Who Speaks for Small Business?

As a small business owner who was once a journalist, when I read Taking Mom And Pop To The Cleaners on the Huffington Post, I think I know how that happens, why it’s bad, and why it’s also unlikely to change.

(Aside: I’m happy to see Huffington Post and reporters Zach Carter and Ryan Griffin are out there generating investigative journalism, actively researching and reporting on this topic. This may be one answer to what happens to investigative journalism as the print media declines.)

The story is about how the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), has become the voice of one side of the political spectrum:

… for the past two years, the NFIB has been less an advocate for small businesses than an arm of the Republican Party. When the interests of the GOP and the needs of small firms have collided, the NFIB has repeatedly sided with Republicans, jeopardizing billions of dollars in credit, tax benefits and other federal subsidies that are critical to the small enterprises that form the backbone of the U.S. economy … the NFIB has maintained a lower national profile, and is still routinely referred to in the media as “the small business lobby.”

No group actually knows what small business thinks or wants because small business doesn’t exist as a group. The thing small business owners have most in common is not having very much in common. By definition, they are nonconformists. They did their own thing when they started that business. My anecdotal sense is that they don’t join groups unless they have to. They’re busy. They’re focused on the business. And they are an extremely diverse group.

Journalists, meanwhile, aren’t supposed to have opinions; they have to ask for opinions. And politicians even more so. Therefore, when they look for what small business thinks, they look for a spokesperson. You or I might be that spokesperson, maybe; but then it’s hard to find just anybody; so they go for somebody. And end up with the somebody they called last time. Somebody who sounds like he or she represents small business. And that ends up as NFIB, and the like (see below: the Huffington story, to its credit, also points to groups representing the opposite point of view, like Main Street Alliance)

Nobody’s really to blame for it. It’s just the way it happens.

What annoys me about it is all the people supposedly talking about it are grinding their own political axes. They define what small business wants as constant whining about taxes and regulations and very little else. What about the bigger picture? What about looking up at what the government can do for the economy in general, like regulating the financial chaos, funding education, sponsoring innovation, and hey, maybe just infrastructure, like fibre cable and freeway bridges? Is it bad to protect employees from predatory employer practices? Not to me? Would we be better off with more open policy towards immigration? I think so.

But the journalists are going to ask the groups that turn up first on their speed dials, cell phones, and google searches. Not you and me.

Does anybody care? Well, they had 3,661 comments on that post by this morning. Hmmm …

And I have to make two late additions to this post:

  1. Over at SmallBiz Labs Steve King has an interesting take on the same Huffington Post story, noting that there’s another group, Main Street Alliance, that is as identified with the Democratic Party as the NFIB is with the Republicans.
  2. Meanwhile, and probably much more important, the Obama White House announced its Startup America Partnership yesterday with some very slick online video streaming, some serious financial commitments, and the good sense to lead with real entrepreneurs including Steve Case and Brad Feld, and real information provided by the Small Business Administration and the Kauffman Foundation. That was a great start.


  • Get Concrete Help From The White House Startup Program says:

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  • Fred Leo says:

    This is why the Federal Government should be less involved with these issues. Federal policies are becoming more and more important to Americans’ lives and they shouldn’t be. We are losing the Federalism that has been a strength of American.

    There are tons of advocacy groups are more focused on government than their constituents.

    Let’s look at some of the worse offenders:

    1. National Education Association – Are teachers really overwhelmingly in the Democrats’ side? Nope. Teachers like most other classes of American are pretty split down the middle in party registration. But, you couldn’t tell that from the NEA’s stances on issues.

    2. American Bar Association – Oh my, where do I start with my own association? I was forced to join the ABA by my first law firm, and have continued to be a member ever since. However, I assure you that on political issues, they do not represent me. And, once again, they don’t represent the views of about half their constituents.

    3. AARP – I can’t think of a group that advocates to the left of its constituency than the AARP. Senior citizens, like most Americans, are pretty evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, but you wouldn’t guess this from its position papers.

    To me, these groups are a byproduct of the growth of Federal reach. Until Americans demand local power, these partisan issues group will continue to exist.

    As for small business owners, I think they too would be much better off with a devolution of power from the Federal government to local rule. The Federal bureaucracy naturally works better with large organizations. It really can’t handle arrangements with small businesses. So, it would be much better for small business owners to work with their local communities for regulation and growth initiatives.

  • Robert Jones says:

    Another thought-provoking post, Tim … but I think I actually disagree on several points, for a change.

    1. While it’s true that no one can speak for “small business” — whatever that is — NFIB can certainly speak for its membership, and they’re pretty careful about how they do that. Years ago, I interned in the NFIB Communications Office, where I actually helped construct the polls that determined NFIB’s position on a given issue.

    The polls weren’t meant to be leading. We were careful to phrase the questions as objectively as possible, and however the membership voted, that became the official position of the organization. If the vote was close — less than a 10-point margin, as I recall — NFIB simply didn’t take a position. As far as I know, that’s still the case. I think NFIB actually stayed on the sidelines during the initial health care debate because its membership was narrowly split on the issue. If they have moved to the right since then, I assume that mirrors a shift by the membership. “Majority rules” isn’t always pretty or broad-minded.

    (I’m working from memory here, by the way. I’m not an NFIB member, nor do I do any work for them.)

    2. I think it’s a little naive to say that “Journalists … aren’t supposed to have opinions.” Everybody has opinions, though traditional media outlets required that those opinions be suppressed in the search for objective truth (or at least balance).

    New media such as HuffPo don’t really try to live up to that old standard. The site blends opinion and reportage in ways that never would have been acceptable at the NYT or WP. Take a look at your first pull quote above, for instance. There’s an awful lot of insinuation and interpretation there, and it’s not attributed to any outside “expert.” Rather, the analysis seems to come straight from the reporters; it’s editorializing without the benefit of an editorial page.

    Nothing against HuffPo or these reporters — I just don’t think we should approach new media with the same mindset as traditional media. Let’s admit there are biases, factor those into our reading, and then allow our own assumptions to be challenged.

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