$4 Coffee Won’t Solve the Shutdown

Don’t buy Starbucks’ latest government-based marketing ploy.

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This image provided by Starbucks shows a petition the company is asking customers and businesses to sign, calling for an end to the partial government shutdown that has forced hundreds of thousands of federal workers off the job. The petition, which will be available at all Starbucks 11,000 U.S. locations to sign beginning Friday, calls for reopening the government, paying debts on time and passing a long-term budget deal by the end of the year.

Of all the absurdities of the politics of the federal government shutdown, this one takes a new spot at number one: a company which charges four bucks for a cup of coffee sending petitions to Capitol Hill urging them to exercise fiscal responsibility.

Starbucks, which came up with the childlike idea of writing “come together” on its takeout coffee cups during a previous fiscal mess, is now urging customers to come to the stores with signed petitions. The documents, printed in newspaper ads, urge Congress to reopen the government, pay the nation's bills on time and pass a long-term budget deal by the end of this year.

Who knew it was so easy? Lawmakers have been wrangling over the deficit and debt for years, but apparently, all they needed was Starbucks telling them what needed to be done.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the government shutdown.]

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew this week warned Congress of the disastrous results of a government default. Business leaders are extremely nervous about the long-term impact on the economy of the shutdown and the possibility of breaching the debt ceiling. Furloughed government workers are complaining loudly that they won't be able to pay their mortgages. Capitol Police are working unpaid while the people they protect remain unable to find a deal to process their paychecks. The polling numbers for Congress, especially congressional Republicans and the tea party, are devastating. Congress knows the country is very, very angry. Does Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz genuinely believe that the kick-in-the-ass Congress needs to do its job is to have a bunch of caffeine-fueled petitions?

Of course he doesn't, because Schultz is not stupid. It takes a certain kind of business genius and knowledge of human behavior to convince people to vastly over-pay for something as basic as a cup of joe. But the petition drive isn't about federal finances. It's about Starbucks' finances. The whole idea is to bring more traffic into the stores – which is why Americans are encouraged to bring the petitions into Starbucks for delivery, as opposed to mailing them in.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

It's a clever marketing ploy, but Schultz should have the decency to call it that, instead of pretending that he's a great corporate citizen. If he wants to help, how about offering cut-rate sandwiches to furloughed federal workers? How about taking the money he spent on the self-serving newspaper ads and contributing it to pregnant women whose WIC benefits have been interrupted?

The chief executive of Panera Bread, Ron Shaich, took the food stamp challenge in September, living for a full week on the same budget afforded recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. He did it to draw attention to efforts in the House to cut the program by about $40 billion over the next ten years. Shaich said he thought about food all the time – how much he had in his pantry, whether he would have enough to eat for the week. The benefits work out to about $4.50 a day. Just enough to buy a grande caramel Frappuccino at Starbucks.

  • Read Robert Schlesinger: Obama Adviser: Why the Debt Ceiling Deniers Have It All Wrong
  • Read Pat Garofalo: The Government Shutdown, the Salmonella Outbreak and Food Safety
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