Trickle-Down Economics

Michael Donatini

March 1, 2003

New acquaintances of mine quickly learn two facts about me:

1) I am a fan of the capitalist spirit, because I believe that the free market makes a better state of life for everybody (I count myself among the Compassionate Conservatives) and because I believe that the individual should be able to profit from good ideas and well-calculated risks.

2) I drink a heck of a lot of coffee.

I suspect that these two facts taken together, and not just one or the other, explain my unhealthy fascination with the coffee vending machine in the basement of the building where the school newspaper office is located. It’s such a boon to the coffee lover like me, who works sometimes early in the morning and sometimes late at night.

I drink my miracle elixir black, medium strength, large cup, which probably reflects somehow on my simple taste. But for the more cosmopolitan, there are various strengths, sugar and creamer, and even French vanilla cappuccino, mocha, and latte. On some rare occasions, when I’ve needed fuel more than a turbo boost, I’ve ventured into the hot chocolate option.

The hot chocolate choices are ironies, really. I started drinking coffee when I was very young, precisely because I disliked hot chocolate at the time. My mom — herself a coffee drinker from her youth — would give me a concoction of about half coffee and half milk as a substitute, and it made me feel rather like an adult. Mom and Dad used to sit around the table with my grandparents and drink the intriguing brew as they talked about grown-up things, and when I had my first cup, I felt as though it were the first step toward joining their level. Suddenly, I had jumped into the realm of the adults. I could handle the odd taste, and I didn’t even burn my tongue on the first swig — at least, not often.

I don’t think that was really the beginning of my addiction, of course. I didn’t drink coffee often enough, and it wasn’t strong enough. It was probably in high school when I realized how valuable the stuff could be. I worked on the lighting crew for our school musicals, and the lighting designer — an alumnus in his forty-somethings — always occupied an outlet in the light booth with an ancient Mr. Coffee machine, surrounded by foam cups, creamer, and a canister of Maxwell House. His ultra-strong coffee, the smell of which wafted through the booth at every rehearsal and before every performance, was reputed (through our own hyperbole) to have an uncanny ability to eat the bottom out of one’s cup. (God only knows what it did to our stomach linings over the course of four years.) One year, he forgot to bring the creamer, and we drank it black for a few days. I haven’t switched back since, though black coffee is now my helper for late-night study sessions rather than late-night lamp focusing sessions.

There’s nothing really terrible about such a tiny addiction. I almost made coffee my sacrifice for Lent last year, but I knew that I’d be in big trouble if a professor decided to assign a big paper during the season, so I gave up a different vending machine habit: potato chips. Coffee is a goal for another time. Plato probably would have said that any such appetite, if quenched on demand, can become a disorder of the soul. He would have said that we should be able to overcome these desires, because mastering our appetitive nature makes the soul stronger. Perhaps Plato was right on the grand scale, but having a little vice like this to squeeze another hour of work out of the day doesn’t make that much of a difference. There are so many things to give up that would make a much bigger difference on my soul than a daily cup of Java.

Nowadays, as often as not, I get my coffee from that basement coffee machine, my closest ally in the newspaper office. I figure that I contribute nearly fifty dollars a year to the local economy just by going down two flights of stairs for a hot drink. Somehow, when I deposit fifty cents into that machine, I feel…well…good about it. I mean, I want my cheap caffeine fix more than I want the two quarters, and I’m helping some other guy to pay off the machine that cost him thousands of dollars in risk. He’s probably putting his kids through college that way, fifty cents at a time, from who knows how many machines in strategically placed locations throughout the area. And he surely pays taxes on every fifty cents, and maybe he even gives something to charitable causes.

For those two quarters, I get a much larger cup than I get for sixty-five cents at the nearest snack bar. The cost for both coffee and tea at the snack bar went up a nickel in September. That’s the beauty of automation. The coffee man doesn’t have to pay somebody to sit there and grind the beans, measure out the coffee, measure out the water, let the coffee brew, pour it into the dispensers, and collect money from the sales, as is the case at the snack bar. He probably comes around once a week to replenish cups, coffee, sugar, and creamer (I’ve never met him on these runs, unfortunately), then goes to other coffee machines all over the area. Critics would say that I’m putting snack bar employees out of work, but I wouldn’t walk the odd block to the campus snack bar anyway, even if I didn’t have the convenience of coffee at the push of two buttons. Besides, there are no coffee machines near the snack bar, probably at the petition of a competition-conscious snack bar manager. So, when I’m at that end of campus, or when coffee won’t satisfy as well as a cup of tea or some other novelty not available from any machine, I stop and pay a visit to Louise, the sweet, grandmotherly lady behind the counter there. Even after the advent of the vending machines, she still has her job serving coffee and pastries and salads and sandwiches and chips.

Naturally, the coffee trade is significant for the global economy as well. The sign on the machine says "The Coffee with an Accent," and to reflect the many countries where coffee farmers make their livelihood, each cup that comes from the dispenser is emblazoned with the flags of two different coffee-producing countries — Bolivia, Kenya, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and so on. I still can’t figure out why I’ve never seen the flag of Columbia on one of the cups, even though the button that I push for my drink is clearly marked "100 percent Columbian coffee." I’m enough of a purist for this to annoy me a bit, but not enough of a purist to let it change my habits. They offer me a good-tasting, consistent, cheap cup of coffee, and I get what they tell me I’m going to get. Why should I ask for a geography lesson? That would probably make the cost go up.

Though I’ve never selected latte for as long as I’ve been friends with the coffee machine, somehow I was heartbroken when that feature fell ill. Somebody — probably in a cranky mood because he couldn’t get his caffeine fix the way he wanted — gently smoothed a piece of masking tape over the button, with the words "Doesn’t work" scrawled across it. As I write this, the problem hasn’t been rectified. I suppose that the coffee machine company hasn’t lost enough profit yet to justify the expense of fixing it. It’s not a problem — those who won’t be satisfied with any substitute from the machine and won’t walk the block to the campus snack bar have some extra money in their pockets. Their choice. Some might complain, but I ask, what obligates the coffee company to cater to every person’s whim? The Dove Vending Company gives priority to the products that most people want. It makes more money that way, but it also satisfies the most people. Anything extra is just a little niche to serve.

Meanwhile, I still get my cup of black coffee. A little bit of caffeine makes the day more productive for me and more profitable for some innovative fellow I’ve never met. Maybe it makes me a little weaker in the soul. But it’s up to me to strike the balance; to decide when the coffee or the want of coffee is going to be the greater good. For that small responsibility, I’ll take the freedom that brings me my morning coffee and the far-reaching benefits of that same cup.

Michael Donatini is a junior from Ashland, Ohio, majoring in Political Science, Journalism, and Philosophy.