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The role of government — and how it needs to change — in terms of small business won’t fit on a placard or a sound bite

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times
The burden — or helping hand — of government and its role with small business was placed front and center this week in a pair of back-to-back rallies on the old courthouse steps in West Chester Thursday.

The furor over President Barack Obama’s “You didn’t build that” comment a couple of weeks back has turned into little more than political kabuki with both sides obscuring what could be a valuable discussion about the role of government in building up business and the economy.

First off, I agree with the basic assertion that Obama clumsily attempted to make. Without the existing infrastructure, few of us who own small businesses would be able to operate. In my case, it’s the Internet, which was created and designed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). For others, it might be the roads to transport goods or airports to allow us to travel from city to city or just having educated workers to grow our business.

And yet it also is true that it takes the sweat, tears and capital of entrepreneurs to turn an idea into a business — and although the same basic opportunities are there for all, not everyone can or is willing to work hard enough to build something from scratch.

Anyone who’s found themselves awake at 4 a.m. with a knot in their stomach caused by worrying about your company and knowing you are the only one who can find a fix — God knows I have — understands the personal stake we have in our small businesses.

As many of my Republican friends would agree, there are circumstances that government subsidies make sense to protect and nurture essential industries. I don’t personally agree with all of them (actually, quite a lot of them, to be honest), especially the ones that fund virtually all of my competition (legal advertising) — ones that use your tax dollars to utterly preempt what Adam Smith called “the invisible hand of the market” and yet are broadly defended by alleged “fiscal conservatives.”

Many of my Democratic friends (those still speaking to me, that is) would, if pressed, agree that there are too many regulations in some cases — some confusing and others in opposition to each other — and that government bureaucracy slows and even strangles small businesses at times. Anyone who has survived the permitting process with either the state DEP or PennDOT knows what I mean, there.

Unfortunately, in the white heat of a presidential race where the focus is on winning the daily or even hourly news cycle, we’re not going to have a substantive and reasoned discussion about the role of government in building an economy and creating jobs.

I think that both parties miss the point when it comes to government. Those on the right who wish to “starve the beast” and kill off most government seem to misunderstand the role a well-managed, efficient government can play in building up our nation. Those on the left who think cuts engender some assault on their America are equally off the reservation.

Nature, maybe, offers the best solution. When a wild, unspoiled forest becomes overgrown and full of dead wood, everything in the forest suffers. A few lightning strikes later, the resulting wildfire is initially traumatic, but leads to new, stronger, healthier growth.

Maybe a better example, though — and less traumatic — are roses. Left to their own account, they grow unruly, unmanageable and ultimately, sickly. Cut back in a timely fashion, so my wife tells me (I’m terrible with plants), they grow stronger, healthier and have more blooms.

For the record, I think we need government; it can be a force for good and a unifying instrument to help us do what we as individuals alone cannot. I don’t much like our current government, which has grown out of control under Democrats and Republicans, with favored dead wood spared by each party and entirely too much money wasted.

Cutting back makes a great deal of sense, but not to kill government, instead to make it grow in a healthier and more efficient manner.

When either party starts to talk about this — and how they’d do it — then they’ll have my attention as a small business owner and a voter.

* * *

It was hard not to be struck by the contrast in covering the back to back presidential campaign events at the courthouse, Thursday. Both, in fairness, had the feel of an improvised event.

And while both campaigns had official campaign representatives there to work the media and keep things largely under control, it was a bit striking to watch the very informal Democratic event — a couple of surrogates (political-speak for those speaking on behalf of the candidate) a couple of questions, a handful of supporters — give way to the slick GOP event.

As the Democratic event broke up, a seeming small army of people descended on the courthouse steps, a podium was erected, a sound system was set up and a sizable group of people were set up on the steps, holding Romney signs featuring the message of the day. And then the Romney bus pulled up.

As we used to say in politics, the optics were a lot stronger for the GOP — they just seemed like they were so practiced and so experienced at such events, they could flip a switch and make it happen. The Republicans in Chester County have a similar advantage in get Out The Vote (GOTV) efforts, worker and volunteer organization and of course, fundraising.

While the Democrats continue to make registration inroads in the county, it may take them learning more and better political trade-craft before we start seeing the impact on Election Night.

* * *

Best wishes and thoughts to Vic Dupuis, a member of the Unionville-Chadds Ford Board of Education who I hear is under the weather, but I’m told making a strong recovery. Vic is a good guy and has been active in various community groups, including the Unionville Recreation Association, where we coached a baseball team together more than a decade ago.

Here’s hoping to a speedy recovery!

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