The Starbucks Recovery Act

The Starbucks Recovery Act

Keith Spencer: The Starbucks Recovery Act

Whether or not you’re employed, it’s likely you’ve spent some time fretting over the fate of those who aren’t. Sure, you don’t have the clout of a Bernanke or Buffett, but isn’t there something that us little people can do? If the prospect of writing a letter to your congressional representative or occupying a local park sounds a bit too time-consuming, Starbucks would like you to know that there’s an easier method: buy the correct products. On the coffee chain’s windows and behind its registers, the red-and-blue logo of ‘Create Jobs for USA’ beckons customers with the promise of “Americans helping Americans create jobs.” “This country needs jobs,” explains Starbucks’s ‘Create Jobs For USA’ literature, available here:

We hear it on the news every day. More and more people we know are being affected. Unemployment is a problem that cannot be solved overnight—but we have to start somewhere. We are calling our initiative Create Jobs for USA. It’s a project that we can all be part of, that can help get this country back up on its feet. A project that can truly be Americans helping Americans to create and sustain jobs. A project that states: we are indivisible.

From this muddled blurb, you may suspect Starbucks is suggesting that buying coffee creates more barista jobs, but the marketers were neither that cynical nor that meta-. The initiative is actually nothing more than a loan operation, a souped-up version of charitable micro-lending. Indeed, the whole project is basically an attempt to get credit flowing to small businesses; the acronym-laden document explains that the money goes to the Opportunity Finance Network (OFN), a consortium of community development financial institutions (CDFIs), which fund small businesses. From the document:

Small businesses create jobs. It’s a fact. Small businesses are the backbone of America. They employ over half of all private-sector workers. And have created over 65% of our new jobs in the past 15 years. If they are strong and growing, so are we. The problem is, today more than one in three small businesses say they can’t get adequate financing to fuel their enterprises. And that financing squeeze is stifling their potential for growth. But together we can change that.

The irony is stunning: a transnational corporation waxing poetic about the importance of small businesses. After all, megaliths like Starbucks are partially responsible for that ‘financing squeeze,’ as small businesses struggle to compete with their corporate counterparts. Lenders know this. Local coffee shops’ credit lines often dry up when a Starbucks moves in next door.

Likewise, there is something troubling about the uncritical way the term ‘small business’ is tossed around. Perhaps because of how it recalls both the American Dream and the Mom-and-Pop store, we mythologize these enterprises; never mind that many small businesses are just as exploitative, pollutive, and disruptive as large corporations. The same uncritical lens is applied to nonprofits, another supposed target of Create Jobs for USA. ‘Nonprofit’ does not equate with ‘virtuous.’ Many nonprofits, like the Cato Institute, serve as the ideological and propaganda arms of corporate interests.

The Starbucks-OFN literature also ignores the main reason small businesses have trouble getting credit: most of them fail, and as such are viewed as too risky by many banks in the post-bubble credit crunch. In Starbucks’s ideological universe, these risky investments shouldn’t be bet on by already-wealthy financiers, their traditional lenders; they are a charitable project, to be crowd-sourced for donated funds, because there is something inherently wholesome about the small ones—and they will ‘create jobs.’ This is a startling conception of for-profit businesses as humanitarian enterprises.

There is also some confusion here over what constitutes a job and who the ‘job creators’—another overused political term thoroughly sapped of meaning—actually are. If we are to believe the literature, each donation “generates 7 times that amount in new financing,” which sounds about right for cash-on-hand to lending ratios. Yet Starbucks and OFN claim that for “every $3,000 donated through this network, one job is either created or maintained.” Not even Bernie Madoff could turn a $3,000 investment into $15,000, a salary that is equivalent to full-time work at a poverty wage, in one year. So there is some question as to how a job is spun out of $3,000, and how permanent these positions are.

Create Jobs for USA bills itself as a ‘project we can all be a part of.’ Yet unlike casting a ballot or marching in a protest, this top-down project has a price of admission: a purchase of house blend, ‘Indivisible’ beans, or a branded bracelet. Ideally, in a liberal democracy, the welfare state is at least partly responsible for employing its citizens—or at least protecting them during times of economic hardship, which are usually the fault of the most rarefied speculators. Starbucks’s entreaty for consumers to shoulder some of the responsibility for repairing the damaged economy represents a bizarre, neoliberal twist on the cause and solution of an economic crisis. Sure, the 112th Congress is gridlocked; but is our government so anarchic that we must turn to Starbucks for solutions to unemployment? In the Starbucks-OFN literature, the cause of the economic crisis goes unmentioned; the solution is to give to business owners as if they were running charities.

Just as the Tea Party’s anger toward (at least part of) the power elite was marshaled to corporate ends, the Create Jobs for USA gambit redirects the hope of recovery into the brand of one of the world’s largest corporations. Create Jobs for USA’s simplistic and clean prose presents an economic remedy that is elegant and saccharine, and unconvincing.

Photo courtesy of the author.