Tuesday, November 27, 2012


By Keith McDowell

Tell me it isn’t so! How can Washington let this happen? I demand a new Congressional select committee to investigate TwinkieGate – the conspiracy to deprive all right thinking Americans of their soul food. Imagine, if you can, a world in which the “Archie Bunker’s” among us no longer pop the “golden sponge cake with cream filling” into their mouths. It’s a stunning prospect that’s driving a Pavlovian run on sugary junk food and emptying the shelves at the 7-eleven.

And not surprisingly, true conspiracy theorists are whispering that TwinkieGate is actually a communist plot hatched by liberals and unions to sober up the GOP right wing by removing their principal sustenance from the marketplace. How else can one explain the “Twinkie Defense” of the Georgia legislators who believe that the Obama Administration is exerting mind control over them?

Sadly, “I’m a recovering junk food addict!” is a statement for our times as many of us continue the battle of the bulge on our waistlines. But here’s the good news! Innovation runs rampant as new diets, therapies, and scientifically engineered exercise equipment command our attention through clever and enhanced commercials and infomercials. I particularly like the regimes where you continue to eat, lose weight, and develop the body of Adonis, all for only a few dollars for menus and food. Sign me up! The exercise equipment sounds more like “no pain, no gain.” I probably wouldn’t stick with that, but, wow, the innovation and creativity involved with each new generation of equipment. Who says America can’t compete! But can we really lose weight by walking on the Bowflex TreadClimber three times a week for only thirty minutes a session?

I grew up in the post World War II era of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Junk food was mostly used to satisfy my sweet tooth – my favorite being Krispy Kreme donuts – and liquid refreshments mostly quenched my thirst.  But how can I ever forget those “Brownie” bottled drinks that I used as a small child to wash down the licorice that blackened my teeth? Or how about the traditional RC Cola and Moon pie? And for the true male redneck experience, how about Planters salted peanuts dumped into the top of a Coca-Cola bottle? Oh, and don’t forget the Cheerwine experience for those special moments. If only my dentist knew why I have a mouth full of crowns!

Today, junk food loads the calorie count for those who pay attention and carbonated drinks are the bane of the waistline and healthy teeth. Extreme sports are the order of the day, mountain hiking being my own particular brand. Candy has morphed into energy bars that are tough and chewy when cold and are an acquired taste (politically correct for they taste really bad). Liquid refreshments are now energy drinks that restore electrolytes and give one the power to continue past the bounds of common sense, ergo extreme sports. One of the latest crazes is power drinks that are “lite” or low on calories – Guru Lite being an example. While an oxymoron, it certainly rates as an innovation and it sells.

Whether diet drinks, microwave meals, or poptarts, innovations in the food industry truly play a major role in the American economy. But do we pay a price for that success? Is the 5-hour ENERGY drink a killer as some allege, especially for young children? And how about the tragic acceleration of obesity in America? Did you know that obesity in the populace has grown from 13% in 1962 to 35.7% in 2010? Let’s all give a loud Ho Hos shout out for those Ding Dongs who believe that the consumption of 500 million Twinkies per year is the principal cause of obesity and the alarming projection of an impending diabetes epidemic. Junk food doesn’t make people obese. Poor eating habits and life style are the real culprits.

And that brings us back to Hostess Brands, the manufacturer of Twinkies. Exactly why is it that 15,000 workers received pink slips at Thanksgiving and 3,500 more will be laid off in the coming months? George Will in an opinion piece claims that it’s all about market forces having their way and the Twinkiestalgia of baby boomers. You might be surprised but I agree with Will … but not for the details that he posits.

Market forces include the necessity to pay the going rate for salaries of the workers. And guess what, unions must have the right to negotiate for those rates, even if there were 372 distinct collective bargaining agreements at Hostess Brands. No one ever said it had to be easy.

I agree with George that the Teamsters position of using different trucks to haul different products seems silly on the surface. But how about the $1.3 billion in debts that corporate management ran up or the raises of 35% to 80% they paid themselves last year while driving the company into financial ruin? Should they receive a huge benefits package upon bankruptcy of the company or is this all just extractionist capitalism as discussed on the Ed Schultz Show of 20 November 2012?

And how about innovation as a factor in the Hostess Brands’ story? Did the corporate management sit on their thumbs, ignore the changing marketplace, and fail to innovate with new products and business models? If SodaStream can come up with a way for people to make their favorite carbonated drink right on their kitchen counter, Hostess Brands could have innovated.

Ultimately, the debacle at Hostess Brands will become grist for a business school case study and fodder for theorists debunking supply-side economics or right-wing pundits who don’t like the working middle class. For certain, junk food and obesity are not going away any time soon. For me, I got the broken sprocket on my Schwinn AirDyne exercise bike replaced today. I love that bike. There’s no better way to watch the noise on the television than riding on that bike.

Oh, and would you please pass the donuts!

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