George F. Will: Digesting the Twinkies lessons

Published: November 25, 2012
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“All Gods were immortal.”

— Stanislaw Lec

And also brands, the gods of the marketplace. Earthquakes may strike, dynasties may fall and locusts may devour the crops, but Oldsmobile and Pan Am are forever. Never mind.

But about the death of Twinkies: Write obituaries in the subjunctive mood. Like Lazarus, but for a reason more mundane than miraculous, this confection may be resurrected. In any case, the crisis of Hostess Brands Inc., the maker of Twinkies, involves two potent lessons. First, market forces will have their way. Second, never underestimate baby boomer nostalgia, which is acute narcissism. The Twinkies melodrama has the boomers thinking — as usual, about themselves: If an 82-year-old brand can die, so can we. Is that even legal?

The late Daniel Boorstin, historian and Librarian of Congress, said Americans belong to “consumption communities.” Are you a Ford or Chevy person? Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Ward? Camels or Chesterfields? Wooed by advertising, people plight their troths to brands in marriages that often are more durable than boomers' actual marriages.

Hostess, which had 18,500 employees making and distributing more than 30 brands made in 36 plants, had been in and out of bankruptcy several times since 2004. Its terminal crisis began on Nov. 9 when thousands of members of the bakers union went out on strike to protest wage, health care and pension cuts imposed by a court. The bakers objected to a 17 percent increase in their contribution for their health care benefits.

Amazingly, Washington did not offer Hostess a bailout. This discriminatory policy may be a constitutional violation — denial of equal protection of the laws. Since the onset of the financial crisis, the government has decided that some SIFIs are TBTF — some systemically important financial institutions are too big to fail. Why, any fair-minded person will ask, was Hostess not TBTF?

Granted, it was not big in the technical, crabbed, hairsplitting, narrow-minded way that “big” is normally understood, as a boring matter of mere size. It was, however, big in what matters most — in boomers' minds. They fondly remember opening their Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy or Davey Crocket lunchboxes at school and finding Twinkies nestled next to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made of Wonder Bread (another endangered Hostess species). Stendhal said that the only way ice cream could be better is if it were a sin. Boomers, a generation of food scolds, became adults who considered Twinkies and other sugary things sinful. They should be shedding scalding tears of remorse.

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