June 19, 2005

Predatory Coffeeshop Capitalists!

David Adesnik fisks a perfectly silly front-page article in the Washington Post about how Starbucks supposedly ruins college students forever – yes, even into retirement – with their high-priced fancy-pants lattes.

That article is only about Starbucks on the surface. The complaints therein could apply to absolutely any coffeeshop, anywhere, owned by anyone – corporate, independent, or co-op. (No newspaper in the Pacific Northwest would dare publish such a ridiculous piece. That would be like bitching about wine and cheese in France or burritos in Mexico.)

I am not a starving college student who has to count his pennies, but I’m not rich either. I make my living writing and editing and I don’t have a day job. You figure out how much money I probably make. It ain’t six figures yet, let’s put it that way.

I don’t “waste” three dollars a day on gourmet coffee. I spend, on average, six dollars a day. That’s twice as much as college students who are supposedly wrecking their future are spending. So I’m being financially raped twice as badly by Starbucks and every other tin pot coffeehouse exploiter in Portland. Woe is me! Where do I sign up for the class-action lawsuit?

If coffeeshops left Portland I would have to leave Portland along with them. I can’t live anywhere that doesn’t have coffeeshops and, no, I’m not kidding. When I was in college I did my homework in coffeeshops and, yes, I’m still paying off my student loan that partially funded those lattes. Today – every day – I get at least half my work done in coffeeshops. I don’t have an office to report to. But I have to get out of the house and go somewhere during the day. Coffeeshops are my “office.” I’m not going to take my laptop and hang out at McDonald’s for four hours in the middle of the afternoon. Six dollars a day for “office space” rental that comes with lattes instead of cheap drip coffee is a pretty good deal, I have to say.

What this silly anti-Starbucks screed fails to take into account is that coffeeshops create a pleasant “third space” environment (meaning it’s neither work nor home) for people to spend quality time in. That’s something worth paying good money for. Feeding a caffeine habit at home can never replace that.

Complaining that Starbucks rips off college students and ruins their future financial livelihood, as though it were some nefarious predatory capitalist plot, strikes me as a product of the same reactionary impulse that drives fundamentalism: the fear that someone, somewhere, might be having fun.

If you think three bucks for a latte is a rip-off, fine, don’t buy lattes. But don’t think you can get some hard-hitting investigative journalism out of that little opinion of yours without being scoffed at.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at June 19, 2005 10:52 PM

Hey Michael:

Did I ever mention that working for Starbucks is my day job? On top of trying to finish out my degree, waiting tables a couple nights a week for extra income, and lining up volunteers for the (thus far officially non-existent) Evan Bayh presidential campaign...I work alot of early mornings as a barista.

I'm glad to see you picked up on the whole "third place" or "third space" concept. It really is that sort of thing for alot of people, myself included from time to time. Another thing you might want to think about: a big reason the prices are as high as they are is due to the fact Starbucks treats its employees so well. Though I only work 20-30 hours a week for them, they give me free stock...vacation time...and really kick-ass health coverage to rival most full-time professionals, elsewhere.

They may undeniably be a giant greedy capitalist megacorporation. That fact is hard to deny. But they're a giant greedy capitalist megacorporation run by liberals, and anyone who's ever really worked for the company knows it. If the New Democrat political ideology was to be transformed into a business model, Starbucks would be it.

Posted by: Grant McEntire at June 20, 2005 03:04 AM

Can I add that it is not guns pointed at the base of their skulls that force college students into Starbucks in the first place?

My job has me on the road a fair amount and I often have to kill time between appointments. Starbucks is a fabulous place to do so, what with the excellent coffee drinks and (usually) available wifi.

I am old enough to remember when the only option was a Burger King or McDonald's - no thanks. Not only are these places less hospitable in general, they are also full of moms with small children. I love my kids but would prefer to avoid your screaming, runny-nosed, and annoying little urchins.

It is somewhat silly to pay $3.20 for a half-caf, grande, non-fat latte but I don't care cuz' it tastes so darn good. Oh, and the big, brown, velvet chairs are very comfy.

Posted by: too many steves at June 20, 2005 03:37 AM

The comment in the story on "opportunity cost" is at least really good.

The low cost office rental space is economically very sound. Plus more multi-company teamwork meetings can occur there on "neutral ground" -- more partnerships.

It's kind of unlikely to make going to Starbucks politically incorrect -- Grant is sure to be right that it's a New Democrat paradigm. Fine comfy place, high quality, friendly, high enough prices to keep out the poor people.

One of the best helps for poor people is ... lower prices.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at June 20, 2005 03:39 AM

People make dumb choices all the time - choices that harm them financially, psychologically and physically.

Spending $3 or more per day on fancy coffee while you're in college? Pretty dumb, but I wish that was the dumbest thing that I did when I was in college.

Posted by: VinoVeritas at June 20, 2005 04:30 AM

I think you made a fundamental mistake in interpreting the article. The writer isn't criticizing starbucks or any other coffeee vendors, it's mearly suggesting that a daily habit of overpriced coffee drinks might not be the most financial viable decision; especially if you are a college student buying these overpriced coffee drinks with borrowed money and further saddling yourself with debt. Someone in the article even suggests ways to make your own coffee and save money. This is the equivalant of someone saying you shouldn't eat out every day of the week, especially when you aren't in a financial situation to do so.

There is nothing anti-capitalistic about fiscal sanity.

Posted by: Dustin Ridgeway at June 20, 2005 06:14 AM

Personally, I just hate their coffee.

Posted by: urthshu at June 20, 2005 06:24 AM

Hey, in New York at least, poor people hang out at Starbucks all the time (it's the closest thing we have to public toilets- in fact, Mayor Bloomberg once said there was no need for them, because we've got a Starbucks on just about every block).

One time I was a in Starbucks, and the bathroom door was locked for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes... then the manager opened the door and there was a drunk guy lying on the floor, with about six empty cans of Budweiser next to him.

Posted by: Steve at June 20, 2005 06:38 AM

As an Italian-American, let me say that the problem is not the price. The problem is that frothy milk drinks are supposed to be only for breakfast. The "caffe latte" culture is another step in the infantilization of our nation, alongside people eating cereal for dinner, and listening to pop music well into their 50s. I'm sure the boomers are to blame somehow.
Switch to a double espresso - more manly, fewer calories and cheaper.

Posted by: vanya at June 20, 2005 07:01 AM

That's nice. Libs are addressing yet another "injustice". They live for that kind of thing.

Posted by: spaniard at June 20, 2005 07:19 AM

Like Steve said, Starbucks performs an essential public function in a big city of making thousands of bathrooms available for free, no questions asked. Most stores and restaurants make you buy something to use their facilities, and often not even then.

And I also think their coffee sucks, but who cares?

Posted by: Yehudit at June 20, 2005 07:22 AM

Starbucks seems to have been inspired by European cafes, where you can sit around all day for the price of a few overpriced cups of coffee.

Of course, they can't compare to the wonderful cafes in Little Italy & the village, where shots of amaretto are included in the inflated price, (and the coffee actually tastes good). Still, Starbucks always seemed like a bit of Europe in America.

I wonder why the Post is being so anti-European?

Posted by: mary at June 20, 2005 07:56 AM

The Post is being anti-European because at heart it is a very American institution. Both the Left and the Right have inherited the puritans' instinctual suspicion of anyone having fun at any time. If it's fun and enjoyable there must be something wrong with it. The Right wing usually focuses on sex and music, the Left focuses on diet and guns and everyone agrees that TV is just bad.

Posted by: vanya at June 20, 2005 08:06 AM


Things that are bad for you tend to be fun, or easy. Things that are good for you tend to be a drag, and difficult.

The latter leads to long-term happiness, the former usually doesn't. The Puritans may have been onto something.

Posted by: spaniard at June 20, 2005 08:18 AM

That sounds like an injustice to me Spaniard. We should do something about it.

Posted by: VinoVeritas at June 20, 2005 08:25 AM

I think Althouse had it right when she said that it seemed to be a great ROI for the student: three years of socializing, coffee drinking, and relaxation as opposed to a two-week vacation that would cost about the same.

Posted by: Patricia at June 20, 2005 08:56 AM

MJT: What this silly anti-Starbucks screed fails to take into account ...

I just carefully read the article, Michael. I couldn't see a single thing that was anti-Starbucks, or anything silly, for that matter. It is simply pointing out that students are dopey with their money, and spend it on things they shouldn't. In my day, beer was the problem. Now it's coffee.

Kind of a non-issue, I'd say, and certainly not worth a fisking.

Posted by: double-plus-ungood at June 20, 2005 09:43 AM

Coffee expensive?

Ha. How about fizzy sugared water, or just plain water for that matter. Why are there whole aisles in the supermarket devoted to this stuff? Why do people even think of paying for it? Soda is the biggest ripoff ever invented...

PS, I think the puritans were on to something, but it is too late for a slacker like me.

Posted by: chuck at June 20, 2005 09:59 AM

And then there's the predatory price of delivered pizza, and let's not start on the additional cost of branding on the price of beer. Or stupid college students not understanding finance, throwing their money away on a $30K/year "education" when their job will shortly be outsourced to $10K/year Calcuttans.

Posted by: Undertoad at June 20, 2005 10:07 AM

Sorry to go off topic, but since a few people likely to read this persist in accusing the Democratic Party leadership of leftist antisemitism, I thought it was important to bring these comments by Dean to their attention.


Posted by: markus rose at June 20, 2005 10:15 AM

I agree with Dustin - it's easy to spend well over $1000 a year on coffee, which is not the smartest thing to do if you're on a limited budget. That's enough money, for example, to completely pay for the energy consumption of my house.

For us, getting a "fancy" drink at Starbucks has turned into more of "treat" like getting ice cream, etc.

Posted by: chnnnvss at June 20, 2005 11:12 AM

MJK, I think you missed something here. The whole subtext of the article is that coffee is an addictive drug ("caffeine fix") and should be treated as such.

Recall the Supreme Court decision recently that upheld federal regulation of marijuana use? Well, if coffee creates junkies the same way illegal drugs do, the implication is that either coffee should be banned or illegal drugs legalized. That's what the author is trying to do!

Posted by: Solomon2 at June 20, 2005 12:26 PM

Markus Rose,
You may want to forward that post to the Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Apparently they haven't gotten the word yet. And assorted others who have made very denigrating comments about Jews in general when they are making statements re Israel.

Posted by: exhelodrvr at June 20, 2005 12:35 PM

I couldn't see a single thing that was anti-Starbucks, or anything silly, for that matter.

You mean other than the fact that it focused almost exclusively on Starbucks even though there are a million other ways in which college kids are blowing their money? Aside from that, I guess you could be right.

Posted by: spaniard at June 20, 2005 12:50 PM

You don't want my reaction to that article ;)

Posted by: Rachel at June 20, 2005 03:32 PM

Things that are bad for you tend to be fun, or easy. Things that are good for you tend to be a drag, and difficult.

Coffee, alcohol and fun are good in reasonable doses. So is hard work. Too much of anything, even water, is bad for you. Moderation is good.

Americans often have a hard time accepting the idea of moderation. We're always having unnecessary either/or arguments - Left vs. Right, commies vs. capitalists, java junkies vs. the parsimonious Post, alchoholism vs. abstinence; we usually ignore the middle ground. The Puritans were immoderately joyless and grim, and we're still suffering from their bad philosophy.

Europeans, on the other hand, know how to enjoy a good cup of coffee. They understand moderation in their lifestyle, but they're politically extreme, so I'm not sure what this proves.

Posted by: mary at June 20, 2005 03:57 PM

The Puritans were immoderately joyless and grim, and we're still suffering from their bad philosophy.

Are you sure of this? You have facts to back it up? They were joyless and grim? Is it not possible we today suffer from license and a lack of social and moral depth rather than from the puritan traditions of New England? Just raising some questions here; the easy dismissal of the puritans strikes me as one of those silly unexamined conventions. I am not the least bit convinced that the Spock generation is happier than the puritans.

Posted by: chuck at June 20, 2005 05:05 PM
A quote from the preachings of Cotton Mather (of Salem Witch trial fame)
The Greatest Concern in the World

I have seen this Question Scandalously answered, in Pamphlets that have been dispersed about our Nation. The One Thing that is needful has been left unregarded, unmention'd. Perhaps the Observation of certain Superstitious Holidays has been recommended instead of that one thing. Alas how have the souls of men been betrayed, by men unskilful in the word of righteousness! How unskilfully, and unfaithfully have the methods of Salvation been declared by many who pervert the Gospel of Christ! Not so now I hope! A pure gospel, a sound doctrine, must be pursu'd, You are now to be treated with nothing but wholesome Words; nothing but the faithful sayings of God.

It goes on. And on. And on. Imagine sitting on a hard church pew listening to this drivel. Sounds pretty joyless and grim to me.

I'm sure that Cotton would have been disgusted by Starbucks.

The search for purity is an extremist notion. The Puritans were extremists, a fact that was demonstrated by Mather and many others. In my opinion, living in a restricted, extremist, utopian society is a fairly miserable existence. I'm very glad that this is no longer a puritan society, and I think we should get rid of the last vestiges of their influence. Your opinion may vary.

Posted by: mary at June 20, 2005 05:56 PM

I think we should get rid of the last vestiges of their influence.


You sound like a puritan in reverse.

Posted by: spaniard at June 20, 2005 06:03 PM

Sounds pretty joyless and grim to me.

Of course it does. You are not a believer and were raised in different beliefs. But why do you suppose you are happier? Sounds to me like you have an absolutist view of the good that is just as rigid as Mather's, and probably equally unfounded.

Posted by: chuck at June 20, 2005 06:17 PM

My opinion is that we should get rid of the last vestiges of Puritan influence. Your opinion may vary, and you're welcome to it.

I'm stating an opinion, not a call to action. You can disagree with it all you like. I think people are happier under a laissez-faire system of moderation, but if I tried to bully people into sharing my beliefs, as Cotton Mather did, then my beliefs wouldn't be much of a laissez-faire system of moderation.

Posted by: mary at June 20, 2005 07:43 PM

I'm stating an opinion, not a call to action. You can disagree with it all you like.

But I am asking why you think your opinion is valid. What, for instance, are the things that make you happy and why do they do so? It is fine to say your opinion is just that and no more, but then you are in a poor position to judge anyone else's opinion.

Posted by: chuck at June 20, 2005 07:54 PM


The main problem with puritanism is that puritans generally want to impose their system on other people.

There's a reason people hardly ever complain about the Amish. They leave everyone else alone. If their own private puritanism of sorts makes them happy, that's great. I'm more on the Amsterdam end of things myself, but if you're not that's fine. I won't force you to smoke a joint in a coffeeshop if you would rather go to church.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at June 20, 2005 08:05 PM

Googled opinion:

A belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof: “The world is not run by thought, nor by imagination, but by opinion” (Elizabeth Drew).
A judgment based on special knowledge and given by an expert: a medical opinion.
A judgment or estimation of the merit of a person or thing: has a low opinion of braggarts.
The prevailing view: public opinion.
Law. A formal statement by a court or other adjudicative body of the legal reasons and principles for the conclusions of the court.

This seems to say Mary does not need to validate her opinion on anything. She expressed a belief, did not refer to any special knowledge, portrayed her belief as an estimation, and did not ask for any action, legal or otherwise, based on her opinion.

Posted by: allan at June 20, 2005 08:23 PM


Church and joints bore me equally, unexamined stereotypes annoy me. Amsterdam is, I suspect, a bad idea that won't last too much longer. However, the question was if the puritans were indeed dour and grim. Was there no love between man and woman, no joy in children, no happiness in the company of ones neighbors? No doubt they gave rise to extremists like John Brown with his foolish notions about slavery, notions he sought to impose by force on others. But they also gave rise to Thoreau and Emerson. These latter were not puritans of the first water, certainly, but I think they owe their intellectual drive to the puritan tradition. I don't think Amsterdam will produce their like.

Posted by: chuck at June 20, 2005 08:30 PM

I like Starbucks too, but I AM counting my pennies right now, so I'm limited to brewing my perfectly good coffee myself.

It smell and tastes just as good in my kitchen as it does in Starbucks.


Posted by: Joshua Scholar at June 21, 2005 12:08 AM

The fact Starbuck can thrive selling $3 coffee tells you what an insanely wealthy country America has become thanks to rejecting socialism and embracing destructive productivity enhancements.

Posted by: TallDave at June 21, 2005 07:01 AM

The fact Starbuck can thrive selling $3 coffee tells you what an insanely wealthy country America has become thanks to rejecting socialism and embracing destructive productivity enhancements.

Nice try at a left vs. right spin. Except that here in Vancouver, probably the most left-wing city in a nation that has emphatically not rejected socialism, we have the greatest number of Starbucks per capita of anywhere in the world, except Seattle. So I don't think that has anything to do with it, chum.

Now I have to shuttle my socialist ass over to bucks and get a venti americano for myself and a venti decaf half-sweet non-fat no-whip mocha for my socialist better half.

Posted by: double-plus-ungood at June 21, 2005 07:20 AM

I keep remembering Skavoovie and The Epitomes catchy little crack on Starbucks and frufru coffee where they pine for "bad" cups of diner joe.

"Forget about your Stars"
Forget about your Bucks
Take it from me,

I myself wouldn't mind so much as long as I could have a LARGE latte or whatever without the snot behind the counter sniffing at me. Not a "Grande" one, not a "Tall" one but a friggin LARGE one! I don't care if the cup is the same size. "Ms Kwan" from the MAD TV sketch really summed up my frustration the first time I walked into a Starbucks.

Posted by: Bill at June 21, 2005 09:51 AM

Was there no love between man and woman, no joy in children, no happiness in the company of ones neighbors

Puritans were immoderately dour and grim – their voluntary indulgence in misery and grimness was excessive, but not complete.

they also gave rise to Thoreau and Emerson. These latter were not puritans of the first water, certainly, but I think they owe their intellectual drive to the puritan tradition.

Puritanism and other bullying extremist groups usually inspire greatness in those who transform or reject them. I guess that’s a positive contribution - yet another reason to transform and reject Puritanism.

I'd guess that Thoreau and Emerson would have liked Amsterdam.

Posted by: mary at June 21, 2005 10:35 AM

yet another reason to transform and reject Puritanism.

No, no. First we must reinstitute it. Then we can reject it.

Posted by: chuck at June 21, 2005 11:03 AM

Almost all nuns I see seem pretty happy, most of the time. Simple lives, simple beliefs, simple pleasures -- simple happiness; living for God, for others.

Most priests, as well, though not looking quite so happy.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at June 23, 2005 02:35 AM

funny you consider yourself a journalist

Posted by: soaked at June 24, 2005 02:03 PM

"Starbucks seems to have been inspired by European cafes, where you can sit around all day for the price of a few overpriced cups of coffee."

Excellent point Mary. We have several locations in San Diego that are very spacious with big and comfortable 'lounging' sofas and chairs. And, you don't even have to buy their most expensive coffee to use them.

In the good old free and capitalist USA we have freedom to make a choice out of many competing vendors for our favor. Each time we chose one vendor over another we are essentially voting for that vendors business.

So let's punish them for pleasing us with their good product or service that we agree is worth the price or we wouldn't pay it? No, it's about the 'profit' they take for themselves, for their harder work, from these poor students who have made a freedom of choice to buy their superior product when one they may be able to afford here or another place is also available. Please.

Isn't it just anti-capitalist socialism, the ideology of choice by the majority of college professors they have to listen to all day long, that drives this perverted thinking in college towns?

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Posted by: Airfare at January 5, 2006 10:39 PM
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