On the scruffy shores of Lake Merritt, under an insipid, ash-grey October sky, I lay my loathsome burden down: one Crunchwrap Supreme, two Chipotle Cheddar Chalupas, one Beef Supreme Burrito, one Steak Quesadilla, and one Bean Burrito. Soon I shall take it up again, for good.
I have undertaken this dreadful quest because Scott “ScottyMarkets” Martin went on some Fox Business show to complain about President Joe Brandon’s reckless pro-inflation governance. He used a baffling and bafflingly specific example to illustrate the damage done to working families by inflation: His ass went to Taco Bell for a “nice lunch” and it cost him “about $28.”
Martin’s colleagues were astounded, as was a former colleague of mine, Libby Watson. When Libby invoked the Blogger’s Code and raised the possibility of a stunt blog attempting to recreate a $28 Taco Bell order, I knew I had to be the one to answer the call. I also knew that I would have to actually consume the food, therefore transcending the theoretical realm and doing praxis. Once Barry Petchesky said I could expense my $28 nice lunch, I hopped on my bike and headed to the accursed Taco Bell in Uptown Oakland.
The problems started right away. The inside of the restaurant was closed for an unspecified reason, the doors locked and the grim interior sealed off from the public in a way that felt semi-permanent. You were only allowed to access this Taco Bell’s proprietary slops and sludges via a drive-through window, which felt annoying to me but also spiritually coherent. Thankfully, they let me enter the drive-through (which was being actively power-washed) on my bike, and as two and then three cars idled in front of me, I tried to do the math in real-time to end up with $28 worth of food, pricing in tax and such. It was a tricky endeavor, especially because the speaker appeared to have sustained some blunt force trauma, but I eventually had the helpful cashier walk me through my order and I arrived at a nice, clean $28.60 for a meal with enough sodium to kill a housecat.
Has Taco Bell increased their prices? According to basically every credible source—Business Insider, the /r/LivingMas subreddit—yes, they have. Taco Bell raised their prices by an average of 10 percent, per Business Insider, between July 2020 and July 2021. The conventional wisdom holds that inflation is the direct, ineluctable byproduct of wages increasing. A strong labor market, economists might posit, means that businesses must raise the price of their goods and services in order to pay their workers a competitive wage. This argument holds that labor shortages, stimulus checks, and anything that can be defined as “good” by anyone who doesn’t have a direct stake in squeezing workers for their excess value have driven up prices, and therefore we need to take direct aim at workers, preferably with a good, old-fashioned recession, in order to lower the price of sweet treats and above-ground pools and shit. This is wrong. Real wages have not gone up, and such that inflation writ large can be chalked up to one cause, that cause is corporate accumulation: 60 percent of “inflation” is direct corporate profit, per economist Matt Stoller. Blaming the president for economic headwinds is fine, but to do so without interrogating the other side of the consumer equation is the kind of logic that takes as a given that the only axis you operate along is as a consumer and not a worker. There can be no questioning the corporate profit motive, even when it’s arrayed against you.
Somehow I wrote the above (I think) incisive paragraph, as well as the moronic ones surrounding it, after crushing my tray full of garbage. I ate it all. I did not buy or bring a drink. I rode my bike home as the gunk sloshed in my stomach and my body’s alarm system began to ring. The effects of the sodium felt akin to a mild hallucinogen. My lips puckered, my mind felt untethered from my body, floating above me as I rode (unfortunately uphill) back home as if it was trying to distance itself from the damage it had caused. My colleagues expressed their sympathy for me, but mostly for my partner, who works very hard at a normal job and was making work calls while I was destroying my body for a stupid blog post.
The punchline to all this is that it turned out that Scotty Markets didn’t even spend $28, and also conducted his order like a clown and paid an extra 20 percent in the process of individually disentangling all his items from their possible combo meal deal formations. A wise Twitter user found a way for Scotty Markets to save $5 by going bundle mode, all of which makes his core point about his $28 lunch being inflated beyond the reach of normal, everyday Americans that much funnier. Presumably many of those Americans understand the concept of a combo meal.
My actual $28 lunch was significantly larger, and worse for me, and I wound up wishing inflation were even higher so that spending that much at Taco Bell would not be so physically hazardous. I am going to eat some digestive enzymes and pray to every deity I can think of for forgiveness and relief.