Say When

Unfinished and Under-researched Musings on the Economy & Politics

Small businesses seem to be at the heart of economic growth. According to the US census, small businesses outpace large companies in job generation and they employ over 40% of the workforce. Yet, the recent toppling of Wall Street financiers, the tightening credit market, and subsequent political maneuvering meant to “fix” the financial problem, all seem more concerned with returning the money gamblers to their stead, rather than helping small businesses maintain their vitality. Are small businesses supposed to wait until their big brothers are healthy again and are able to can kick down a few dollars? What are small businesses to do in the meantime while growing anemic? Should they shorten their hours and downsize their workforce? Should they seek funding from other sources with outrageously high interest rates?

But, then there’s this question about the credit markets. If the lenders lent too much to too many people and businesses (including those ‘risky’ types like myself), and then compensated themselves for their “altruistic” risk taking, then who should shoulder the blame for the credit collapse, payback defaults and general fiscal catastrophe? Are the borrowers who defaulted on their loans at fault? No one told them to ask for money, right? Or, are the lenders who created onerous terms at fault for hooking “risky” lendees into loan terms that are not favorable in the least? Or, is it a bigger problem of ideological proportions, where desire for wealth, comfort or, in some cases, basic necessities, lead people to seek out funding from institutions with the resources to meet their (er, my) needs? And, what conditions made paying off those loans impossible anyhow? Why were people suddenly unable to meet their mortgage and credit card payments? One way to proceed through this financial, social and cultural quagmire is to disentangle personal debt issues from those of businesses. Granted, businesses are run by people, but the legal and tax identities of people are not the same as those of corporations. (The particulars of business entity formation notwithstanding – we could talk about the pass-trough taxation models of S-corps and sole props, but for brevity’s sake, let’s not.)

Who is this bailout going to help in the immediate future? Let’s not talk trickle-down models. People need cash now. Who has a cash-flow problem? Everyone from Lehman to myself. Should the government favor the big company over the individual person? Would helping the financial sector amount to protecting the national economy while helping me would be social welfare? God forbid we slide into socialism, or worst, blazing red communism! Oh, no! Surely, rampant poverty and unchecked wealth accumulation is better.

And what is the role of the legislator vis a vis the free market anyway? Has not the role of Washington been to regulate capitalism? Or, has government made doing business easier? But easier for whom? Easier for those who deliver goods and services, rather than those who buy? And if so, what’s wrong with that? On it’s face, nothing really. As a service provider, I’d like to work in a market environment that encourages the distribution of my service. Yet, as a consumer, I also want to be protected from predatory lending, and abuses of power and information that enables companies to sell higher volumes of goods. For instance, if I can tell my clients that we use green cleaning products, but there’s no oversight of my industry or individual business operations, such that we could theoretically use whatever the hell we want and simply advertise as green to increase sales, we’d be acting unethically. (Or, better yet, we could buy “green/natural” products from our vendors, but if there is no regulation regarding what gets to count as “green,” then our dependence on the manufacturing sector means we may pass on toxicity to our clients unwittingly.) But as we’ve seen, there is regulation here and there, but not everywhere, and sometimes not where we need it most. It should be the role of legislators to prevent this kind of abuse of the consumer from happening. So why does it happen?

Well, some might say the incompetence and dizzy bureaucracy of Washington that’s too blame. Others may say its the corruption of government officials by lobbying bodies that is at fault. But these are epiphenomenal problems. I say it happens because we are taught to lie prone before the almighty bottom line. As I sail through my entrepreneurship for dummies class, I’m learning that improving my bottom line is the goal, with a dash of social responsibility thrown in for good measure. But keeping the profit coming in is what really matters. So, perhaps we need to adjust the profit-accumulation model that leads people and businesses to desire ever-expanding coffers. Can we learn to have a wealth accumulation cap? You know, like when a friend pours you a glass of wine and says, “tell me when,” and you wait, watch the glass fill up with your favorite vino, all the while knowing that filling up to the brim is in bad form because others wanna taste too, so at the half way mark you say, “when!” Can the wealthy (and upwardly mobile) learn to say “when” before buying that second house, before buying that third car, before the mind-boggling vacation in the Maldives Islands? Can the wealthy learn to associate bling-bling excess with “bad form”? Surely it’s in bad taste to dine out for 200 bucks while Haitians and Zimbabweans starve to death and the family down the block is kicked out of their foreclosed on house, and hurricane survivors try to find a new place to live, right? Or, would asking people to cultivate such “frugality” constitute an assault on their individual freedom? I guess the real question is this: is unbridled, wanton and ongoing accumulation a real right? Should people have the right, under the auspices of individual liberty, to accumulate at the expense of others, at the expense of the common good?

I suppose this is my assumption: that such accumulation does happen at the expense of everyone else, or at least such has been the case for a few centuries now; ever since modern capitalism leaked out of Europe and infested the rest of the world. While there may not be total scarcity of all things on the planet, I surely accumulate all of my junk at the expense of others, because after all, we do live with some finitude, some scarcity, and some things that are not renewable, at least not in our lifetimes.

It seems that our worldview is upside down, inside out, a bit backwards, as it were. Why compete for the things we need, and then hoard the things we get, when we could share, with some deference for equity, and all survive? (Maybe because that model presumes we have some responsibility for the livelihood of others??) But it seems just “surviving” isn’t the objective. At least, not where I live. People want to flourish, but they understand that desire, or at least they see it through commodity lenses. Things are the metric for flourishing, not peace of mind, not the health of the public, not the well being of the planet. Ain’t that awesome! And for those of us who question this thing-based abacus, we sit in this weird interstice, theorizing a different world but being compelled to act in this one. It’s as if our thinking is building a bridge to nowhere. I wonder which politician would vote to fund it…


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