The Good Soul Howard Schultz: Exploiting an Addict Rather Than Ending an Addiction

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has joined a small but important group of business leaders who believe it right to use their personal influence to make government work better. In a letter to colleagues and friends, Schultz pledged to end his contributions to political campaigns “until [politicians] strike a bipartisan, balanced long-term debt deal that addresses both entitlements and revenues.” He also pledged on behalf of Starbucks to “hire and accelerate employment.” Both pledges flow from an obviously deeply felt view that something profoundly wrong has happened to our government and nation. His efforts — like the efforts of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates — are not first steps in a political campaign. They are the actions of decent citizens trying to make a society better.

Schultz is right that something profoundly bad has happened to American politics. He is also right to tie that profound bad to the endless addiction that our elected officials have to campaign cash. We have entered a time when politicians like Republican Scott Brown are not even embarrassed to argue that while programs like Medicare and Social Security must be on the budget chopping block, subsidies to big oil (a contributor to Scott Brown) should not. Or when Democrat Xavier Becerra, appointed to the “super Congress” that will have extraordinary power to make spending and revenue budget decisions, doesn’t think twice about cashing in on his newly-found power by touting it in a fundraising letter to DC lobbyists. (Update: Congressman Becarra writes that he “did not know, did not ask, would not ask and I will not ask any of my supporters to use my appointment to the select committee for purposes outside its principle focus.” Bravo.) Or when Congress, in the middle of two wars, a recession, a jobs crisis, and an impending government shutdown, spends most of its attention on whether “swipe fees” for debit cards should be higher (banks win) or lower (retailers win). Why would it do that? Because of course, both sides in that fight are only too eager to shower the not-yet-wooed Members with endless campaign cash. In context after context, the priorities and sensibilities of this Congress are queered by its perpetual addiction to campaign funds. Nothing in Washington will change until we change this.

But however right his motivation, Schultz’s pledge to withhold campaign dollars until Congress agrees on a budget won’t fix this mess. No doubt, you can get an addict to clean up the garage by withholding his fix until he is done. But that won’t help the addict end his addiction. The same with our cash-addicted-Congress: What reformers like Schultz need to do is to use their power to get Congress to end its addiction, by pushing for reforms that would make it possible for government to act sanely and independently of special interest funders.

That was the objective of Arnold Hiatt (former CEO of Stride Rite) and Alan Hassenfeld (former Chairman of Hasbro, Inc.) when they launched a similar campaign just last year, by writing (PDF) to the largest campaign funders, and asking them to withhold funds from any candidate who didn’t pledge to support the Fair Elections Now Act — a bill that would give candidates the chance to opt out of special interest funding, and into a voluntary system that would limit campaign contributions to $100, with each contribution matched 4 to 1 by the government. Their letter convinced scores of large funders — including producer and director J.J. Abrams, Edgar Bronfman Jr., CEO of Warner Music, Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s, and Vin Ryan, Chairman of Schooner Capital — to withhold campaign contributions from special interest candidates. It also inspired thousands of smaller contributors to make a similar pledge.

The Hiatt/Hassenfeld strategy uses the leverage of campaign contributions to change the system for funding campaigns. It doesn’t withhold the fix. It ends the addiction. There are any number of important causes that powerful souls like Schultz could organize funder strikes around — bank reform, health care reform, tax reform, global warming legislation — for our current Congress can’t address any of these issues sensibly because special interests always block change. But far better is a strategy to change the environment within which these special interests can always block change. That was Hiatt and Hassenfeld’s objective — an objective that Schultz’s approach cannot achieve.

Schultz could fix this flaw by adding an escape clause to his current pledge. Let contributors promise not to give unless Congress strikes a deal or a candidate pledges to funding reform. Let this powerful movement produce something permanent, rather than a single victory in an endless tale of defeat.

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil,” wrote Thoreau in Walden, “to one striking at the root.” We need souls like Schultz to be that one, striking at the root, if the efforts of the thousands are ever to have an effect.

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16 Responses to The Good Soul Howard Schultz: Exploiting an Addict Rather Than Ending an Addiction

  1. Jonathan says:

    Professor Lessig, have you given any thought to joining the Dean campaign? You should be his technology czar and help form copyright and technology policy! I want to see you making policy with the good doctor!

  2. chuck says:

    I’ve been intrigued by Dean’s campaign blog for some time and by the interconnection between his audience there and the favorable image he has among members. Given the attention his blog has received, I’m somewhat surprsied that other candidates haven’t followed his lead.

  3. joe says:

    here, here… I’ll register another vote for being (or suggesting) a technology czar for Dean. That could be a great move considering no one has done it this early in the campaign… (and that Prf. Lessig would be a fine choice, as well).

  4. “… it matters not at all”? Myself, I wouldn’t go that far.

    It matters less than people who live and breath the Net for a living think it does? I’d say that’s an important lesson to keep in mind (and I write the preceding as one of those people)

    I’m very skeptical about campaign fundraising hype. One bump does not a win make.

  5. Oh, another vote for “Lessig for Technology Advisor”. Good for the campaign, good for you, and practically no work involved but some speechifying – go for it :-).

  6. Luke Francl says:

    Come on Lessig — get on board. 🙂

    Seth, scepticism is always necessary, but what happened this week was truly unprecidented. The Dean campaign raised almost $4 million dollars online in a WEEK from grassroots small donors. You’re right — he needs to prove this wasn’t a bump. But it certainly got everyone’s attention.

  7. Sarah Wellerman says:

    I agree that the Net is important, and win or lose, Dean is helping the eventual Dem nominee (likely Kerry or Edwards) because they will inherit this great operation in the general election.

  8. Anything which comes from a campaign press-release is an immediate red flag to me. I’ve seen far too much “The Internet!!!!” hype in my life. I have a sneaking suspicion that there’s more to the story than we’ve been told, as there almost always is. Perhaps some contributions have been “bundled” from large organizations somehow.

    Dean seems to be a decent guy, don’t get me wrong. But finding angles to generate hype and buzz is what campaign managers are supposed to do.

  9. Rob Woodard says:

    Dean looked really bad on Meet the Press a couple of weeks ago, fumbling with answers and looking uninformed on foreign policy. Republican analysts were chuckling and pronounced him a new McGovern who’d they be more than happy to run against. Of course it’s early days yet and Dean does seem a decent guy. But Joe Lieberman is also a decent guy, and as the Establishment candidate he’s got to be the favorite for winning the nomination at this point.

    No matter who the Democrats ultimately come up with, I’m afraid Bush will eat their lunch. He’s got the most money and all the friends in business, and that’s what matters these days in America.

  10. Luke Francl says:

    It’s not a campaign press release. It’s 59,000 individual contributors with an average contribution well below $200 (unless the campaign is lying, and we’ll find that out on June 15). Having that many donors to an underdog candidate 7 months before the first votes are cast is pretty significant.

    Let’s look at it this way: In the last week of the quarter, Dean made collected more donations than he collected in the entire first quarter (that was $2.6 million, btw). Dean raised more money online than Lieberman raised total, and like I said, these are not people cutting $2,000 checks.

    Take a look at the campaign blog, and you’ll see people who are really excited about this candidate. There’s a reason for that. And it’s translating into big bucks.

  11. Shmoo says:

    Lawrence Lessig for President! (Well, why not?)

  12. It’s 59,000 individual contributors with an average contribution well below

    This is exactly the sort of statement which says to me “Beware! Hype alert!”. It’s given without information to allow much of a comparison, as to what it does in fact mean. If what would be a $2,000 check is now done by PayPal, that’s nice, even mildly innovative – but not indicative of anything new, except that people now send money using online payment systems, and it’s wise for candidates to take advantage of that.

    “Take a look at the campaign blog, and you’ll see people who are really excited about this candidate.”

    I don’t doubt it. Again, one of the best things that blogs do is generate talk.
    I don’t need to look very far to see people really excited about Libertarianism. And they get around 1/2 of 1% of the presidential vote. Let that be a cautionary tale about confusing talk with action.

  13. Lessig says:

    Hey, please, but no thanks. I think Dean is brilliant and it is wonderful beyond belief to hear a candidate speak so clearly and powerfully about matters of truth and right. But I’ve spent my (recent) life writing things that would make sure I could and would never be eligible for anything political — so I could write and think about what I think right.

    So good luck to the Doctor and to everyone else who speaks truth clearly. But there is a place, I hope, for people who say what they believe, without fear about whether it will make it easier to
    (1) get votes, (2) get clients, (3) get money.

  14. The Dean campaign’s use of the Internet goes beyond just fundraising and MeetUp organizing–they’re using it, brilliantly, to launch a sort of “distributed media creation” (my clumsy term) initiative as well. Sort of the Internet revolution meets the digital-video revolution, another seismic shift that is ripe for exploitation.

    The Dean campaign recognizes that supporters are good for more than just forwarding emails and sending in money–they have talent and other resources, too. A traditional campaign just sucks in money and considers volunteers to be flyer-handing-out machines (too reductive, I know–and I’m not knocking the value of canvassing). But if all of the video cameras, computers (for editing, Photoshop), weblogs and talent among all of the Dean supporters can be harnessed effectively, that will add an incredible amount of real $ value to the campaign–value that most campaigns to date utterly waste. I might not have much money to give Dean right now, but I CAN offer him shooting and video-editing services for which he’d pay tens of thousands the regular way.

    They just announced an Assignment Desk to help try to organize these creative resources. This one innovation could change everything. “Become the media” has never felt less like a pipe dream.

    (FYI, Dean MeetUp tonight, nationwide.)

  15. Carl G Lewis says:

    There’s some interesting comments on Deans’ Meet the Press appearance on, admittedly from a Dem partisan. Esp. interesting are the comparisons with the W’s appearance in 2000.

  16. Yes, sure, why not, a “technology czar” to work alongside the “drug czar” and “terror czar” and “security czar”.
    A lot of czars for one USSR… err… USA.

    E-democracy is dangerous. It pulls us away from the street.

    Backing a guy for saying the right stuff is the inevitable
    outcome. And missing the guy who has it, and who does it.

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