda. I haven’t been to a McDonald’s in decades, but back when I did go a lot, which was roughly around the time when most of America was first learning the name Bruce Springsteen, I recall a then-new Quarter Pounder, fries, and a soda costing a little under $2. The government’s online inflation calculator tells me that would equal around $14 today—less than, but hardly out of line with, $16.10. And today’s diner is getting tons more food and drink. That’s a decidedly mixed blessing given the amounts of fat, salt, sugar, and calories therein, but still it’s a fact that the order sizes of fries and sodas have ballooned.
I do eat some fast food (never, ever close, Long John Silver’s!), so yes, I’m aware that you can generally get out of such a place for under $10. But it’s also the case that prices for selected menu items at the leading fast-food chains have indeed gone up in the last two years. Joe Biden didn’t raise them, though—the chains themselves did.
Now you might say sure, but they’re just responding to market conditions. And fine, maybe they are. But Joe Biden didn’t create those conditions. According to one article I read, for example, McDonald’s is quietly bumping up wages to something near $15 an hour. Well, good for them. But that’s pandemic-related, because of the low-wage worker shortage. And that shortage started while Donald Trump was president. Other articles cited inflation, but inflation was far worse 18 months ago than it is today, and these dramatic price hikes have mostly happened this year.
Corporations always say they’re responding to market forces, and often they are. The price of bacon shot up during the worst of the inflation, so naturally, the cost of sandwiches with bacon went up too. But that isn’t Biden’s fault either. And besides, the higher prices of certain items don’t just occur naturally according to the mysterious laws of economics. They were manufactured by greedy producers.
You may have missed this, since it happened right before Thanksgiving, but a jury found that a farming company owned by the family of an Indiana Republican Senate candidate participated in a broad plot to fix egg prices by keeping the supply low. Rose Acre Farms and three other producers “unlawfully agreed to and did engage in a conspiracy to control supply and artificially maintain and increase the price of eggs,” according to a lawsuit brought by food-producing giants like Kellogg’s and Kraft.
Did Biden force the four firms to price-fix? Producers of certain goods have held back supply during inflationary spirals since the beginning of time. I guarantee you this happened in ancient Rome, the medieval Ottoman Empire, and any other society you can name. It did not suddenly dawn on producers to do this because Joe Biden was imposing socialism on the country.
I get it. Presidents get blamed for a lot of stuff that happens on their watch. It comes with the job and always has. But this is new and different, and there are three culprits: Fox News, social media, and, in the longer term, the way free-market neoliberal economic presumptions have oozed into our brains over the last 40 years.
Fox blames everything bad on Biden. If you watch it for five minutes, you don’t even need the sound on. It’s all in the chyrons, which are relentlessly negative about Biden and the economy. Here’s one little look at how the network does it: In early February 2022, news broke that 467,000 jobs were created in January—a monster number that even Fox couldn’t criticize. The chyron? “Biden Touts Jobs Report Amid Multiple Crises.” It never, ever stops.
Relatedly, the idea that the economy is horrible and that it’s all Biden’s fault has taken firm hold on social media. That Washington Post piece I linked to above about the McDonald’s TikTok story cited a consultant who tracks these things as observing that chatter on the site around #economycollapsing went berserk over the past month and generated tens of millions of views. This is what passes for “news” these days to most people. It makes me long for the days when there were three channels and Americans got their news from one elitist pipe-puffing man—and believed what he said.
And with respect to neoliberalism … well, as I noted, presidents get blamed for a lot of stuff. But I remember a time in this country when, if a restaurant chain raised its prices dramatically, people wouldn’t get mad at the president. They’d get mad at the chain. I suppose a lot of people still do, but everything is so politicized these days, especially by right-wing news outlets set on rejiggering facts to make a Democratic president look inept, far more people will buy the political explanation than the real economic one. And they’ll do that because our brains have been trained for so long to think that the market is great and wondrous and the government is corrupt and incapable of doing good.
Of course, some of this is the Democrats’ fault. Did the Senate hold hearings on price-gouging in the egg industry? If it did, it must have done so in one of those famous Capitol secret hideaway offices. And if it didn’t, why not? Subpoena the heads of the four major egg producers and make them answer questions under oath. Eggs are pretty important to Americans! Googling around, the only action I see any reporting on was a letter to the producers written by Elizabeth Warren and Katie Porter back in February. Good for them. But why no hearings? Oh, Democrats …
I realize columnists are supposed to conclude such columns with advice about how the pol in question, in this case Biden, can address this problem. But I don’t know. When people are getting their “news” from a propaganda network that would comfortably exist in North Korea and a bunch of people who probably know very little about economics posting 15-second rants on social media, a solution is pretty hard to see. I do still believe that most people aren’t either fascists or idiots and that actual facts arranged in an optimistic yet plausible narrative can persuade them. But I believe it less than I did a year ago.