About that five bucks some pay-it-forward stranger advanced me at the Maryland toll booth on Interstate-95: I spent it at Starbucks, but not for the Salted Caramel Mocha Frappuccino. Instead, I bought a Create Jobs for USA bracelet. In fact, I bought two. That's $10, tax-deductible, with every penny going toward a smart, new effort to help small businesses across the country expand or get started, and put people to work. It's a sweet end-run on Congress and big corporations.
If you have any affinity at all with the Occupy Wall Street movement, if you are outraged that major U.S. corporations are sitting on trillions in cash balances while reaping grotesque profits at a time when millions of Americans can't find work, then you should get a bracelet at Starbucks, too. Or, if you can afford it, buy 10 and hand them out to friends, and ask every recipient to do the same.
Of course, you shouldn't do this without understanding how the effort works, so here goes:
Frustrated with the ridiculous super-partisanship of Washington at a time when the country needs action, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz looked for a way to help other businesses create jobs. The Starbucks Foundation decided to throw its support — and $5 million — behind the work of the Opportunity Finance Network. That's a confederation of community institutions that work with small businesses in areas that are underserved by conventional lenders. It's microlending American-style, helping people get the financing they need to start an enterprise or grow one, or redevelop housing or commercial property, or build affordable housing. These community lenders work in urban, rural and Native American communities. There are 957 certified Community Development Financial Institutions across the country — about two dozen in Maryland — and they claim a 98 percent loan repayment rate.
Your $5 for the Starbucks bracelet goes into a new fund to support these community lenders. The $5 is actually worth $35, Starbucks says, because the CDFIs have other sources for financing; they can use the Create Jobs for USA Fund to leverage additional capital from foundations, faith-based investors, corporations, individual donors and investors who like profit but don't care about "profit-maximization."
"CDFIs provide much-needed capital to a variety of community businesses," says the handout that comes with your bracelet at the Starbucks counter. "CDFIs make loans that are profitable but not profit-maximizing. They are required to put their communities first, not their shareholders."
Starbucks figures the CDFIs will be able to extend their financing of small businesses and micro-enterprises that will, in turn, create new jobs.
This effort should appeal to fed-up Americans of all political stripes, even those who don't like Starbucks coffee or prefer locally owned home brews instead of a chain with more than 7,000 locations. (There's no obligation to buy Starbucks java if you only want to purchase a bracelet.) The Occupy Wall Street protesters could fold their tents if all of them, and their extended family of silent supporters, were to buy bracelets and help the CDFIs grow jobs from the ground up, in the local economies in which the 99 percent of us live, work and consume. Tea party members should admire the effort to do an end-run on government to kick-start some job creation.
We're heading into the 2012 presidential election year, and the Create Jobs bracelet would appear to be a much better buy for the civic-minded than, say, a campaign contribution.
In fact, Mr. Schultz already got his customers — and some of his fellow CEOs — thinking this way when he famously called for a boycott of campaign contributions to all incumbents, citing congressional gridlock over the nation's long-term fiscal and economic problems. "Right now our economy is frozen in a cycle of fear and uncertainty. Companies are afraid to hire. Consumers are afraid to spend. Banks are afraid to lend," Mr. Schultz said in August. "The only way to break this cycle of fear is to break it. The only way to get the country's economic circulatory system flowing again is to start pumping lifeblood through it."
So, in the Schultz vision, we take the money we might have donated to politicians and donate it into the Create Jobs for USA Fund: Five bucks, and you get the red, white and blue bracelet, marked with a single word: "Indivisible." See you in line — if not for the coffee, at least for the bracelet.