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Three Cheers for 'Petty' Concerns

November 16, 2001

My 7-year old daughter asked me the other day whether I was born before email. "Yes," I confessed. Then she quickly followed up: "Where you born before plastic?" "No," I said, "I was born after plastic but before email." Satisfied that she had placed me within the structure of the history of the world, she went back to her weekend play.

There's important truth here. That this tribe and not that tribe controls Kabul isn't the kind of thing that changes our lives, so it's hard to understand the hysteria. What really drives forward the data of history as we know it are the products we use in everyday life, things like the computer, the DVD, or the CD burner. These simple and so-called petty economic concerns — not war and politics — are what define progress and distinguish one generation from another.

Thus it is extremely newsworthy that baby bells are suffering because everyone is canceling his second phone line, what with the advent of high-speed internet access. Turns out that the second-phone line shtick was big business for these little monopolists. Other ominous signs include the tendency of college kids and even small business choosing the cell-phone only option, just like they do in the Third World. Now, tell the truth: isn't this more interesting than the latest squabbles between the Taziks and the Pashtuns in that other planet we call the Middle East?

So let's talk about the trends that really matter, the first one concerning fast food and the second one dealing with the color of our teeth. There are revolutions taking place in both sectors that will transform our lives within the next twelve months.

The fast-food revolution begins at Arby's. That's right, that old fuddy-duddy of a fast-food outlet, founded in 1964, that hasn't been even been in the running during the wars that have pit Burger King against McDonald's. The idea of a hot roast-beef sandwich was big stuff in the 1970s but it's been downhill ever since.

Even during the market hysteria of 1998, the Triarc Restaurant Group (which also own T.J. Cinnamons and the Pasta Connection) suffered startling blows, with the value of the invested dollar falling by half. In 1999, Arby's captured only a 3.9 percent of the fast-food market. Does anyone really look forward to an Arby's? It's only what you eat if you can't find any other outlet where the drive-through lines are short.

Now to the big news: Arby's revolutionary "Market Fresh Sandwich." It may be the greatest sandwich you have ever tasted, and this is not hyperbole. Whoever came up with this sandwich, first introduced in May 2001, is a genius, a person who thinks completely outside the box, as they say. It is radical departure from everything that has ever defined Arby's, or fast food itself, for that matter.

There are no warming lights, no greasy buns, and no wilted lettuce. You open the wrapper — and it's a deli-style wrapper — to find a magnificent meal, a thing of beauty, stack high with all-fresh ingredients. It comes on whole grain bread, and contains real Swiss cheese, sweet red onions, and fancy honey mustard. With the first bite you will swoon with delirium. You have finally found the perfect lunch, a sandwich to rival the best New York deli at fast-food prices (under $5).

Not only that, but there's no waiting. The sandwich is sitting right there for you to pick up in an instant. It comes in four varieties, and every one is fantastic: Roast Beef and Swiss, Roast Turkey and Swiss, Roast Ham and Swiss, and Roast Chicken Caesar. To insure quality, the company decided in favor of a national distribution of the ingredients, on solid grounds that they didn't trust the quality of local produce.

I was so astonished by the quality that I did an informal look around the restaurant to see who else had ordered this item. It turns out that more than two-thirds of the patrons had the Market Fresh on the table, and just talking to a few people, it was clear that they had the same impression I had, that this is an incredibly good meal.

Now, Arby's has started a second round of national promotion for this item, based on interviews with real customers. If this takes off, and how can it not?, think what this could mean for the whole industry. McDonald's will have to follow suit, then Burger King, then Wendy's, and then everyone else. Still, in the end, Arby's will remain the leader, simply because they were first past the post.

The delis and deli chains are going to suffer some serious competition. And the political left, which has been fulminating against the great American hamburger for a decade, won't know what to do. The "fast-food nation," as the title of a book by some leftist prig puts it, will be eating a completely different product, supplied in the same capitalist manner that put the hamburger on the map.

One can never tire of watching with amazement at how the market responds to consumer demands with new innovations. Thus, we come to the second example of the great revolution of our times: teeth-whitening strips, as introduced by Crest this past summer. A box costs between $30 and $40.

These simple strips contain hydrogen peroxide, and are worn on the teeth for 30 minutes at a time, twice a day for two weeks. They turn your teeth pearly white, thus achieving every consumer's dream that has been promised but never achieved by the toothpaste industry for 30 years. The effect lasts for six months and then you have to do it again. They are now available in every pharmacy, and they have become so popular that they are put in the check-out stands at grocery stores.

The phenomenon first appeared to me about a month ago, when someone I've known for years smiled and I noticed that his teeth were incredibly white. I happened to comment on it, and he revealed the great secret. Then I was at the flower shop and noticed that the check-out lady had sparkling white teeth. Then I began to take greater notice, and saw that every student at the university library was walking around with super-white teeth, and everyone seemed oddly smiley.

Now the South is a smiley place to begin with, but these strips have made it even more so. You wonder if these strips could even enact something of a cultural revolution in crabby places like New York and Detroit. We all know that when you laugh the world laughs with you, whereas you cry alone, but soon the whole world will have every reason to smile as widely as possible. Soon, stained teeth could become odd and even regarded as unsanitary. Thus the advent of teeth-whitening strips could be as revolutionary as the invention of deodorant itself.

I know the neoconservatives and state builders say concerns like this are "petty." They would rather us live a world where people think only about building the warfare state and sacrificing for the common good, where we huddle up to dream about sending our youngsters off to fly bombers and kill enemies of the nation state. Not I. To me, the great society is one that loves inexpensive deli sandwiches and the whitest teeth in the history of the world, and relies on voluntary market cooperation to get them.

I envy the generation born after today that can brag that it came after teeth whitening strips, fast-food deli sandwiches, and CD burners. I'm willing to bet that six months from now, not even the people of Afghanistan will speak of the liberation of Kabul from the Taliban as a decisive moment in the history of the world.

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