Starbucks 'Come Together' Solution to Fiscal Cliff Is a Cop Out

If the multibillion dollar company actually wanted to make a difference, Howard Schultz could contribute to the dialogue in a meaningful way.

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Justin McCartney of Hampton, Va., holds up a cup with the words "Come Together" written on it outside a Starbucks cafe in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012. Starbucks is using its coffee cups to jump into the political fray in Washington. The world's biggest coffee chain is asking employees at cafes in the Washington area to scribble the words "Come Together" on cups for drink orders on Thursday and Friday. CEO Howard Schultz says the words are intended as a message to lawmakers about the damage being caused by the divisive negotiations over the "fiscal cliff."

To a lot of Americans (and the international community, as well), Congress looks pretty unimpressive right now, spending what is usually a holiday down-time trying to fix an entirely self-created crisis over spending and taxes.

But cheer up, lawmakers: Starbucks has moved the needle. The company is now expanding its utterly silly program to have its coffee-pourers (excuse me, "baristas") write the words "come together" on the paper cups of people waiting in line for their vastly over-priced beverages.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the fiscal cliff.]

Said the company's CEO, who identifies himself only as "Howard S." in his online statement:

It's a small gesture, but the power of small gestures is what Starbucks is about! Imagine the power of our partners and hundreds of thousands of customers each sharing such a simple message, one cup at a time.

The power, in fact, is absent—at least in terms of getting Congress to stop the looming fiscal cliff. Congress is not like some Little League team that just needs yet another parent yelling, "You're the best! You can do it!" from the bleachers. This isn't happening because Congress needs a nudge from coffee-peddlers, or an extra shot of self-esteem. This is happening because Congress has been on a downward spiral of dysfunction for some time, and because its members are under constant pressure from powerful interests such as—oh, a big company like Starbucks.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

If "Howard S." really wants to put pressure on Congress, he can do it. Despite the laughable efforts to present Starbucks as a team of equals (signing his missive "Howard," even though Howard Schultz is CEO, makes pots of money, and deserves a full name; calling employees "partners," though the tip jar suggests there's a wide gap between the coffee-dispensers and Schultz), Howard Schultz can play the game that influences Washington.

With $3.36 billion in revenues and plans to open 1,300 more stores, Starbucks had what a company spokesman described as its best fourth quarter ever. Schultz himself was named as the 354th richest person in America by Forbes magazine this year, with an estimated net worth of $1.5 billion. He could pledge to contribute to the opponents of anyone on the Hill who refuses to make compromises. He could come out, Warren Buffett-like, and say he believes he should pay a lot more in taxes as a wealthy person, and urge Congress to do so. Or, he could even come out and say he should pay less in taxes so he can create more jobs with the extra cash. But he could actually thrust his wealthy self into the debate, one way or the other. Lengthening the lines at Starbucks stores by asking employees to write "come together" on cups is a cop-out. But then, should we be taking fiscal advice from someone whose company charged four bucks for a cup of coffee?

  • Read Mary Kate Cary: The Fiscal Cliff Shows the Outrageous Incompetence of Washington
  • Read Peter Fenn: Blame Republicans for the Fiscal Cliff and Washington Gridlock
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