Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Starbucks & The Economy

So this weekend like lots of other weekends, I found myself in my favorite coffee shop, the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. The natural question here is if that is the case than what is up with the title? Well, despite my love for CBTL, the bottom line is that I, like millions of other people, frequent Starbucks for my fix once in a while because, well, they are everywhere.

This brings me to my often trotted out non-scientific observation of the lines at Starbucks as an indicator of the economy. I say that the long lines at Starbucks show how much the economy is improving despite stories to the contrary.

I must admit, I have been thinking about this one more so lately because I recently had a conversation with an uncle about the economy. Although he might have experience in finance, he is no social scientist. Where the disagreement ultimately came down to was how we view society. He views society as an external force that he must contend with while I view myself as an integral part of society who has influence in it.

But I digress. The important part is that there is a difference between looking at things, like spending, as a factor of business and looking at it as an indicator of societal behavior. Even the most adamant capitalist knows that the system is about people "voting with their dollars." Businesses in a free market are supposed to live and die based on people's preferences. The part that most business people, like my uncle, miss and that social scientists, like myself, get, is that it is never so neat and tidy as good product equals profitable business.

Spending money is often about social behaviors. Whether it's people gathering at Starbucks because that's where their friends are or because they offer free WiFi or just because many people simply fear the unknown and Starbucks is a known quantity, the truth is that not everyone goes there because they think it's the best coffee.

So Starbucks usage is not just about coffee drinking. It can be used as a measure of all kinds of factors happening in the country right now.

The more myopic types want to look at the state of the union in terms of individuals, a very egocentric model. That's fine, however, it is very difficult to extrapolate that out to the whole country. Moreover, the economy is not about what is happening at one person's house, it is about the entire system across a state or country.

Perhaps that is the difference between those who are on different sides of our political landscape these days. On the one side, there are those who see that we all have to join in together to make this a better place for us all. On the other, we have people who do not want to be bothered or have any obligation to the rest of society as long as their individual needs are met.

Unfortunately, an strong economy does not work that way. We all have a role to play and understanding that is important to maintaining a stable system.

I realize that understanding such concepts is difficult. It is far easier to think about what is happening at home than to try to fathom what is needed to create an environment that will help all 350 million of us to thrive. Perhaps we can start by recognizing each other's strengths and skills in these challenging times. Maybe we can have a little faith in each other. And if all else fails, let's just go meet for coffee.

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