I'll take the Oburger - the president at Five Guys in 2009. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cosying up to the Five Guys of the apocalypse is bad for your health – just ask Obama

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

Five Guys is a US fast-food chain that’s been high-profile there for some years now. This is for two reasons: way back in 2009, President Oburger – sorry, I mean Obama – made a televised visit to one of its burger joints in Washington, DC and since then he’s been subject to holding press conferences there whenever it’s too rainy for the Rose Garden. So politically influential has Five Guys become that when the Washington Examiner was scrabbling for objectors to the president’s new health insurance scheme – not, as you realise, a difficult task – it alighted on a franchisee owner of eight Five Guys outlets, who did indeed oblige by saying that he’d have to jack up his prices in order to pay the mandatory employers’ levy.

The second reason is that, sprouting out from its modest Virginian roots in the late 1980s, Five Guys has now spread – like the culinary equivalent of kudzu weed – to ensnare most of North America in its flocculent convolvulus. There are more than 1,000 branches operating in the United States and Canada and another opens every four days or so. One of the newest branches is in London, which means – as against our leaders’ tedious perseveration that ours is a global financial capital – that in terms of the Englishchomping world the city is, in effect, twinned with Bumfuck, Saskatchewan.

Given this column’s commitment to prying apart the buns of the political class, I rounded up three guys of my own and set out for this new outpost of the American last century. (The original “guys” were the founder’s children – that’s so wholesome it makes me want to barf and then eat my own barf . . . ) With its red-and-white checkerboard tiles, brown-paper sacks of potatoes “stored” in plain view, its counter service and redshirted hand patty cake-makers, Five Guys clearly is trying to go for retro. “This,” everything seems to proclaim, “is what burger joints were like when you were a kid back in Bumfuck and the Fonz was getting the jukebox to play by parking his denim ass on it.”

My eldest guy had warned of tremendous queues, so we went mid-afternoon and the place wasn’t too manic. Just as well, as I don’t think I could’ve borne the humiliation of seeing hip Londoners stand in line for fast food that, according to Men’s Health magazine, is waaay over the recommended daily calorie intake. Sod the poor employees – the diners need health insurance to eat there. It singled out the fries in particular as the gustatory equivalent of fracking – releasing great reserves of energy into the unsuspecting gastric economy – and remarked also on the woeful practice of adding egg to the bun dough, which makes for a particularly sweet and sickly encasement. But all of this sugaring the meaty pill pales in comparison with the soda dispensers, which offer no fewer than nine flavours of Coke and Fanta – oh, and unlimited refills. My guys pretty much majored in hyperglycaemia but even they gave up after a single Styrofoam water butt-full.

As for the artisanal burger, the guys were on the whole negative – but what do they know? I rather liked mine. Mushy-sweetie-bun? Check. Salty-crispy-fry? Check. Wilty-crunchy-lettuce? Check. Crunchy-friablebacon? Check. Processed-plasticky-cheese? Check. As I nyum-nyummed my way through this perfect encapsulation of the American way, the cymbals clashed, the drums boomed, the triangles tinged and drum majorettes’ knees agitated the hems of their pleated skirts prettily. Meanwhile, on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, a bunch of hairy protesters screamed, “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids didja kill today?”

If Oburger had any meat between his buns, he’d release Chelsea Manning on executive order before he leaves office – but we all know he doesn’t and that his presidency, while in no wise as egregiously bad as the one that preceded it, still hasn’t stopped the flop of once-upstanding American civil liberties.

In his drive to avoid being perceived by his fickle and easily fed electorate as a halal chicken-eater, Obama cosies up to the Five Guys of the apocalypse in a truly nauseating fashion. He’s also gone for his own gender reassignment, as a red-blooded, red-meateating male; but it’s a mystery to me how he can stomach a bacon cheeseburger after the amount of shit he’s eaten since taking office. Still, as my old granny would say: better out than in; and he does consistently redress the balance – by talking shit as well. Yes, he can.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.

 

Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.

 

May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.

 

Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.

 

Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump