What’s Wrong With Howard Schultz’s Proposal To Save America From Itself?

A letter from Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has been making the rounds, asking other CEOs to join with him and “forgo all political contributions until Congress and the President return to Washington and deliver a fiscally-disciplined, long-term debt and deficit plan to the American people.”

The idea has gained plenty of admirers: “thousands of Americans – both CEOs and everyday citizens” (as CNN puts it) have contacted Schultz to express their support. Joe Nocera dedicated his entire column in the Times last week to Schultz’s proposal, praising the boycott as “hardheaded and practical, the kind of idea you would expect from a good businessman”.

That it is. But its virtues are also its limitations. Schultz wants to tackle a very big, very difficult problem: what he calls “the lack of cooperation and irresponsibility among elected officials as they have put partisan agendas before the people’s agenda. This is not the leadership we have come to expect, nor deserve.”

We can debate that last point: the current crop of ineffectual cowards in Washington might be exactly the leadership we have come to expect and deserve. Be that as it may, I am a little suspicious of grassroots movements in which angry “everyday citizens” find themselves in cahoots with angry CEOs; and it seems odd that we are being asked to entrust “the people’s agenda” to Schultz and his gang of CEOs – who may be well-meaning, but whose agenda (it seems fair to say) may not exactly match up with the aspirations and priorities of everyday citizens, or at least those of us who don’t happen to be leading multibillion-dollar multinationals.

I know that Starbucks bristles at the suggestion that multibillion-dollar companies might not always put the interests of its people, its “baristas” and “partners,” front and center. (But just a couple of weeks ago, baristas in Chile went on hunger strike because the company refused to negotiate with them over wages.) And I understand that Schultz prides himself on being a good CEO – one who has done well by doing good. He is, in fact, regularly singled out for praise by the business press as a CEO who defies the “the power-hungry stereotype,” and who will put the long-term good of his employees, his company or the environment over short-term advantage. (That’s the story Motley Fool’s Alyce Lomax told just last week in a Howard Schultz puff piece on AOL’s Daily Finance site.)

I’m not questioning Schultz’s good intentions. But the effort he’s mounted so far has a whiff of benevolent corporate paternalism about it; and the prospect of well-meaning CEOs around the country banding together on behalf of all the little people to fight political paralysis in Washington DC should — at least — give us pause. It sounds like a bloodless coup in the making, a plutocrats’ putsch.

There is something absurd here as well: aided and abetted by a pliant and misguided Supreme Court, corporate interests have already hijacked the political process; now they plan to withhold ransom payments until the ineffectual cowards we elected to represent and defend our interests – the public interest – deliver the economy back to them in sound condition, and deliver them from all “uncertainty.” Then they will create jobs. (Be sure to read Glenn Greenwald’s analysis of the uncertainty canard here.)

That said, the real trouble with Schultz’s proposal is not its presumption or its absurdity or its patronizing benevolence. The real trouble here is that Schultz fails to see the big picture, the broad agenda, the scope of the problem we face right now. Like most political and corporate leaders, he sees the people’s agenda – and the country’s uncertain prospects — through the narrow lens of jobs and economic growth. And while jobs and sustainable economic growth are undeniably important, and can be made to serve the public interest, the public interest can’t be reduced merely to those things; they may sometimes even be at odds with the public interest, as they sometimes are in human rights, labor or environmental disputes.

Real prosperity can’t be measured simply in terms of economic growth or high employment figures. I fear that what we have here is a failure to imagine the American future as anything more than a sunny financial forecast, the country as anything more than a happy work camp.

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