Kroc’s Great Gift
Joan Kroc, the widow of Ray Kroc, founder of the American dining institution MacDonald’s, died a very rich woman. Thanks to sales of Big Macs, deep-fried potatoes, and colored corn syrup in water, she was, in fact, a multi-billionaire. Upon her death last year, Kroc’s executors were pleased to announce that the fast-food heir had left much of her fortune to a number of institutions and charities.
The largest gift — an astonishing $1.5 billion — was reserved for the Salvation Army, the aid-through-prayer organization memorably limned in “Guys and Dolls.” (In the musical, the uptight Ms. Sarah Brown leads the Times Square branch of the “Save a Soul” mission – which, until a lovable gang of professional gamblers encamps there to pay off a bet, is failing from lack of business.) The Salvation Army is the group that around Christmas sets up red giving pots attended by some forlorn fellow freezing his nuts off and ringing a bell. Their good works include providing shelter and a meal for those in need, as well as the spiritual “guidance” required to get the unfortunate ones back into society’s good graces.
The Salvation Army, like almost any charity, is a wasteful mechanism for providing help. Shortly before Kroc’s gift was announced, the paper here reported that the Army had spent $400,000 to renovate a home in the posh Santa Monica area. According to a spokesperson, one of the Army’s Captains needed a cantilevered roof over his head.
Egregious as this financial promiscuity might seem, the S.A. probably isn’t any worse than the average charity/business. This is not what’s interesting to us about Joan Kroc’s endowment. What fascinates us is the weird journey the dollars traveled before ending up in the Army’s freshly stuffed coffers.
The Kroc family became unfathomably wealthy selling products that everyone now knows cause heart disease. The nutritional “value” of the classic MacDonald’s meal is commensurate with the low price. Burgers, fries, and colas are mostly fat, salt and sugar, and even if you don’t go in for all the Atkins nonsense, you probably have an inkling by now that this stuff isn’t good for your body. But since it tastes good — and it’s cheap – people easily become addicted to fast-food, just as bums without a home easily become addicted to cheap liquor. After extracting billions of dollars from mostly lower-income diners, the Kroc’s then turn around and give a huge chunk of that money to the Salvation Army, whose message of temperance, delivered to mostly low-income diners, is served with a side of scripture.
Capitalism is funny. It forces people who have good hearts to behave ruthlessly – and then apologize for their venality by ridding themselves of their spoils. Imagine what might have happened if, instead of selling cheap poison to the lower classes, the Kroc family had sold them a better cut of meat at the same price, and refused to deep-fry anything. They wouldn’t be quite as fabulously wealthy, generations of Americans might not be obese and diseased, and the only one short-changed in the deal would be the organization redecorating homes in Santa Monica.