Why Capitalism Is Stupid: A Case Study

Note that I didn’t say bad, or evil, but stupid.

Before we go any further, let me state that I have never studied economics, and I’ve only taken one intro-level philosophy class. The topics I’m bringing up here are steeped in both, and I know I’m out of my element.

Capitalism has, as a core principle, a belief that competition drives innovation and growth, which helps a society to thrive; whether its helping society to thrive is intentional or just a consequence is debatable. And in practice capitalism is just as susceptible to corruption as communism — both fail as a result of the boundless greed of the powerful. But for the moment let’s not dwell on the big picture… let’s just look at one example of how capitalism can be… well, stupid.

I live in Minneapolis, a large city of 425,000. Along with St. Paul (pop. 310,000) it is the core of a metro area of 3.6 million. Like all large cities, Minneapolis is divided into a number of distinct communities. The community I live in is called Longfellow, and combined with neighboring Nokomis, the immediate area has a population of around 65,000 people.

Unlike many other parts of the city, Longfellow-Nokomis has always resisted the heavy encroachment of large chain businesses. Of course we have a Target, a scattering of McDonald’s and Subway locations, etc. But for the most part, the businesses here are small and local.

In fact, in an area comprising about 13 square miles, home to 15% of the entire city’s population, there is only one Caribou Coffee, and until recently, zero Starbucks (not counting the one inside the Target… which is a capitalism story for another blog post). Of course we have dozens of local independent coffee houses, but only one each of the two big chains.

And they’re right across the street from each other.

How does it benefit the citizens of the community to have a Caribou and a Starbucks within sight of each other, when the vast majority of residents of the area don’t live within walking distance of either one? Who does a decision like this really serve? How does this help society to thrive?

What we’re looking at here is not a failure of capitalism in principle, but an example of how it fails in practice, as power is consolidated in the hands of a few greedy, powerful corporations.

I’m sure this is the point where a (21st century) Republican dutifully says, “But how can a corporation be greedy? Greed is a human emotion, and corporations are businesses, not people.” Oh right, corporations are only people when it comes to exercising their right to free speech. (And political money equals speech.) I’m sure few, if any, of the individuals within these corporations are ruthlessly greedy. But they don’t need to be. The system is built on a principle whose logical consequence is that increasing profits outweighs any other considerations. That could be defined as greed.

One could argue that Caribou and Starbucks have grown to that tipping point in capitalism where they are no longer focused on competition through innovation, but on stifling competition through consolidation of power. Nothing better exemplifies to me capitalism’s absurd failure than a business opening its first location in a large, heavily populated area within feet of its rival.

Sadly, I’m sure these corporations did extensive research and determined that the best location in Longfellow-Nokomis for a major chain coffee house was right at this spot, even if there was already another one right there. And I bet both will do booming business, because… honestly? Most of us just don’t question it.

Now get in the car. I want some coffee.

Forced Enthusiasm, Part II: The Log

I usually avoid returning to a topic once I’ve had my say, but since coffee consumption is part of life’s ongoing journey, I felt I could make an exception in this case.

The original Can of Worms rant on this subject (January 29, 2003), of course, concerned the strangely, unnaturally enthusiastic drive-thru cashier at a Starbucks near my office, and his often bizarre daily cup holder messages.

A few days after I wrote that rant, I returned to the Starbucks (I tend to go there once or twice a week), and was surprised to find an unusually long line at the drive-thru. Something is wrong… I waited a moment in line before deciding to break with tradition — and most likely miss out on a daily cup holder message — and go inside to order.

I entered the establishment and scanned the faces of the employees behind the counter, searching for the beloved barista. He was nowhere to be found! Don’t tell me he actually read my Can of Worms rant and fled the state in shame!

Even without my favorite harmless maniac, the experience was transcendently bizarre, because the cashier I ordered from was wearing a backpack Why? WHY??? and seemed strangely familiar to me. Then I remembered him.

During the Christmas season, he had been standing outside by the drive-thru loudspeaker, taking orders for people who just wanted plain coffee, and also hawking overpriced, Starbucks-branded seasonal trinkets. Oh yeah, and he was wearing angel wings.

Anyway, back to the present (no, not a Starbucks logo Christmas tree ornament… I mean the time that is now). Today I went back, knowing that this could be the moment when I discover the dream is over.

OK, enough stalling. No, the crazy guy didn’t quit. He was back today as usual.

In honor of this momentous occasion, I have decided to create a log for all future cup holder messages. I am sure you will want to bookmark this page immediately.

Done? Good.

And now, without further ado, the daily log…

May 21, 2003

I haven’t written about the Starbucks lately, not because I haven’t been there, but rather because Gary hasn’t. I guess he’s phasing himself out. Unfortuantely that means no cup holder messages.

For the past two days Gary has been replaced at the drive-thru window by a tag team of young novices. Both are inept in their own slightly endearing way. Apparently the “Wall of Fame” I’ve noticed inside before is actually ordinary customers who visit routinely. I am a bit hurt to have discovered I’m not on the wall, but that doesn’t stop Twitchy (one of the new guys) from trying to act chummy. Today Twitchy came on the speaker, having looked at me on the video monitor, and said “Is that you Rich?” No, it’s not. When I got to the window he asked my name. I said “Scott” and he twitchily replied “Zack?” No, Scott. Yesterday we went through the same routine but he thought I said “Chad.” Sheesh!

May 7, 2003:
Celebrate Life!

At first this made me think of George Michael in his Wham! days, but then I remembered his t-shirt said “Choose Life” not “Celebrate Life.” Anyway, a nice, albeit generic, message today from Gary. When I got to the window today he said, “Oh, I didn’t realize it was you… my lens is all wet out there.” I didn’t realize he had a camera at the window. I guess I’d better stop popping zits while I order. (Just kidding. I’ll still pop zits while I order.)

Upon driving out of the strip mail wherein the Starbucks resides, I saw something quite strange. A guy in a silver late-model Jaguar was cutting through a gas station to avoid waiting at a stoplight. (OK, nothing so unusual about that.) Then he had the audacity while driving on the sidewalk to honk at a pedestrian! Unbelievable! If only that former police car with the Nebraska plates that was inexplicably slowing down traffic on 285 today had been there….

May 5, 2003:
Fiesta Time!

A bit predictable, for Cinco de Mayo. Once again the events at the drive-thru were more interesting to me than the message on my cup. As I was waiting at the window for my order, Another car pulled up behind me to order. Just then a siren approached. Instead of his usual “GOOD MORNING!!!! WELCOME TO STARBUCKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Gary greeted the woman in the SUV by holding his mouthpiece close and whispering “Look out! The cops are comin’ for ya!” And then when he realized it was not a police car but a fire truck, he changed his message to “Your hair’s on fire!”

April 30, 2003:
One Day Til (sic) May!

It’s been a while. Much too long. Gary seemed happy to see me. He spent the time waiting for my latte to be prepared fidgeting with a cup full of candy canes with miniature stuffed Muppet character pencil toppers on them. I guess they were for sale. I was tempted to buy Beaker. I didn’t.

April 14, 2003

Today, a dose of reality. I arrived at the Starbucks drive-thru as usual, and was disturbed to find a very long line of cars waiting to place their orders. This is not normal. Gary must have been out. Anyway, I did not have the patience to wait in that line, so I left.

But I needed coffee.

I decided to try the brand-new McDonald’s up the road. If you’ve never been to Atlanta, you probably don’t know how inconceivably bad the service is at almost all McDonald’s restaurants in the area. This seemed to be one of the better ones, and I was satisfied with the experience.

But my aforementioned dose of reality has nothing to do with the service at the McDonald’s. It has everything to do with the fact that for $2.77, I got a cup of coffee plus a chicken biscuit and hash browns. And I had been prepared to spend $3.64 just for my venti latte at Starbucks.


Of course, if I were to eat a chicken biscuit and hashbrowns every morning instead of just having a latte, I might save 87 cents a day, but I would pay dearly with a shortened life span. OK, a caffeine addiction probably is shortening my life span too, but not as much as caffeine and a daily cup of saturated fat.

April 9, 2003

First off, let me just point out that you may or may not have noticed I’ve decided to stop referring to Mr. Coffee as a “barista.” Barista is the Italian word for barkeep, and with the Italian love for coffee, it seems appropriately applied to the person who fills that role at a coffee house as well. However, I think the word stuck in my brain because it’s the brand name Starbucks applies to its multitudinous coffee-preparation apparati for sale in each store, and I now equate the word more with various unnecessary coffee paraphernalia than I do a human being. (Incidentally, “computer” was once a job description, not an electronic device, but I digress.)

As you have probably guessed, Mr. Coffee was not present today. It so happened that I went inside today instead of taking the drive-thru, since I needed to buy some beans as well as my regular venti latte. Backpack Johnny was stationed at the drive-thru today (apparently he’s Mr. Coffee’s “Number Two”), and as usual when Mr. Coffee is absent, things were chaotic. At one point I heard Backpack Johnny admonishing the other employees. I missed part of it, but I did distinctly hear him say, “That’s why we try to prepare so this stuff doesn’t happen when Gary’s gone.” So now I know his name.

I also noticed a mission statement in an 8×10 frame above the drive-thru window. I was going to transcribe the entire thing for you here, but I didn’t have time to write it all down. I did, however, take the time to memorize the part about “legendary personalities at our drive-thru.”

Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.

April 7, 2003:
Syracuse Orangemen!

Mr. Coffee’s message was written with a red marker today, instead of black (presumably because he couldn’t locate an orange Sharpie).

I can glean one of three things from his message today:

  1. He went to Syracuse.
  2. He’s from Syracuse.
  3. He has money on Syracuse.

As I was driving away, Mr. Coffee gave me his usual “Have a great day!” and this time, he added in half-questioning form, “See you tomorrow…?”

March 27, 2003:
Top Cat!

What — in this context — is this supposed to mean?

Top Cat

Of course, this is Atlanta, home of Turner Broadcasting, hence Cartoon Network, hence Boomerang. Perhaps Mr. Coffee has been paid off to promote awareness of Hanna-Barbera cartoons from 1961.

March 21, 2003:
Spring Is in the Air!

Ah, yes. The first day of spring. It is sunny and mild today in Atlanta, and spring definitely is in the air, along with the birds returned from their winter homes. (As a kid in Minnesota, I thought this was where birds went in the winter, but I guess there’s always someplace farther south. Maybe they all just keep going until they hit the South Pole, realize it’s cold there too, and turn around.)

Of course, on the other side of the world, warplanes and bombs are in the air. I’m trying to get a grasp on my ever-shifting feelings about this war, but I will probably save those for a full-fledged Can of Worms rant.

The highlight of my Starbucks visit this morning was the clueless person in the Audi convertible in front of me. The car in front of them got its coffee and departed, and they sat there for several seconds, apparently either severely distracted or narcoleptic. Mr. Coffee leaned out of the drive-thru window with a look of exasperation. I shrugged, and debated honking. I am currently practicing the art of restraint where the horn is concerned, however, so I just waited. Finally Mr. Coffee took matters into his own hands (or rather, mouth) and produced an eardrum-shredding, narcolepsy-interrupting whistle.

On a side note, if you’ve got a lot of things on your mind, if there’s a lot of turmoil in the world, and you walk into a Starbucks at 8 PM, get a decaf. I’d like to say I’ll remember next time, but I’m sure it won’t be long again before I am up until 2 AM for no good reason.

March 14, 2003:
Running to Stand Still!

A slightly dismal message (especially on my birthday), but a great song:

And so she woke up
From where she was lying still
Said we got to do something about where we’re going
Step on a steam train
Step out of the driving train
Maybe run from the darkness in the night
Singing Ha La La La De Day
Singing Ha La La La De Day
Sweet the sin
But the bitter taste in my mouth
I see seven towers
But I only see one way out
You got to cry without weeping
Talk without speaking
Scream without raising your voice, you know
I took the poison, from the poison stream
Then I floated out of here
Singing Ha La La La De Day
Singing Ha La La La De Day
She runs through the streets
With her eyes painted red
Under black belly of cloud in the rain
In through a doorway she brings me
White gold and pearls stolen from the sea
She is raging
She is raging and the storm blows up in her eyes
She will suffer the needle chill
She is running to stand still

Lyrics by Bono

March 13, 2003:
Young at Heart!

The implication being that I’m old everywhere else! Hey! I resent that! Just because tomorrow is my 29th birthday….

March 12, 2003:
You Must Be Yolking!



(OK, I know the second one is spelled “yoke.” Let it go… you’re ruining my yolk!)

March 10, 2003:
Keep Breathing!

Wow, now that’s an ambitious goal. It’s like I always say, respiration is the lowest form of aspiration. OK, I don’t always say that. In fact, I’ve never said it before. And doubt is growing over whether I’ll ever say it again.

I read this message before I got into the office. But now that I am starting to detect the semi-distinctive* odor of dead rats again, I am beginning to wonder if Mr. Coffee is prescient.

* The smell of dead rats is merely “semi-distinctive” because if you aren’t familiar with it — and aren’t exactly expecting it — it can easily be mistaken for a gas leak. Trust me. I know.

March 7, 2003:
Built for the Future!

I really don’t know what to make of this. I think this is a case where a Google image search will be more interesting than anything I could say.

March 5, 2003:
Go the Distance!

OK, I know it was just yesterday that I said I was going to give this up, but clearly Mr. Coffee is reading my log, and he wants me to… well… “go the distance.”

Excuse me… “GO THE DISTANCE!”

Yes, everything he writes ends in an exclamation point, and come to think of it, he does always write in all-caps, although I never accurately represent that here. That changes the whole tone! I think he’s trying to boss me around! I’m not going to take that! I quit!

March 4, 2003:
Shining Star!

I think the magic is gone. My fascination with Mr. Coffee has gone through the stages of any temporary obsession:

Stage 1: Novelty
Initially I went to this Starbucks solely because I anticipated its drive-thru would be easier to navigate than the claustrophobic maze of the other Starbucks 4 blocks up the road. (I wish I were exaggerating that distance… I really do.) Imagine my delight when I discovered not only a wide, unfettered path to the drive-thru loudspeaker, but a crazed coffee fiend taking orders and handing out cup holders with quirky handwritten messages!
Stage 2: Realization
“What realization?” you may ask. Why, the realization that it was not just a fluke. This guy does this every day and I can experience it whenever I choose. Which of course is… very often! Also known as, the best way to kill novelty.
Stage 3: Routine
Stage 2 is merely a brief transition to stage 3. Soon the novelty is novel no more — it’s expected. Now, a disruption of the routine is an outrage, as negative as the initial discovery was positive. But as disappointing as those disruptions are, the event itself is never quite as exciting as it was before, either.
Stage 4: Boredom
Eventually, what once was novel and became routine no longer brings any joy. Repetition sets in, and with it, boredom. I am in stage 4 now, so I may suspend the log. Oh, I will still go to Starbucks, of course. The only thing that outweighs the repulsion of boredom and routine is unadulterated physical addiction. Caffeine will keep me coming back, on those days when I am too late or too lazy to make my own coffee. And I am sure, brief sparks of the once great novelty of the cup holder messages will flare up. Perhaps on those days I will dust off this page and share the joy of the ballistic barista with you all once again.

March 3, 2003:
Spring in Your March!

One of my pet peeves is when a songwriter incorporates a cliche into their lyrics, but is forced to change the phrase slightly to fit it into the surrounding rhyme and meter. Weak! The same conditions seem to apply here, assuming that this is a reference to the phrase “spring in your step.”

Of course today is the first workday in March, so it makes sense to acknowledge both that March is here and spring is on its way. But still…. Oh well, I’ll forgive it, because his “Welcome to Starbucks!!!!!” greeting was even more impassioned than usual.

February 25, 2003

Ho-hum. Another day without the caffeine-crazed cashier and his morning message of motivation. It’s a good thing I like latte and am fostering a caffeine craze of my own.

February 17, 2003:
Pass Me a President!

What does this mean? Yet again I am confounded by a cup holder message. This seems (evidenced by the appearance of the word “President”) to be a political statement. But what is it saying?

I can appreciate the need to hedge one’s bets, getting political at a Starbucks in a business-minded area. I suppose I should’ve joined the feeble hundreds at Atlanta’s anti-war protests on Saturday to see if Mr. Coffee was present. That might’ve shed some light on the situation. (Then again, I suppose it doesn’t reflect well upon my values and integrity that I would elect not to go to the anti-war protests to actually protest the war, but I would go there to see if the guy from Starbucks was in attendance.)

Update, 7:00 PM: Of course, always eager to burst my bubble, especially when it is inflated with the hot air of political conspiracy and innuendo, SLP pointed out a simpler explanation. Today is Presidents’ Day. And there are lots of Presidents on money.

February 14, 2003

It was just as I pulled up to the Starbucks drive-thru line that I realized all of my cash was in the pocket of a jacket I was not currently wearing. So I reluctantly broke out of the line and started to drive away. Then I remembered that Starbucks takes credit cards, of course, so I parked and went inside. (I suppose there’s no real reason why you couldn’t pay with a credit card at the drive-thru as well, but for some reason that’s lodged in my brain as one of those things you just don’t do, like petting a cat in the wrong direction, wearing brown shoes with black pants, or dousing yourself in gasoline and setting yourself ablaze.

Anyway, as I was saying, I went inside to buy my venti latte, which of course meant no special message from dynamo boy on my cup holder. So I had to take the stealth approach. I had to, without looking like a freak (although if there’s anyplace where looking like a freak should not be a major concern, it’s this particular Starbucks), visually scan the drive-thru area for the stack of cup holders. Success! Well, partial success.

I saw clearly that there were little white heart stickers on them, with some message printed in red (presumably “Happy Valentine’s Day”). There was also a good-ol’ Sharpie message from the ballistic barista, which I believe said, “Zap.” Zap? I guess Cupid’s gone high tech. Of course, my mind naturally drifts to the John Waters episode of The Simpsons, wherein Homer, fretting over the possibility that Bart is gay, encounters his son playing with one of John Waters’ vintage toy laser guns, repeatedly making a subtly effeminate “Zap!” sound.

February 7, 2003:
It’s Friday!

Why yes, yes it is. I think he’s phoning it in these days. (OK, he was physically there and handed me the coffee himself. It’s just an expression.) Then again, maybe he didn’t mean today is Friday, but rather, “Look! It’s (somebody named) Friday!” OK, let’s run down the list:

  • Joe Friday. Of course he would be referring to the new Dragnet series, starring Al Bundy, and not “classic” Dragnet with Jack Webb, or the abominable Dan Aykroyd movie. I always suspected my Starbucks guy was in ABC’s back pocket.
  • Friday from Robinson Crusoe. Or perhaps Joan Collins in Our Girl Friday.
  • King Friday XIII, benevolent ruler of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. This would be my personal choice. I still use Mr. Rogers’ song “I Like to Take my Time and Do it Right” as my excuse when SLP claims I am too slow at something, usually involving the precision craft of chopping vegetables.

February 5, 2003:
Nothing Compares to You!

Aww, isn’t that sweet? And he also spelled all of the words properly, not “2 U” as in the Prince-penned Sinead O’Connor song. But that still didn’t keep the song from getting stuck in my head. Oh well… it could be worse. At least it’s not the title of a Color Me Badd song.

Are You Forcing that Enthusiasm, or Are You Just Clinically Insane?

Caffeine. I love it. I hate it. I need it. For most of my life from the time I was 3, I have consumed at least one glass of Coca-Cola a day. Today, most informed parents might think twice about giving a 3-year-old a sugary, caffeinated beverage, but in 1977 it wasn’t much of a concern.

In high school, a friend introduced me to the wonders of Mountain Dew. Truly the best thing to come out of Appalachia besides I-85. It’s a magical beverage. I think the secret is the brominated vegetable oil.

Oh, who am I kidding? It’s the caffeine and sugar! (And, OK, maybe the yellow no. 5.)

In college, I discovered an even more sinister mistress… coffee. Forget the sugar… that’s kids’ stuff. The pure caffeine jolt of a bracing cup of coffee is for mature audiences only. (Try double-brewing coffee sometime. It’s quite a kick: Brew a pot of coffee, then dump the grounds, add more fresh grounds, pour the brewed coffee back into the pot and brew again. Ah, that’s pure Def Leppard-style adrenalyzed goodness! You won’t need sleep for about 67 hours.)

Yes, coffee. Black gold from the rainforests of South America, or the jungles of Sumatra, or the veldts of Kenya. (OK, I don’t know much about the climate and topography of Kenya; I just know they produce coffee, and somewhere in Africa they have “veldts,” which I know about from some educational film I saw in seventh grade. That’ll have to do for now.)

Sweet, sweet coffee! OK, bitter, bitter coffee! But it is a bitterness that is oh-so-sweet.

Most mornings, I grind my own beans and brew a fresh pot to take to work in my handy-dandy Thermos. But sometimes I am running late and the contrary-to-all-known-forms-of-logic thought pops into my head that it will take me less time to hit the Starbucks drive-thru on Roswell Road than to brew my own. This, of course, is never the case, and it runs me 3 bucks a pop to boot! (Enough with the colloquialsms, already!) But I go there anyway.

Chances are, if you’re reading this and you live anywhere within the known universe, you have either been to a Starbucks, or you’ve driven by a Starbucks, or you have a Starbucks within approximately 4 feet of your present location. (OK, Starbucks ubiquity jokes are getting old, but everyone deserves to pick some low-hanging fruit now and again.)

But chances also are that you’ve never been to a Starbucks quite like the one on Roswell Road.

The guy who works the drive-thru at this particular Starbucks is the most insanely enthusiastic person on the planet. When you approach the microphone to place your order, he comes over the speaker with a maniacal “GOOD MORNING!!!!! WELCOME TO STARBUCKS!!!!!!!!!!” that will curl your hair (if it’s straight) or straighten it (if it’s curly) or grow it back (if you’re bald).

Then the most bizarre thing of all. Each day, he writes a message on your cup holder with a Sharpie. I imagine he gets in at 4 AM so he can write his message on 1000 cup holders, and I just pray that he picks a single message for the day and writes the same one on each. If he actually thought up something unique for every individual customer, it would prove he is the anti-Christ. I have (thankfully, I think) forgotten most of the messages I’ve gotten on my cup holders, but here are a few that come to mind:

Sleep Is Overrated!

I mainly remember this one because it was on my cup today, and the full memory-splintering effects of the venti latte I ordered haven’t yet taken over. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with Starbucks’ twisted cup sizing, “tall” is the smallest, “grande” is medium, and “venti” is the largest. I think “venti” means either “55 gallon drum” or “too obscenely big for anyone but a gluttonous American” in Italian.) This is a fairly straightforward message, and one entirely appropriate for a customer ordering a venti latte, also known as a guy who has to work for the next 48 hours straight directing air traffic, or me. I have no excuse, other than that I like to perform mild forms of self-torture.

We All Shine On!

I really, honestly, don’t even have a clue about this one. It was just so bizarre that it stuck in my brain and forced most of his other messages out. I really wish it would go away.

Too Many Secrets!

I got this one a couple weeks ago, and it was truly the most disturbing. I mean, how did he know???

If, by chance, you enjoyed this rant, be sure to check out Part II for the ongoing log….