06/12/2012 09:32 am ET Updated Aug 12, 2012

Greed: The American Experience

This editorial answers the question, "What is the American Experience?" It is part of a series from the junior AP Language and Composition classes at Oakton High School in Northern Virginia, and was selected by a panel of student judges for publication on HuffPost Teen.

"Ba-da-da-da-da, I'm loving it." Odds are that if you're an American, you know this jingle well. You are probably even humming the tune in your head as you read this. "Why," you might wonder, "is this the case?" The answer is very simple. The golden arches of McDonald's have joined the American flag and the bald eagle as a distinctive symbol of America.

There's a food chain on every street corner, and the commercials play constantly on our television stations. As Morgan Spurlock pointed out in his documentary, Super-Size Me, some Americans know the words to the Big Mac song better than the words to the Pledge of Allegiance. McDonalds has become so commonplace that many Americans, myself included, have started to associate it with feelings of familiarity. From buying a kid's meal as a child to stopping by for a burger afterschool with some friends, we've been going to McDonald's basically our entire lives. But while we are willing to openly accept it as symbol of our nation and as a part of our lives, we look the other way to what McDonald's truly symbolizes: greed.

McDonald's has an annual revenue of $23.5 billion, making it Fortune magazine's number-one grossing company in the food industry. How they make this immense sum, however, is not by just being incredibly popular and efficient -- they achieve this by paying their employees low wages.

Working at McDonald's is no easy task. Employees rush to fill orders, lest they invoke the wrath of an impatient customer. Despite the physical and mental stress they are forced to endure, they are paid low wages. The fact that McDonald's pays their employees so little is an injustice, not only because they deserve more, but also because McDonald's could probably easily afford to pay higher wages.

Let's say that on average, a person spends about $5 when they eat at McDonald's. Since there are about five employees per restaurant, that means only seven people need to come by the store in an hour for the company to pay their workers' wages. As you know, a McDonald's is a busy place, and usually gets much more than seven visits in an hour. This means that McDonald's could probably afford to pay their employees more money and still rake in a super-sized profit.

With such a small salary, low-wage workers struggle to get by, and might even be unable to pay even their rent. All the while, the stockholders and executives stuff their pockets with enormous profits, seemingly unaffected by the suffering of those who have earned them their fortunes.

While this greed is exhibited by American companies such as McDonald's today, it has not been limited solely to our generation; it has been prevalent for over a century. As depicted in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, beef packers in the early 20th century forced their employees to work for long hours in dangerous conditions. What's worse is that they were paid barely enough to feed themselves.

As a result of these ruthless conditions, many workers were involved in accidents. Thousands died, and countless more were injured or even crippled, forced to beg on the streets. The meatpackers continued to subject their workers to hostile conditions, simply because it made them millionaires. They were aware of what was happening and how many people they killed, but this didn't deter them. While money can't buy happiness, it apparently can wipe a conscience clean.

Companies have been abusing their workers in the name of profit for over a century, making it clear that greed has tainted American society. However, what makes greed truly the American experience is that it is exhibited by everyday Americans. We are just as much to blame as the companies -- possibly even more. We want our Big Macs. We wanted cheap meat. We don't care who suffers, just as long as we get what we want.

Even if working conditions at McDonald's are, according to some, less than ideal, day after day, Americans are still pulling into a Mickey D's for their all-important burger. And while we may not want to admit it, deep down, many of us couldn't care less about that person handing us our burger -- we just want our Big Mac.