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A Tale of Two Inflations
David Brooks' Airport Burger and DIY Taco Bell
David Brooks — the senior token conservative columnist at the New York Times and a one time Yale University instructor on “Humility” — found himself the main character on Twitter late last week. Brooks had posted a picture of an erstwhile $78 burger from an airport restaurant and made a comment about inflation.
But eagle-eyed (or just thirsty) folks noticed the dredges of a whiskey in the background, leading to accusations that he had inflated the price of his food by not mentioning his alcohol consumption. The maligned restaurant smartly responded by noting that “80%” of the bill was alcohol and then announced a $17.78 “D Brooks Special” including the burger, fries, and a double shot of whiskey.
Depending on how sympathetic one is to Brooks, you could chalk the episode up to either a failed attempt at fiduciary-culinary humor or see it as just another example of tone deaf classism. Either way, I suspect the public reaction was as visceral at it was because Brooks was caught exaggerating a problem for political effect. Although inflation is falling rapidly, public apprehension about inflation always lags the indicators. And we’re entering a presidential election season in which Joe Biden’s (mis)handling of inflation and the economy will be hot issues. Conservative commentators are practically drooling at the chance to spend the next year reminding voters about two alarmingly high numbers: Biden’s age and inflation circa mid-2022.
Such is standard fare for the political class and the punditocracy alike. It’s election season, after all; who wouldn’t want to roll up their newly bought jean shirt sleeves, pretend they don’t have a degree from an Ivy League law school, and enjoy a deep fried corn dog at the Iowa State Fair?? But Brooks got lazy and didn’t bother to sprinkle his complaint with the correct populist seasoning. As Brooks himself put it, “An upper middle class journalist having a bourbon at an airport is a lot different than a family living paycheck to paycheck.”
But there was another act of inflation that did a more convincing job of pretending to have the common touch. This is the tale of the Taco Bell TikTok that terrified Twitter.
On September 13th a tweet (with three alarm emojis; oh, it must be important!) reshared a TikTok video of a man complaining that Taco Bell for him and his three sons cost $53. Nearly 10 million people have since seen the video, a cri de chalupa coeur about runaway inflation and corporate greed. “Make it make sense. I understand inflation is crazy, but this has to be greed. This is insane to me."
But like with David Brooks’ bourbon & burger, commentators promptly sniffed out a potential phony. That’s because the way the original gentleman described his experience at Taco Bell will seem to odd to anybody possessing even a passing familiarity with fast food norms. See if you can spot the problem: he ordered four beefy 5-layer burritos, four cheesy gordita crunches, and drinks.
(Pity the cultural historian of the 24th century attempting to explain that this combination of strange words once described something edible and not various 21st century construction materials!)
Do you see it? No ordinary person orders that much Taco Bell a la carte! No, you order combo meals, family packs, or boxed specials. Ordering individual food items like this is utterly bizarre, as odd as if you saw someone on Valentine’s Day buy twelve individual roses instead of the premade bouquet of a dozen roses.
I confess that in my college days (or, more accurately, nights), I could inhale nearly an entire Taco Bell party pack by myself. So I knew right away what the guy had done. If he had, instead, just ordered four of the aspirationally-named “build your own cravings boxes,” he could have gotten his crunches, burritos, and drinks (and four additional chips and cheese to boot!), all for the low, low price of $24 plus tax. More food at less than half the price!
Perhaps this TikTok creator was simply an innocent babe in the strip mall woods. This is a bit hard to believe coming from a gentleman named “delta_whiskey89” who wears a backwards baseball cap, drives an upsized Chevy truck, and is in the middle of building his own house, but perhaps it’s so. More likely, in my opinion, is that it’s a stunt, a sketch, a joke, an attempt to farm a little TikTok clout. Normally, that would’ve been that. Only ~65k people viewed the original video on TikTok and his comments are choked with folks who can’t believe how subpar his fast food ordering skills are.
But then a Twitter account with a million followers, “WallStreetSilv,” shared it on that platform and it went truly viral. WallStreetSilv serves a very particular community: hyperinflation-obsessed doomers. You see, the “Silv” in the handle is a reference to the account’s promotion of buying silver as a hedge against inflation.
The account operator really has quite a clever marketing strategy. It needs to reach a community of disproportionately Boomers who are worried that hyperinflation or a stockmarket collapse will wipe out their life savings and thus are open to plowing their investments into ostensibly safer precious metals. But if the account merely posted a bunch of goldbug / silverhound content, it would be too easy to dismiss as spam.
So instead, the majority of the account’s posts are clickbait conservative hyperbole: eg, complaints about immigrant “invasion” and woke schools. This content routinely attracts thousands or even millions of views and engagements. Then, every so often, the account slips in what amount to press statements for various speculative metallic investments. These posts gain vanishingly little authentic engagement by comparison to the clickbait content, but the spillover attention still means eyeballs (see below). Like with spam email or phone spoofing marketing, it’s a numbers game; if even 0.01% of those thousands of eyeballs lead to a sale, it pays off.
So this viral Taco Bell video is a Twitter grift stacked on top of a TikTok stunt. (And, sadly, not the good kind of stacking.)
Now here’s where we come full circle. You see, if you trawl through the comments of the Twitter version of the video, you’ll find person after person blaming not generic corporate “greed” as in the original video; no, you’ll find a host of blue check and pseudonymous accounts blaming Joe Biden. Bidenomics is why Taco Bell costs $53! Gee, thanks, Brandon!!
There’s a fundamental similarity between the approach of the TikTok creator, the Twitter silvermonger, and David Brooks. All three exaggerated the price of food to make a political point. This is somewhat ironic because the better location to make that point would be grocery stores, where inflation has outpaced prices at restaurants. While their intended audiences and targets were different, each played on (legitimate) public antipathy towards inflation for sake of personal gain. Chasing clout, peddling hot takes, selling silver: it’s all the same basic game.
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