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Starbuck, Starbucks and the Economic Lessons of 'Moby Dick'

“It is our task in life to kill whales, and furnish up their oil for the lamps of the world. If we perform that task well and faithfully, we do a service to mankind that pleases almighty God … But Ahab would deny all that. He has taken us from the rich harvest we were reaping to satisfy his lust for vengeance. He is twisting that which is holy into something dark and purposeless.” -Starbuck, cheif mate of the Pequod in “Moby Dick”
In previous posts here at the Values & Capitalism blog, I’ve expounded on the spiritual and moral virtues of things like “work” and “vocation.” Such seemingly self-evident blog posts should not be necessary in a society so steeped in a rich tradition of entrepreneurial activity, an honorable work ethic and staggering generosity to those in need around the globe. But such posts are necessary. Such reminders are required. For we live in a time that sees fit to—if I may paraphrase comedian John Lovitz’s now famous colorful tirade—“tell people when they’re broke to work hard … and so you do … but when you have a little bit of success, everyone turns around and says [forget] you!” We hear politicians talk unthinkingly about “jobs,” the seemingly arbitrary need to “create” more of these jobs and the immorality of those greedy capitalists (of the Bain variety, specifically) who drive into town in their Monopoly car, eliminate all the jobs and hightail it out of town, leaving nothing behind but that measly thimble you trick your least favorite relative into using when the family sits down to play. We hear about justice (of the social variety) and the supposedly superior system of wealth redistribution and massive increases to the public-sector workforce. But we’ve forgotten something, and that something—when you sit down to think about it—is everything. I’m talking about why we event want a job. I’m talking about why jobs are not only economically important, but important to the very physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health of a human being. I’m talking about the inherent dignity of work—of performing an agreed-upon task for a bargained-for wage. I’m talking about the blessing one’s work can be to countless, faceless strangers. Those who downplay the sacred nature of work, who cheapen and sully it by reducing vocation to something a government bureaucrat will request more funds for—in exchange for your vote, of course—do so in direction contradiction to the intelligent designs of our creator. And truly, to the testimony of history itself. I was reminded of this while watching the 1956 film version of the great American novel “Moby Dick” the other night. If you’ve never seen Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab, or Orson Welles as Father Mapple, you’re probably a normal American under the age of 35. (Yes, I’m the other person besides your 76-year-old grandpa and Alec Baldwin who actually watches the Turner Classic Movie channel.) My favorite character in the novel is also my favorite character in the film: Starbuck, the Pequod’s chief mate. He is described in the book as:
“Uncommonly conscientious for a seaman, and endued with a deep natural reverence … and strongly inclined to superstition; but it was that sort of superstition, which in some organization seems rather to spring, somehow, from intelligence than from ignorance.”
If I may speak for the late Herman Melville, what I believe he’s saying is that this was a man whose common sense and healthy respect for the way the world is (not “however he would like it to be”) made him appear to others as superstitious. The modern defender of things like free enterprise, entrepreneurial activity, personal responsibility and limited government can easily relate to our friend Starbuck and the back-handed compliment of appearing to be superstitious merely for pointing out what is painfully obvious to so many of us. As my opening quote at the top of this piece suggests, Starbuck was someone who understood the cosmic blessing it is to find meaningful work and the earthly duty we all have to carry that work out. Man, because he is fallen, seeks to pervert work, to cheapen it, and in many instances manipulate it to serve his own personal, sinful aims. Some rally men to their cause, and their cause is the destruction of a mythical white whale in the Pacific Ocean. Some, like Captain Paul Watson of the vessel Steve Irwin, rally men and women to their cause in order to hurl smoke grenades and bad vibes at Japanese whaling ships in that very same body of water. Still others rally men, women, union workers and over-but-really-under-educated college students to their cause, and their cause is class warfare and social engineering. But what about those who rally hundreds of thousands of people to the idea of serving gourmet coffee to grateful customers in return for a “living wage” and health benefits? What about people like the CEO of Starbucks? The chain of coffee houses was, in fact, named after our boy Starbuck from “Moby Dick,” but only because the initial investors didn’t care for Pequod’s Coffee and the images of slop buckets, hardtack and boiling whale blubber that “Pequod” might conjure up in the minds of customers. When the CEO of Starbucks questioned the leadership of the man who chooses to rally people to himself in support of what I’d call a lesser, cheaper view of “work,” Howard Shultz was attacked by the media for failing to appreciate the wisdom of a president who thinks he can rewrite the laws of human nature. On one side you had a man successfully running a Fortune 500 company. On the other, you had a community organizer from Chicago who knows as much about economics as he does about throwing strikes at MLB All-Star games. Liberally informed “conventional wisdom” would say the president’s plan to Keynesian-chokehold the economy into submission is “scientific,” while the pie-in-the-sky, Don Quixote day-dreaming mystics of free-market capitalism are clinging to a myth Milton Friedman probably picked up at Freemason’s meeting. I readily concede that in regards to the need of all human beings to feel they have earned their success, it can seem to the public-school-trained eye to be a whole lot of superstition and faith-based economics. But the reason that our side will always prevail—even if here in the U.S. it tragically takes something like another Great Depression to remind us of its nation-altering power—is because the basic precepts of free enterprise are rooted in unalienable concepts such as the value of the individual and that individual’s bearing of the image of a creative, working God. Regardless of one’s politics, we would all do well to heed the advice of Starbuck and turn our attention to diligent work, a thankful heart and a honing of the ability to spot those who would twist and pervert the holy mandates of work and vocation for something as petty as a win at the ballot box come November. After all, in the end, everyone but Ishmael perished because of Ahab’s misguided, suicidal fancies.