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Howard Schultz Learned All the Wrong Lessons From His Childhood

Why is the former Starbucks CEO obsessed with the national debt? Because his father fell on hard times.


You could say that Howard Schultz has daddy issues. The former Starbucks CEO returns to his late father again and again in his new memoir, From the Ground Up, and often with disapproval. “My father never completed high school and spent his working life ricocheting between odd, low-paying jobs,” he writes. “He had few employable skills aside from driving. And while there’s dignity in a day’s labor, no matter how simple or technical, my father didn’t derive any sense of pride from his work.” Worse yet, “My father also spent more money than he had.”

This scolding is the setup for a heartbreaking turn of events: When Schultz was seven, his father slipped on a sheet of ice on the job, breaking his foot and ankle. He was “dismissed without notice,” leaving him with “no income, no health insurance, no workers’ compensation.” Without savings—and with his mother seven months’ pregnant—the family was forced to rely on Jewish Family Services. Later, when debt collectors called their home, Schultz’s parents would put him on the phone to turn them away; when the family ran out of money, they sent him out to family and friends to ask for loans. Schultz’s mother eventually nicknamed his father “Mr. Horizontal” because he “spent so much time lying on our couch.”

This experience informs Schultz’s current flirtation with an independent bid for president. “My exposure to their financial trials had instilled in me an aversion to debt,” he writes early in From the Ground Up. And that aversion is the centerpiece—the only piece, really—of his nascent proto-campaign platform. “If America was a company at $21.5 trillion of debt―adding a trillion dollars a year―we would be facing insolvency,” Schultz said on Monday night at an event promoting his book.

Schultz argues that America’s political instability is driven by the government’s lack of fiscal discipline (just as his family’s instability was driven by his spendthrift father). What the country needs, then, is the same approach that made him rich: to pull itself up by the bootstraps, and tighten its belt. But Schultz has taken the wrong lessons from his childhood. If anything, From the Ground Up is an argument for the government to do more, not less, to help its most vulnerable people—exactly the argument being made by the Democrats whom Schultz has spent the past week mocking.

In recent interviews, Schultz has struggled to articulate a political vision outside of his singular obsession. He considers the $21 trillion national debt an existential threat to the nation, and blames both parties for it: Under Trump, Republicans have wasted a strong economy by passing a debt-ballooning $1.5 trillion tax cut, while Democrats are proposing costly and irresponsible policies like a Green New Deal and Medicare for All.

“To those who say an independent run would help ensure the re-election of Donald Trump, I say the two parties’ inability to come together to serve the people has created the opportunity for a centrist independent to be successful,” he wrote in a USA Today op-ed on Tuesday. On The View, he explained why he couldn’t run as a Democrat. “Watch every Democrat go to [early primary states like New Hampshire and Iowa] and have to be disingenuous and probably make a false promise … just to be able to get elected in the primary in those states,” he said. “In order to run as a Democrat today, you have to fall in line with free Medicare for everybody, free college for everybody, a free job for everybody.”

This reference to “a free job”—an apparent reference to proposals for a job guarantee—is revealing. For Schultz, the most important thing to deliver for people is the dignity of work. “I fiercely believe that Starbucks’ attempts to be a different kind of company—one that my own father, a working class laborer, never had a chance to work for—are worth sharing at this fragile yet auspicious moment in our country’s history, when truth and dignity need to make a thunderous comeback,” he writes in the book’s preface. Looking back at his childhood, Schultz doesn’t see missing social programs that could have helped unskilled laborers like his father; he sees missing companies like Starbucks that could have given him an identity.

It was the humiliation of shooing away debt collectors and begging for money that drove Schultz, who is among the 400 richest people in America, to provide benefits for his employees. In From the Ground Up, like his earlier memoirs, Schultz proudly notes that Starbucks was the first company to offer both health insurance and stock options to its employees. In Schultz’s telling, the benevolence of corporations and a public commitment to the dignity of work can cure everything that ails America. This combination, in Schultz’s view, can not only lift people out of poverty, but help solve the country’s most complex and intractable problems, like racism—a line of thought that led to Starbucks’s disastrous Race Together campaign. Schultz is now making the case that the same approach could work politically: that the government must unleash the brilliance of American corporations. For instance, he recently said he would ask “tech companies” to “solve the problem of border security.”

But that doesn’t mean Schultz sees no role for the government. He gives the game away in a section detailing his decision to sell the Seattle SuperSonics, the NBA franchise which then moved to Oklahoma City. Schultz blames the city for his decision to sell the team because it didn’t give him hundreds of millions in public money, tax breaks, and other subsidies to build a new arena—even though such taxpayer-funded handouts have been proven to have no positive effect on spurring economic growth. One gets the sense that Schultz believes the state exists to empower—and enrich—billionaires and corporations, who will then supposedly use that corporate welfare to solve problems like health care, infrastructure, and immigration. The problem is, that accurately describes the status quo in Washington today—minus the problem-solving.

Early in From the Ground Up, Schultz admits that his own approach to debt doesn’t square with his experience as an executive. Even though he knew, “as a businessperson, that debt was not dangerous if managed well and that credit is essential to jump-starting a small business,” he remains averse to it for deeply personal reasons. The book could use more such honesty, but Schultz’s perspective of his childhood is hopelessly clouded by his subsequent professional success and extravagant wealth. Any clear-eyed reader can see that his father was undone not by occasionally treating himself to “a manicure and a fancy haircut,” but by an incomplete education, lack of professional development, and ultimately a fluke injury.

The past is present: The story of Schultz’s father resonates today more than ever. For years now, a majority of states have been cutting investment in public schools. There’s a paucity of workforce training or other programs to close the skills gap in the U.S. And the country is still far from achieving what the world’s leading nations implemented ages ago: universal health care. The Democrats are having a robust debate over the best solutions to these problems. The Republicans are largely apathetic. And here is Howard Schultz, implicitly echoing a notorious refrain: I alone can fix it.