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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Enjoy That Holiday Consumerism

I’m a supporter of all the autumn and winter holidays, and all the consumerist marketing.

The best part about presidential elections ending is that we can now move on and celebrate the holidays – something I have been secretly (?) doing since August.

I’m a supporter of all the autumn and winter holidays, and all the consumerist marketing. The TV specials, the eggnog, the holiday music, the Black Friday sales – all of it.

And yet, every year, despite the popularity of it all, we hear people bemoaning all this kitschy cheer. They’re the folks who complain the loudest that “it’s Fourth of July, and Santa is already at the mall!”

It’s fine. We can embrace these Grinches. Besides, we know they secretly love Pumpkin Spice Lattes just as much as us Whos down in Whoville.

Red Cup, Green Cup

Earlier this month, Starbucks faked everyone out with a limited edition, pre-holiday green cup. The cup represented one-hundred people drawn in a continuous line. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said the design creates, “a symbol of unity as a reminder of our shared values, and the need to be good to each other.”

A perfectly splendid message, that was lost on many.

I wonder if many of these War on Christmas controversies are fueled by media hype.I admit, those moments between waking up and taking my first sip of coffee isn’t the ideal time for dozens of little green faces to peer out at me from my cup. Like many others, I wrongly assumed it was an avant garde holiday design.

Predictably, Buzzfeed, Vox, and others ran stories about a burgeoning controversy over this godless cup, and another War on Christmas. It was reminiscent of last year’s Great Red Cup Controversy.

In 2015, Starbucks’ chose a solid red design for its holiday cup. An Arizona pastor, Joshua Feuerstein, made nationwide headlines with a viral video, condemning Starbucks for taking Christ out of Christmas (presumably, by taking reindeers off coffee cups).

I often wonder if many of these War on Christmas controversies are fueled by media hype. A video going viral, or a topic trending on social media, obviously does not denote a consensus.

I’m a Catholic, and not an Evangelical like Feuerstein. Neither Pope Francis nor my parish priest had anything to say about this cup. In fact, I knew of precisely zero Christians of any denomination who considered this cup an attack on their faith.

The green cup controversy felt even more contrived, and the story fizzled quickly.

Corporations Have Values?

But, wait a second, what’s all this about “shared values”? Starbucks is a corporation, and I am told on good authority that corporations aren’t people. I am also told that people like Feuerstein were placing too much emphasis on a silly old cup!

Howard Schultz disagrees – he said the green cup promotes our “shared values.” Yes, apparently, we have shared values, and they are decreed by Starbucks. Indeed, Starbucks had a similar message last year about a deeper meaning behind the red cup.

Maybe Feuerstein was on to something. No, not the part about cups being an attack on Christianity. But isn’t it true that we expect corporations to comply with and reflect common social values? Don’t we praise socially responsible corporations? Don’t we condemn corporations that make egregious moral mistakes?

Consumers may patronize a business for the cost and quality of its widgets. But consumers also prefer that businesses value the things we value. In a way, these cups do reflect certain shared values – to many of us, the holidays are sacred. Starbucks is perfectly aware that it serves as a “sanctuary” where we grab a warm seasonal drinking en route to Christmas shopping.

Corporate Duties

Writing the dissent in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Justice Ginsburg insisted that for-profit corporations are not persons under the Bill of Rights – thus, they do not enjoy the right to free exercise of religion.

I always thought it was free-market libertarians who champion the ruthless pursuit of corporate profit, yet Progressives routinely suggest that corporations should be morally-ambiguous entities.

Don’t we want businesses to observe moral values and duties?Don’t we want businesses to observe moral values and duties?

Is it that companies are not permitted to observe the particular morals of its shareholders because corporations aren’t people, or just that shareholder morals mustn’t interfere with the State’s preferred morals?

What about the “shared values” of Howard Schultz?

The truth is, our laws place countless moral expectations on for-profit businesses. We sanction and criminalize immoral practices like fraud, embezzlement, environmental degradation, and other abusive practices. The Affordable Care Act now requires certain companies to provide healthcare coverage to employees, and President Obama himself called this a “moral issue.”

So, while we expect companies to not be morally ambiguous when it comes to oil spills and defrauding investors, shareholders must leave their morals at church when it comes to subsidizing employee contraceptives.

Got it … I think?

Now, it may be the case that consumers would refuse to patronize a company that does not subsidize employee contraceptives. Only, you wouldn’t know it based on Hobby Lobby’s success.

Black Hearted, Black Friday

And how about those greedy, black-hearted, big-box retailers, starting their Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving, ripping their employees away from their families!

Strangely, despite all the caterwauling about the plight of retail employees, few people object about the others who traditionally work on Thanksgiving: Police and emergency responders, grocery store employees, movie theater employees, everyone operating the Macy’s Day parade, and everyone working at the football game you’re watching (from the stadium vendors, to the players).

Maybe this is stating the obvious, but businesses open on Thanksgiving precisely because consumers want them to be open. Just as ratings dictate football games being aired on Thanksgiving Day.

Stop Complaining about Consumerism

I like that my Starbucks cup reminds me of the season. Although, I would rejoice without the cups – because, to me, this is a holy time of year.

Ultimately, consumers signal to corporate America their “shared values” through their choices.The word holiday is derived from the term “holy day.” The Thanksgiving tradition has religious roots, but it is a civil holiday under federal law.

Is a civil holiday a “holy” day? Does the president act in persona Christi when he pardons (blesses?) a turkey? I hope nobody thinks so.

As for me, the State is not my church. Its civil holidays do not dictate the days I consider holy. Still, I can attend Mass, feed the homeless, visit the disabled, and sanctify the fourth Thursday of November in my own way. It is entirely my choice if I want this to be a holy holiday.

But, if Thanksgiving is just that Thursday in November when Americans wear ugly sweaters and overeat, then it isn’t obvious why corporations are duty-bound to sanctify the day for their employees – especially if everyone starts lining up for sales after the pie is served.

To be fair, Black Friday is as “sacred” as Thanksgiving Day for some people. Many will get with friends and family to share an intimate experience, perhaps a meal, buy gifts for others, and form new seasonal traditions. It’s not all brawls and consumerism. Some families gather around football games with a hot toddy; others gather outside Best Buy with a gingerbread latte (maybe some pepper spray). It can be very communal.

Traditions change. Ultimately, consumers signal to corporate America their “shared values” through their choices. Why condemn businesses for responding?

  • Thomas Smith is an alumnus of Berkeley and Pepperdine Law, and a corporate attorney.