Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The American Vision of the Good Life

...according to David Brooks. People continue to want to move out and move West. They’re not so interested in returning to crowded cities and bicycles. To be more exact, the young are attracted to old cities and the "new urbanism" as a form of extended adolescence, but there’s scant evidence that the future of the American family is in Americanized versions of Amsterdam. And one reason our citizens stubbornly persist in preferring McDonald’s to Starbucks is that the former now clearly has better coffee, even by bourgeois bohemian standards.

Discussions - 10 Comments

Your comment on McDonald's coffee used to be true. Now, I'm not so sure. The McDonalds we frequent after church on Sunday mornings has undergone a kind of gentrification. This used to be o.k. with me because it was a kind of western gentrification--a real cowboy theme. But recently, it has included a revamping of their coffee "menu." Whenever there is a coffee "menu" you know you're in trouble. The introduction of iced coffee was one thing--and though I knew it was a step in this wrong direction, it had its benefits. On hot summer days, it was good to have an alternative to a fountain soda at the nearest drive-thru. But it was still too expensive to be more than a very occasional treat and it tested the wits of most teenaged McDonald's workers beyond their natural capacities. But now they've gone too far. They've turned their very good and very sensible coffee into a coffee bar. It's complete with all the fancy flavors and belabored ordering process of Starbucks. You will stand around like a zombie now and have to sniff the coffee for twenty minutes before you get your cup . . . and this means congestion in the line for the pancakes. And, while the price is comparatively cheap, it is still more than the good old-fashioned and sensible coffee. Thank goodness I've discovered an unpretentious and inexpensive old diner nearby where the coffee is good, fresh, cheap and hot and the clientele and waitresses are, refreshingly, normal. It's almost as good as being in Ohio . . . but not quite.

I like the Americano at Strabucks but both McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts make a superior regurlar cup of joe. The great attraction of Starbucks for me is that its a comfortable place I can sit for an hour with a laptop (even better if its in a Barnes and Noble). I've noticed, at least here in Rochester, that older folks who used to hang out for hours at the local McDonalds prefer to lounge at Starbucks, if only the prices weren't so objectionable.

The key difference here between us and our European counterparts is the emphasis on the family--the seductive trappings of urban life quickly lose their luster (or become outright disadvantages) once you start raising children.From the perspective of the unattached individual, the city promises all kinds of exciting opportunities and diversions---even the daily specter of huge, anonymous crowds moving from block to block seems to present us as atomistic individuals wandering amongst one another but still discernibly detached. From the perspective of the father or the mother, it's a world of expensive distraction, clamor, and danger. I grew upo in NYC and I know that for my parents, neither of whom was an urbanite, it was something that often kept them awake at night.

I agree it was inauthentic for McDonald's to go the coffee bar route. Fortunately, not all McDonalds have done that. The Americano at Starbucks is ok.

McDonalds saw a good business opportunity and took it, and they will proceed to destroy Starbucks' customer base. Their commercials with the two guys sitting in a lounge pretending to be high-class and then realizing that McDonalds (place of peasants) now has all the choices of Starbucks were brilliant-- an assault on the perceived intellectual snobbery that exists with some of these coffee joints.

Careful here, folks. I distinctly recall at least one post here from Dr. Schramm where he wrote of his voluntarily giving business to Starbucks - in a town that also has at least a couple McD's - and reading some conservative intellectual tome while there (all very unpretentiously...of course!). [Kinda reminds me of the reputation for Volvos as a liberal's car, versus the reality that Volvo knows it's a good bet to advertise on Instapundit and Dr. Helen's old-time radio hour.]

Not a bad point Craig, my old company commander owned a nice Volvo and affixed an Army and an NRA bumper sticker to it. Of course much experience in the military when it comes to vehicles will give cognitive disonance to just about any theory. I saw a Hummer on 23" rims with an Obama Sticker. Odds are it belonged to an african american NCO...but it turned out it belonged to a female Officer of hispanic origin. In any case McDonalds has improved its coffee(so I disagree with Julie about the putting on airs...or else I am just going to less modern McDonalds(it does seem as if McDonalds is looseing up on the homogenezation...there is now some difference in product from location, and I could have sworn I recently ate a different Big Mac(maybe the folks in the back ran out of an ingredient?)

In some sense maybe the homogenezation is a good/safe thing...you know what to expect...when I go to McDonalds I expect my food will always taste the same no matter where I am...Strangely enough I think Nature/geography isn't fully conquered in this regard, and due to this factor Starbucks was insanely popular in Iraq/Kuwait. The McDonalds and Pizza Huts and Burger Kings just didn't taste right...(talk about entitlement, obviously I was happy to have them...then again I wasn't because the chow halls were good enough(thank KBR/Halliburton/Baskin Robbins that I didn't want to spend unecessary money reminding myself I wasn't home)...On the other hand the Starbucks were phenomenal, wi-fi internet and essentially identical product and atmosphere to the extent possible)

So because Starbucks takes the cake for being able to duplicate themselves overseas...and then again the free wi-fi and perfect air-conditioning and awesome aroma...for these reasons I think Starbucks far superior to McDonalds, and a lot of soilders who might think as Julie does towards Starbucks could agree on these grounds in that situation. In any case Starbucks is still popular in the military, and this loyalty might even change the sociological picture. In the end when different demographics start frequenting a place, you do get a sort of "tipping point" and the sense of what Starbucks or McDonalds is might change incrementally.

Still I think in a blindfolded taste test I would prefer the Starbucks...but still I think McDonals is getting better...then again I might prefer the Dunkin Donuts...and the question is how exactly homogeneous the coffee is from one place to another. I think even if McDonalds made excellent coffee they might still succumb to differences in chain quality/consistency of the sort that Starbucks seems more immune from. I still sort of agree with Julie, and the small non-chain mom and pop place might be nice. But then again the point about waiting in a Starbucks seems to be a good thing...so I really agree most with Ivan to hell with opinions on Americano altogether if I do starbucks I stay cold-coffee Venti Caramel Blended with whip cream and dark chocolate flakes(which I never dreamed of drinking...until Iraq)

Of course cross comparison is hard because I am a creature of habit, and I agree even more with Ivan in that I don't consider a Starbucks experience in the same light as McDonalds(more than half the time I get the orange juice and only drink the coffee hot) Whatever games marketing folks might play, and I was more aware of the Dunkin Donuts vs. Starbucks theme...the placement of Starbucks in Barnes and Noble trumps it(which Green Bean is trying to dupe with Hastings...but also with BP gas stations transitioning the experience into closer competition with Dunkin Donuts/7-11)

I wouldn't be as emotional as Kate/Dr. Knippenburg were about it, but it did awaken me to a familly tradition of buying whole beans and grinding them, then putting them into a filterless tin pot with holes and pouring boiling water over them and tapping the top of the pot with a knife to adjust the speed of the drain...

As an extra on the subject of variance within chains, Pizza Hut's in Ohio are absolutely horrible, while the Pizza Hut's in Lawton Ok at least have superior buffets, and much better overall quality and ingredient quantity and excellent service...Almost as night and day as Pizza Hut Ohio vs. Baghdad, or the completly different bread of the Subway's overseas...

While it may be fun (or his job) for David Brooks to think about an immaginary McDonalds/Starbucks split, it is hard to think of a town that has a Starbucks but doesn't have a McDonalds. So if folks wanted to be broader more vague or more open for widespread employment answering McDonalds is a much safer bet. In a sense then answering McDonalds is more indicative that one does not have a firm opinion about what constitutes the good life. That is if having a McDonalds is important even the most rural parts of Ohio can find one in 15 minutes drive. Also if most folks in rural areas are happy where they are, it is much more likely that where they are they have a McDonalds but not a Starbucks, so if the questions follow in sucession for the sake of consistency they might bias towards McDonalds. In fact I bet even Dr. Lawler would be hard pressed to think of a single attribute of a community that did less to narrow the geography down than the presence of a McDonalds. My guess is that if McDonalds is important the part of the United States that is cut out the most is Alaska. In fact when P. Diddy went on his tirade against Palin by saying...Alaska? Alaska? He could have quantified his statement by pointing out that some folks who live in the tundra/permafrost have to drive a full 35 minutes over ice roads to reach one! 35 minutes from a McDonalds you know what that does to real estate values on an urban economics Bid-Rent curve?

I am obviously bored or consumed too much coffee, but smelling some of that coffee I just brewed reminded me of something critical when it comes to taste. So much of taste is smell, and it is pointless to seperate the two. Starbucks has a purer coffee smell, and while I can't say that Mcdonalds and food combinations can't bring out something in a coffee...(I do know for a fact that while I love to fry bacon, if I do so near a coffee pot the fat from the bacon polutes and changes the taste of my coffee)
well here again I ruin it because my car doesn't smell great and I eat McDonalds in a car but sit and drink starbucks enjoying a book or laptop. In any case McDonalds is at a serious disadvantage if cooking with fat(which is what bacon does on its own) ruins coffee. Back in high school I worked at Burger King and my work shirts always acquired and maintained a greasy feel, I can't help but think that such airborne fat puts fast food joints at a serious coffee disadvantage. I am not going to tell folks they can't like fast food coffee, but I assume doing so wouldn't put me in a different position from someone who looked at temperature and rainfall and predicted that a wine of a certain year would be bad. In any case I like cheap merlot, bud light and bacon with my coffee even if it hurts the taste if not consumed immediately. I can also think of several reasons involving how much workers at a McDonalds give a damn for why Starbucks is probably superior. If I get a bad cup of coffee at McDonalds I am not complaining to a manager, especially if it involves turning around in a car and doubling back(bid-rent curve? opportunity cost?) You would feel like a prick, and drinking bad coffee is better than that cure. On the other hand, especially if you felt guilted into tipping the starbucks barristas you would complain if your starbucks was subpar. I mean if they call themselves barristas and are coffee experts then they better act like it. The expectations are higher with Starbucks, because you are paying to hold them to the expectations(while it turns out that Starbucks is less "liberal" with employees than Wal-Mart)

Fewer folks might go to starbucks in downtimes for the obvious reason that it isn't cheap, the fact that some folks might feel they have to tip acts as an even greater obstacle, because tipping always seems a cost external to the product...folks don't want to be rude, but taco bell has double the beef for 89 cents...and if they had coffee I am sure it would be decent. Do I want one cup of coffee or 5 tacos's? I can get 4 taco's and still have McDonalds coffee...scratch that I can have 5 taco's and my McDonalds coffee because I save the tip. Or I can have 5(6!) cups of McDonalds Java...and since caffeine is addictive and habit forming, if you only have $5 for your weekly morning coffee budget the choice is clear.

So I can certanly buy the idea that McDonalds coffee is better than Starbucks, in terms of the extra money the habit at one place saves when compared with the other, the drive-thru is also quicker. But this is the whole idea of a value meal, and the marketing folks at Wendy's seem to be playing this idea cutely. Subway also has the 5 dollar footlongs, which I mention in context because they do seem a good value, even if I prefer Quizno's by a marginal amount...So Quizno's or Subway? Subway, until Quizno's reciprocates with its five dollar menu, at which time I will have been bored enough with Subway that Quizno's will seem a treat.

In some way the "values" to be had in a down economy aren't half bad, had the world economy not cooled down I fully expect oil to have been at 150 a barrell, which means I would be paying over 4 and close to 5 at the pump...Starbucks secure in its market niche wouldn't even think of comming out with 1 dollar coffee and the catchy 5 dollar footlong jingle wouldn't interupt my more serious thoughts on economics. This is a silver linning, or what Kudlow calls "mustard seeds" but I can't help but think that sometimes folks don't realize that some "mustard seeds" don't exist in "good times"...This is another way that a difference between younger people and older folks plays out, the percentage of networth tied up in stock market, the horizon, the buying or selling opportunity and in some way a measure of how well the economy is doing. In some ways I know the economy is bad because retailers are working hard to earn my loyalty or steal it from those who have grown too secure, sales are what happens when retailers can't sell as high as they wanted, but eventually sales became permanent as retailers discovered methods of price discrimination, raise the price so when you cut it it seems a greater value...this seems to have run somewhat amock, and in part because of a tipping culture I am not sure Starbucks will do themselves any good with $1 coffee...Back in the good old days I could get a coke for a nickel!(when times were really bad I could get a Starbucks coffee for $1!)

Only not exactly, because if you tip the change of something slightly over a rounded dollar, say 89 cents for Taco Bell commercial puporses when the coffee is $5.11 after tax, what do you tip when the coffee is 1.06 after tax? If you tip the 94 cents then you just drank two dollar coffee...but if you count out some of the change you just don't feel right...so you feel uncomfortable, and such a discomfort is enough to negate any palate considerations weighing in favor of Starbucks flavor/aroma and experience. So if you are after $1 coffee McDonalds still wins.

One way of looking at this is there has always been a complex relation in American life between the bourgeois and the bohemian impulses: this has a lot to do with a heritage born of a rich european culture but built on a Lockean drive towards comfortable preservation. Still, even our bohemian impulses often got co-opted by bourgeois-ification, as Brooks is good at detailing. And Starbucks is less Bohemian than it is BoBo, to stick with Brook's terms--it appeals to a sense of cultural elitism disguised as superior aestheticism for a certain class of otherwise bourgeois folks. And R.O.B. is right to point out that McDonalds' new fancy cafe fare is maybe less inauthentic than Peter clains since done with a certain sense of irony--the message being that you can like a dessert like coffee without assuming a certain cultural identity that often goes with it (and the pretentious pricing as well)

I really enjoyed all these caffeinated comments, although they hit only very indirectly the real Brooks issue of the relationship between exurbs and the city. Starbucks is in fact very suburban and even sub-bobo. Other, more tasteful coffee places dominated the "new urbanized" parts of cities.

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