Starbucks’ demented politics: Why its ballyhooed “college” offer helps them — not you

With labor costs the mega-chain's biggest expenditure, here's its diabolical answer for how to retain staffers

Topics: Starbucks, Education, Higher education, Retail, Employment, Unemployment, Labor, Editor's Picks, College, corporations, ,

Starbucks' demented politics: Why its ballyhooed "college" offer helps them -- not you (Credit: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni/Zurijeta via Shutterstock/Photo collage by Salon)

What if all our institutional problems could be solved by the people who caused them? What if President Obama put Hank Paulson in charge of regulating the banks, and he quickly implemented a litany of substantive reforms? What if the neocons who pushed us into the war in Iraq organized our second (third? fourth?) military adventure in the Fertile Crescent, but this time they brought on an era of lasting peace and democracy in the region? What if Exxon Mobil were charged with enacting a nationwide moratorium on fossil fuels, and in short order Americans had fully embraced renewables?

If such a state of affairs seems unlikely or highly naive, consider briefly the news that Starbucks will offer education assistance to roughly 135,000 eligible employees, who will now have the opportunity to complete unfinished degrees or enroll in college for the very first time. That’s right, Starbucks — the unofficial mascot of the “overeducated, underemployed” crisis in America — is encouraging more of its staff to foam milk with a bachelor’s degree, a little morsel of tragicomedy we won’t examine too deeply here today.

By offering its employees access to online education, Starbucks joins a long list of U.S. corporations — Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, Zappos, etc. — eagerly exploiting the stress caused by our stagnant economy, what CEO Howard Schultz accurately described as the “fracturing of the American Dream.” See, like much of the rest of the food service industry, Starbucks struggles with lightning-fast turnover. Offering tuition assistance — contingent, of course, on continued employment – is a fairly brilliant tactic to address this problem. Sharon Zackfia, an analyst for William Blair & Co. who studies the coffee brand, is quoted in an L.A. Times writeup noting that labor costs are the coffee chain’s biggest expenditure: “‘It’s competitive at any level to get good talent. And [Starbucks'] belief is this is another benefit they could provide to ensure consistency and continuity in the level of service.’” The revelation that this initiative isn’t actually intended solely to help workers shouldn’t come as a surprise: the legal structure of most public corporations makes such altruism tacitly illegal.

Of course, Starbucks is hardly responsible for the state of the American economy, so perhaps their attempt to help employees gain an education without debt merits some measure of praise. But there’s more going on here than the simple desire to help their staff: There’s a cynical, free-market ideology at work, and it’s hardly encouraging for the future of jobs or education in this country. Asking publicly traded companies to provide “market-based” solutions to the economic crises facing this country is akin to asking Bill Kristol to explain what went wrong in Iraq, or asking Lloyd Blankfein how we can better regulate the financial services industry – which is to say, both criminally insane and completely uncontroversial.

This new initiative, billed the “Starbucks College Achievement Plan,” and announced with much fanfare at a press release featuring Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has been praised nearly universally in the press as a “bold act of ‘conscious capitalism,’” “a potential game-changer,” “generous” and “sweet.” None of these glowing reports bothered to note that Starbucks is currently one of the largest employers of minimum wage workers in America, or that the benefits of online college are dubious at best, so it’s hardly surprising that these writeups also fail to examine the underlying ideology at play. Put plainly, we cannot hope to fix a broken system within the confines of that very same system.

This is the essential lie of neoliberalism: the insane notion that the “rising tide” of capitalism can continue lifting indefinitely, without consequences for our ecology or our democracy. Groups governed by the ruthless precepts of free-market extremism cannot seriously be expected to provide solutions to the problems that their ideology might cause. And yet, more and more of us – particularly younger Americans — are abandoning political involvement in favor of attempting to change the system from within, to “vote with our wallets” and engage in “buycotts.”  We applaud tepid, incremental changes, which always have the funny habit of placing the needs of capital above the needs of everyone else. Avowed liberals and leftists in the press frequently cheer superficial changes to EPA standardstweaks to the private health insurance industry, an attempted minor adjustment to student loan interest rates, and really any other quasi-achievement that the Obama administration has managed to accomplish. These changes may be better than the hideous status quo, but their fundamental weakness is rooted in an unwillingness to address unbridled capitalism’s foundational flaw.

Neoliberalism is intractable largely because it enriches the same people who should be its loudest critics. A whole class of elites have seen their fortunes and influence rise in tandem with the ideology of “capitalism for capitalism’s sake.” Meanwhile, the multi-pronged, decades-long attack on low-wage workers has been devastating (and by now, all too familiar) to most Americans: unions and labor dismantled; jobs outsourced; factories shuttered; small local businesses destroyed by big box stores … all with the Gatsbian-backdrop of a rapidly expanding concentration of income, wealth and political power at the very top of American society.

So go ahead, cheer Starbucks if you must. But don’t think that this new program — or anything else in the pipeline of American politics — will bring us any closer to solving the deeper, structural problems that strangle our economy and imperil our democracy. In the words of feminist poet and activist Audre Lorde, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Tim Donovan is a freelance author who blogs about Millennial issues at The Suffolk Resolves. Follow him @tadonovan.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...