The same week that Joseph Epstein was writing in the Wall Street Journal in celebration of the closure of a McDonald's, the historian David McCullough, speaking at the Vineyard Haven Library on Martha's Vineyard, was also casting aspersions on the fast food chain. Said Mr. McCullough, according to a report in the Vineyard Gazette: "I'm sometimes reminded to tell people something that I take heart from, year after year. So, anytime you start to get a little down about the state of American society or the state of American culture, keep in mind that today, still, there are more public libraries in the United States than there are McDonalds. May it ever be so."
I'm a huge fan and customer of both Mr. McCullough and of public libraries. But I have to differ, respectfully, on this point. It seems to me to be an apples-to-oranges comparison. Public libraries are predominantly taxpayer-funded, government-run places for books, while McDonald's are privately run, for-profit places for food. Mr. McCullough makes most of his money selling books at bookstores, not to libraries, which may have something to do with why he isn't going around congratulating American culture for the fact that there are more libraries in America (123,129, according to this fact sheet from the American Library Association) than there are bookstores (about 900 run by Borders, 777 Barnes & Noble stores, and about 1,200 independents). (For what it's worth, there were 13,918 McDonald's in the United States at year-end 2008, according to the McDonald's annual report.) If Mr. McCullough wants to compare something to McDonald's, he might compare the number of McDonald's to the number of government-run public school cafeterias and government-funded soup kitchens.
Mr. McCullough would be pleased to know that I go to public libraries more often than I go to McDonald's. But I think both serve useful roles in society, and it is not a zero sum game. The success of McDonald's doesn't come at the expense of public libraries, nor does the success of public libraries come at the expense of McDonald's. The income taxes of McDonald's employees and shareholders, the sales tax charged on McDonald's meals, the corporate taxes paid by McDonald's, the property taxes paid by McDonald's -- all of it goes to the government to support, among other things, public libraries. The parent who does not have to cook dinner or do the dishes afterward because he or she decided to take the family to McDonald's may have more time and energy left over to take the family to the library. And the same parent may have more money left over to buy books than if he or she had taken the family to a fancier, more expensive restaurant.
This is not an argument in favor of eating every meal at McDonald's or in favor of ordering everything in super-size when and if you go. But there seems to be an assumption shared by Mr. McCullough and by Mr. Epstein that the company is some sort of blight when in fact the company provides a lot of jobs and skill-training for a lot of people and a value proposition that appeals to its customers. What's more, no one is forced to work at McDonald's or to be a customer of it, while the libraries are funded with taxes that are forced from everyone.
McDonald's unpopularity in certain elite circles is telling, because by financial measures, it is one of the most successful American companies. It's one thing if Mr. Epstein or Mr. McCullough don't want to dine there themselves. McDonald's has weathered plenty of tougher criticism. But the comments probably say something more general about how big American companies are viewed by some parts of the public.