Small Business Needs a Break

I had a very enlightening conversation with one of our son-in-laws who is a small business owner in southern California last weekend when we made a brief visit there. We’ve had some very basic conversations about his business frustrations in the past, but this time he was able to get into some of the details of his costly and stressful battle with local regulators. It’s a miracle any small businesses survive! He’s a hard-working yet careful owner of two businesses…two being needed for the diversification required these days as markets fluctuate. He believed his energy and investment to upgrade his facility would be greeted at least with approval, and maybe even appreciation. Instead, he was faced with one barrier after another, as petty bureaucrats flexed their power. This is a topic we’d better address at all levels of public policy to give our small businesses a fighting chance to survive.

I don’t think most of us know how difficult it is to be a small business owner these days, but we’d better become more familiar with their problems…and fast. We’ve heard the statistic that small business is the strongest job creation engine in our economy, but we don’t realize that many of our public policies are working against them. It’s time to talk with small business owners about making small business more profitable and stable. Who advocates for small business owners? They have no lobbyists…so they need public understanding and support.

When politicians want public support, they usually talk about how they’re going to help small businesses, but unfortunately most of this is just talk. Big business has the attention of elected officials and government agencies…at all levels from federal to municipal. Big business can afford to contribute more to political campaigns. Big business can affect more change as they choose the location of their operations, as they make employment decisions and as they interact with the community. Big business gets more personal attention, more respect and more special breaks, because they employ many more people and potentially pay more taxes. Big businesses also employ more attorneys, and can afford to litigate for years on matters of fairness that small business owners cannot afford to pursue, even though they may have a good case. It’s easy to support small business with promises during a campaign, but it’s another thing to listen carefully to small business owners as they struggle to make ends meet.

This might sound too much like a broken-record, but…we’ve got to start questioning our dependence on bigness as the solution to our problems in business or unions or government. Particularly in the depths of this Great Recession, bigness means when you make a mistake the consequences are catastrophic rather than just minor setbacks. It’s time we did a cost-benefit analysis of our trust in big business, big unions and big government. When the huge disruptions in our economy and the lack of sensitivity to local problems are factored in, I think we’d discover that the so-called ‘economies of scale’ are actually an exercise in wishful thinking. We’ve seen the consequences of our trust in bigness…now it’s time to seriously question those assumptions to develop some genuine support for small businesses across our country.

My opinion today is that we need to open a conversation with small business owners, inquiring about what they need most to be productive and stable. I believe we’d find a wide range of ideas, because one size doesn’t fit all. These ideas then could inspire a national, non-partisan discussion about small business sustainability. If we want our small businesses to thrive, we’ll need to do a better job of listening and responding to their needs. Unfortunately, none of our politicians have done a very good job recently. Our small business owners don’t want a handout or a bailout…they just want a level playing field. With their creativity, hard work and commitment, they’ll do the rest.

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