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In 2013 Starbucks Is America

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- On vacation in England recently, I avoided Starbucks (SBUX - Get Report), while the people I was visiting just as eagerly longed for it.

We were motivated by the same call, America.

Living here you can sometimes forget how big a deal this country is to the rest of the world, and how symbolic it remains of the good life. That's what Starbucks sells outside the United States -- not coffee, but a few minutes in America. Where the couches are comfortable and the WiFi is free.

This is especially true in markets like China, where the company will soon open its 1,000th store. As a local blog called The Beijinger put it, "Starbucks in China has never been about coffee." It's about creating a middle ground, an illusion of freedom to speak and equality of rank, in a country where that's very rare.

In a way, Starbucks today occupies the position Coca-Cola (KO - Get Report) did right after World War II. It's a symbol of America's best qualities and its relative safety. A Coke was uniformity in a bottle, a refreshing drink that wouldn't kill you. Starbucks is a place where you can feel safe, equal and free.

Both are illusions, but American business thrives on illusions. Movies are illusions, advertisements are illusions. Illusions have immense power in places where reality feels dismal.

This gives Starbucks tremendous room to grow, with expanding margins, because price is not the issue. The company now brings about 10 cents on every dollar to the net income line, after taxes, and unlike some other companies its tax bill is rather hefty, about 32%.

Which brings up another point about Starbucks. The image it projects is the more benign, liberal face of America. Its request that customers leave their guns at home is a signal to international markets that don't understand America's current gun addiction, a sign Starbucks doesn't either.

CEO Howard Schultz also cultivates an image that reminds me of the legendary Coca-Cola CEO Robert Woodruff. He gives lip service to environmental causes and his endorsements to President Obama and ObamaCare. But he's also a deficit scourge, having supported an anti-gridlock group called "No Labels" back in 2011.
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