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How Starbucks Explains the World

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Two weeks ago, my family and I visited Kyoto and stayed at a ryokan -- tatami mats on the floor, futons instead of beds, and fish for breakfast. A block away in one direction was an old-fashioned market. A block away in the other . . . was a Starbucks.

It's the same everywhere we go. In our Tokyo neighborhood, there's a Starbucks. In every Tokyo neighborhood, there's a Starbucks. We spotted several in Hiroshima, even this one in the small city of Nara.

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To some, this is grim -- another example of American commercialization and homogenization run wild.

But I've got an alternative theory that says this is good news for the global economy.

For much of the 1970s and 80s, productivity growth in the United States was stagnant. Then -- suddenly -- in the mid-1990s, it boomed. Since 1995, it's been double the rate of the previous two decades. Economists have attributed the spike to process re-engineering, faster computers, and the Internet, but I think another force is at work.

Caffeine.

American productivity took off at almost exactly the same time Starbucks stores began appearing in every city, village, and hamlet in the United States. Now, any social scientist will tell you that correlation isn't cause and effect. But still. How much coffee -- good coffee -- did the Google boys drink? Or the team that gave us the iPod? Or all the folks who created Web 2.0 from San Francisco cafes?

The same thing might be happening here. For most of the 1990s, Japan's economy was stagnant. Then -- suddenly -- it boomed . . . once again, almost immediately after coffee shops -- not just Starbucks, but also Excelsior, Tullys, even Mister Donut-- began appearing a few years ago. Productivity growth this decade is about double what it was in the 90s. I know, I know. Correlation isn't causation. But I also know that eight ounces of coffee has about seven times the caffeine of green tea.

So you'll have to forgive me if I give the thumbs up to this form of American hegemony -- if I, like so many Japanese these days, skip the breakfast fish and down another venti. We're just doing our part for the global economy.