Don't Drink the Butane….

Photo: Don't Drink the Butane….

Humans balance the need to seek shelter and the desire to conquer.

Either path leads us to a place of centralized control.

When we conquer, we start businesses and consolidate industries. When we seek shelter, we ask for regulation and authority. The result of either is the same - an invisible hand, that determines what we can and cannot have.

We Conquer

Jimmy Pattison is a conquerer. He is the second richest man in Canada. Starting in 1961, Jimmy began buying auto dealerships, leasing companies, media, grocery, packaging, entertainment and more.

He is the definition of consolidation. First, he bought auto dealerships, and then he bought the companies that finance purchases and leases.

He bought the highway billboard companies that advertised his dealerships; then he bought the signage companies that make the billboards.

He bought the magazines he was advertising in. Then he purchased the shelf space where the magazines were sold.

He bought grocery stores and then bought the food producers that he bought food from. He purchased the packaging companies that the food producers bought their packaging from.

When I go grocery shopping, I step onto a floor owned by Jimmy Pattison, select brands and products owned by Jimmy Pattison and peruse the tabloids at check out that Jimmy Pattison owns. Then I drive home in a car that I bought from Jimmy Pattison.

The brands all appear independent. Without digging through the chain of ownership, I would never know that nearly every product I touched - from apples to canned tuna, was controlled by one man. And the tractor that works that apple farm…? Pattison Agriculture, of course, for all your farm equipment needs.

The invisible hand of Jimmy is everywhere.

The impact of consolidation on the consumer is almost always the same. Initially, a cost-saving, and eventually, a reduction in variety.

Last February, the grocery store in my town was rolled into the Pattison Food Group. Any products not sourced through the Pattison Food Group Warehouses have since been phased out.

This might create lower prices (unclear) but definitely creates variety reduction. I live in a very active community - a global hub for mountain biking, rock climbing, kite surfing and more. As a result, there was an entire aisle dedicated to sports nutrition with an incredible diversity of brands, products and ingredients.

Six months after the roll-up, the aisle is gone, and we are limited to Cliff Bars and Gatorade.

The invisible hand is controlling what I have access to. I don’t appreciate this change…

But, as a business owner, I have nothing but appreciation for the cost and production efficiencies. I am in no way opposed to consolidation.

When Jimmy Pattison bought his first Pontiac dealership in 1961, he was a young man who wanted to build something. Anybody would have cheered Jimmy on. He is now 94 years old and still works six days per week. But he is the same kid we cheered on in 1961.

We often view monopolies as controlling, choice-reducing, price-gauging machines. But in almost every case, a monopoly is a small business entrepreneur who “made it.”

It is honourable to shop at the small owner-operated store instead of the big chain. But should that small business entrepreneur succeed… and become a big business, people are quick to shame the greedy corporation.

But pointing the finger at anyone is just shirking our personal accountability.

If my local shop provides me with great options, I need look no further. But if the options become less healthy and more processed, I need to find a solution. The power always comes back to me.

Jimmy Pattison is a conqueror and a Canadian icon. At 94, he skips into work like the young founder that still lives inside him.

We Seek Shelter

I eat a very basic diet. I eat plants and animals that still look like plants and animals. I have grave concerns about the voluntary pollution of our food products.

Sometimes I think it would be nice if better regulations prohibited the use of the thousands of cancer-causing additives, preservatives, and artificial colours that we frequently find in our “food” supply. If I could seek shelter from the vast array of these unrecognizable carcinogens, I would probably elect to do that…

In 1906, some concerned citizens had a similar thought. Known as the “Muckrucking Journalists,” these investigative authors set out to expose nefarious activity in the food trade.

Thus, with simple, practical intentions, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drug Act to prohibit the trade of food that had been “adultered.”

It was a cry for safety from an urban population that was no longer growing their own food and wanted assurances that when they bought a quarter of beef, the merchant hadn’t tampered with it. They tried to keep food, food. Quite reasonable.

This was the creation of the FDA.

But 116 years of cries for safety later, the FDA’s scope of responsibility has inflated to overseeing $2.7 trillion in goods ranging from bananas to cell phones, from condoms to pet medicine.

It is far too big of an ask.

But people cry out, and the government responds.

I can’t criticize this. If I am buying children's Tylenol, I want to ensure it has been screened and certified by a credible body; I don’t have the skills to do this on my own.

Critics of the FDA will point to its faults - it has played an accountable role in the opioid crisis, it has recalled medicines that resulted in the deaths of children, and it has green-lighted thousands of chemicals and carcinogens for consumption that have no place in the human body.

But I would argue that the FDA is not evil, corrupt or even incompetent. In response to 116 years of public demand, the FDA is now managing at an obscene scale - a margin of error is guaranteed. The larger the organization, the larger the errors.

And as a consequence, I need to get back to personal accountability.

If the regulatory body serves me well, I need to look no further. But if the decisions become suspect, I need to find a solution. The power always comes back to me.

Don't Drink the Butane

I am drinking a cup of coffee right now. I am also drinking a glass of water. I am not, however, drinking a glass of butane. Butane is better used as a lighter fluid than a cocktail.

But coincidentally… butane keeps chicken nuggets tasting extra fresh, and is deemed “generally safe,” by the FDA.

Now I acknowledge that a minimal amount of butane if ingested once, would likely not have any long-standing health complications.

Unfortunately, people who eat chicken nuggets are probably not eating one chicken nugget and then abstaining for a lifetime. If they were, then yes, the ingredients would likely be “generally safe.”

The issue we run into is our default mode to believe in absolutes. We want to think that things are either safe or not. And if the FDA has labelled this as safe - then safe it must be.

Here is another.

Propylene glycol is the core ingredient in antifreeze - it keeps your car's engine functioning well during a cold winter. But the properties that make it an effective antifreeze - the ability to absorb water while maintaining moisture, also make it great for thickening dairy products and salad dressings.

Propylene glycol is deemed “generally safe” by the FDA.

It is also my opinion that you should not drink antifreeze.

Now there are hundreds more examples that we could run through - sodium nitrate, propyl gallate, polysorbate 60… and several other yummy treats directly linked to cancer development.

But generally, safe.

The FDA started with simple intentions and a simple, manageable mandate. One hundred sixteen years later, the FDA is a monster that cannot fulfil its duties - not because of corruption or incompetence - but because we have tasked it with an impossible job. It is important to acknowledge that it is just something that we created.

So let’s not point the finger; let’s take accountability.

We have a choice - we can accept the decision of the invisible hand (somebody said butane is safe…), or we can seek shelter from the shelter we created.

Let’s Look at Media

Only a few industries have become as consolidated and centralized as media. As a result, the industry is now cracking under the pressure it has put on itself.

It is probable that if you are the average movie watcher (ok, I don’t know what an average movie watcher is…), every movie you watched in the last three years was produced by one of five production companies.

If you were to google the 50 most-watched movies of 2022, you could trace nearly all to the same five companies.

If you were to follow the chain the ownership of the most powerful news platforms in the country, you would find the same five production companies.

You could actually pull a list of over 24,000 different channels, stations and publications and trace them back… to the same five.

But this centralization pales compared to social media platforms, where you will see 60% of the world's eyeballs captured by three platforms, Youtube, Facebook/Instagram and TikTok.

All of these are success stories. All of these organizations were founded by humans just like you and I. They began as 30-year-old Jimmy Pattison buying his first car dealership, and they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. They should be celebrated.

But I can celebrate Jimmy Pattison and not eat from his shelves. His growth and consolidation have outgrown my demand for whole local foods. The FDA’s scope of responsibility has outgrown my confidence in their decision-making. The media conglomerates have outgrown my need for independent, risky thoughts.

And at least on the media front, a wave of public sentiment agrees with me.

That is why for now, when you search the top 50 most downloaded podcasts, you don’t see five companies. You see 46.

46 young Jimmy Pattisons’, trying to create something unique, long-lasting and tasteful.

This will change. Big players are already making their moves -the top two podcasts of the year, for example, (Joe Rogan Experience and Call Her Daddy) have already been purchased by Spotify. So over the next five years, the number of companies that own and produce the top 50 podcasts will become a smaller and smaller list.

But this is why the podcast game is in the very early innings despite the explosion of new shows.

However, even earlier than the podcast business is the return of the independent newsletter writer.

Platforms like Substack steadily draw talent away from the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Vox and Buzzfeed.

Why? Independent newsletter writers are given shelter from the invisible hand of censorship, now intrinsic to most any comparable media platform.

Just as the FDA defaults too frequently to “generally safe,” legacy media defaults too frequently to “generally dangerous.”

Before recording an episode for my YouTube channel - I now brief my guests on an ever-growing list of “off-limit words.” These are words that, if said out loud, will trigger the algorithm to review the content of my video, resulting in, at best, temporary demonetization or, at worst, de-platforming.

Due to the sensitive nature of many Youtube viewers, the algorithm has adopted a default process of identifying “high-risk” words, regardless of the context. So if the word is said, the video gets flagged. We then submit our claim that the context had no nefarious intent, and the video is approved. But all of this takes labour hours.

When Joe Rogan, host of the world's biggest podcast, abandoned Youtube for an exclusive distribution agreement with Spotify, he cited the continual demonetization of his Youtube videos, combined with the threat of outright de-platforming, was key. (Although I’m sure the $100M cheque didn’t hurt).

Following this, his podcast became the most downloaded show in the world - a testament to public sentiment towards censorship.

Is Youtube upset to lose this megastar? Likely. But they have become victims of their success. Like the FDA, they are struggling to manage at an obscene scale.

If Podcasts provide relative freedom of expression, then independent newsletters go the extra mile.

Newsletters are an opt-in, direct-to-reader option with no algorithm and no non-subscriber scrutiny. Every online creator needs one, if only as an insurance policy.

It is the final frontier of honest expression, where you can still find some unadulterated food in the world wrapped up in centralized authority.

Jay Martin
CEO, Cambridge House