Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Business of America is Business

The title of this post is the sound byte version of a famous quote made by Calvin Coolidge, the 30th U.S. president.  

The full version of Coolidge’s comment is:

“…the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing, and prospering in the world.”

It’s very important to understand the power of this statement.  Three years into a weak recovery, business bashing is popular as many people see the Great Recession as a failure of business and capitalism.  Some see business as evil.  But the truth is, America's long standing success story is due to the priority we place on business and trade.  We have succeeded because we value business.  When you consider our first settlements (Jamestown was founded as a business venture) to our current status as the world’s top economic power, the business of America is business.  Many don’t want to acknowledge this truth, but these few words summarize why our country has succeeded.  Our country’s long term economic growth, our relatively high rates of employment, our high standard of living, our industry leading companies producing world class goods and services are due to America’s preoccupation with producing, buying, selling, investing, and prospering.  Economically, we are and have been the envy of the world.

Throughout our county’s history, business has been our golden goose. Business is not without its missteps and faults, but net-net business has yielded huge value to our country. Government plays an important role in helping to create and maintain the environment that allows business do its thing, but don’t be confused, the real engine of economic growth is private business.

When you consider a policy debate, new taxation, or a regulatory issue, it’s worthwhile to consider the likely impacts to business. Want to raise the corporate income tax rates, impose some new regulations, or force companies to buy employee health insurance? Fine, just make sure you’re okay with the probable implications of that change to the bottom line. You put a hurdle in place for business, the net effect will be to reduce profits and/or restrict job creation. Some hurdles are necessary, others are not. A chemical plant dumping waste straight into a river so that fish downstream grow a third eye—not cool. Waste processing equipment will cost the chemical company real dollars and reduce profits, but the alternative is unacceptable.  An EPA regulation defines milk as an oil and therefore requires dairies to treat spills as a hazardous contaminate. This regulation compels dairies to purchase expensive and unnecessary equipment and to follow elaborate clean-up procedures.  Do all regulatory hurdles make sense? Something to think about.

Understand, I’m not suggesting business be given a free pass.  Despite the beliefs of my more pious Libertarian brethren, we need a non-zero level of government regulation in place to provide reasonable safeguards to protect workers, the environment, consumers, etc.  Our history shows that too little or too much regulation can be a problem.  As with most things, there is a proper balance.  The right amount is the right amount.

In addition to our pro-business orientation, another reason for our success has been that government (generally speaking) steps out of the way and allows people to pursue their goals and succeed or fail.  Success is great, but failure is okay too.  Whether it's people, businesses, or whole industries, we tend to let things fail.  Oh sure, we’ve done our share of protecting industries and wasting public money propping up troubled companies, but relative to the rest of the world, we tend to allow failure.  Our tendency has been to recognize the basic truth that Joe Schumpeter taught us with Creative Destruction, namely as technology evolves and society changes, some companies and industries will adapt and thrive.  New companies are born to take advantage of changes, while others die because they can’t or won’t change. Shoveling money to dying companies may be politically expedient in the short term, but it just prolongs the pain and delays the inevitable. Government helps the most when it helps the least. The UC’s advice, "don't just do something, stand there!"

Lastly, our freedoms in their many forms has been a powerful ingredient to our success. People have different gifts, and these gifts come in many forms—playing the violin, painting, playing basketball, writing poetry—and some people have a gift for business and making money. The beauty of our country is that people have the freedom to exercise their gifts. The Occupy people need to understand an implication of this freedom means some particularly gifted business people will make lots of money. The Occupy types will argue that some of the 1%'s gifts are not business oriented as much as they are gaining political influence, organizing PACs, and manipulating the system. There might be some truth to that notion, but I contend that you can rejigger the rules however you want, those gifted business people will adjust and thrive. I think there's truth to the old saying: 'take all the money and divide it up, give everyone an equal amount, and in time, the rich will be rich again.'

Invention, innovation, productivity, efficiency are critical ingredients to grow an economy. A society that is business friendly with reasonable regulation, allows its people to succeed or fail, and embraces its people’s unique gifts creates an environment where these critical ingredients can work their magic.


  1. Interesting that the subject is all about 'business is business' but the Unrepentant Capitalist is not wanting to pay for services rendered. I fixed the HTML code after hours and now I want those Prada shoes. You know where to find me.

  2. 10 minutes of work for a pair of $700 shoes. That works out to an hourly rate of $4200.....pretty steep!