The Lost Word on the Economy
Thom Ruhe, Director of Entrepreneurship, The Kauffman Foundation
While pundits, columnists, economists, and policy makers climb over mountains of financial data, looking for signs of recovery and politically convenient scapegoats upon which we can turn a distracting public focus of populist rage and class warfare, there is a quiet but steady vibration of activity that has the comforting quality of white noise – as well as the anonymity of it too.
This activity however holds many of the keys to our economic recovery yet it struggles to be heard, not unlike the piccolo section of an orchestra. Everyone seems all too eager to focus on the loud drums and trumpets because they are loud. Yet it is the fairer woodwind instruments that take on the more challenging task of adding depth and complexity to a movement. Likewise, entrepreneurs have added depth and vibrancy to our nation’s economy since its founding; yet they are all but non-existent in today’s discourse on policy and stimulus priorities. For example, with over 177,000 words and a price tag of $850B, the stimulus plan makes only one generic use of the word entrepreneur as part of broadband spending.
Quietly and largely underrepresented, entrepreneurs have become the white noise of our economy – nondescript yet comforting and generally assumed to be omnipresent; until such time they are not. They do not stand in line with hat in hand asking for a bail out. They do not take the work and value of others, packaged in incomprehensible get-rich-quick schemes to dump on unsuspecting investors, while lining their own pockets through incredulous compensation plans approved through gross incompetence in the best case, willful misconduct in the worst cases.
They also do not have, with few exceptions, strong and organized lobbies or advocacy groups. Too often, policy makers and others lacking the attention span or intellect to understand the distinction, lump entrepreneurship and small business into one ubiquitous ball of taffy – conveniently stretched when necessary yet easily wrapped and shelved for another day. The previous administration couldn’t pronounce the word entrepreneur; but the Obama Administration appears to be, for the moment at least, missing a golden opportunity. They are looking for a “two-for” by increasing loan guarantees via the SBA. That type of funding is but one small way to support a smaller fraction of the types of high-growth entrepreneurs that will build the companies that will ultimately grow our way out of crisis.
From early entrepreneurial pioneers like Carnegie, Edison, and Ford, our nation’s economic vibrancy and competitive advantage was born by individuals that saw opportunity where others did not, and built companies that employed thousands of individuals providing for the needs of others. And these efforts led a nascent nation from ‘up and comer’ status to the single largest economic power in the world. How distant of a memory that now seems with our own economic destiny abdicated to an international community all too eager to fund our deficits while we complacently turn a blind eye from compromising our own power of self determination.
For those who stand in opposition of wealth creation out of some misguided sense of social justice, please recognize that you can not build a manufacturing empire without employing throngs of people. And while the motive to become wealthy drives many of these people, it is their creation of wealth, the earnings of their companies, and the people and corporate earnings of everyone up and downstream of the supply chain, that pay the taxes that fund all of our ambitions; for better or worse. This wealth creation has also led to another uniquely American endeavor of forming private foundations that have provided immeasurable and invaluable benefit to humanity.
If you are still not convinced, consider that it has been about 1,000 high growth firms, many of which being started in prior recessions, that have led the job growth needed to grow our way out of past recessions. There is more than ample data to justify a significant and long-term prioritization of supporting entrepreneurship. We simply need to have the attention span and discipline to recognize the contribution of entrepreneurs.
Our policy makers need to look past their immediate self interest and awaken to the fact that helping entrepreneurs succeed is the smart thing to do, even if they can’t take credit for it. After all, a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem has a multiplier effect (entrepreneurial spawning) that really will put us back on the path of self reliance.
So let’s pull this word, entrepreneurship, out of white noise obscurity. Let’s remember that starting and building great companies that employ people and advance new innovation and productivity, is the surest way for us to pay for a future worth living.