American Entrepreneurship on the Decline … Yet … not for the reasons you’d think

One of the great symbols of US spirit has always been its small businesses. It’s one of those myths that seems to carry everywhere  including to views of us in other countries.  There are two related memes that go along with this mythic American institution that are not borne out by statistics.  The first is that small businesses are the source of employment growth in the country.  This is not true. Most small businesses that do not fail stay small.  The majority of job growth comes from medium to large businesses.  Midsize business are far more important. (Data from the BLS.) The second meme is that either too much regulation or uncertainty created by the government is causing depressed job growth.  This is simply not true either.

What does this mean? By any reasonable interpretation, it is mid-size companies that are generating the bulk of the jobs in the recovery. From an economic development perspective, it means that job growth is more likely to come from mid-size companies that are adding several workers or perhaps a couple of dozen new employees, rather than the smallest or largest businesses.

And what are these businesses most worried about today? According to a recent survey by the National Federation of Independent Business (here):

“The two principal impediments to current small-business growth are business uncertainty and weak sales… The single most important indicator that would renew small-business owner confidence in business conditions is increased sales in their businesses.”

The economic recovery is a demand issue.

There is also some strange set of lies out there that the increase in taxes proposed by the Obama Administration on those making over $250k is going to kill small business.  Not true again! This tax hike would likely impact only about 3.5% of small businesses. The majority of these are partnerships formed by doctors and lawyers.  They are not your average mom and pop store.  I just heard Haley Barbor repeat this lie on CNN last night.

But to what extent would Obama’s tax plan actually affect small businesses?

In its latest estimate last month, Congress’s nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation found that in 2013, just 3.5 percent of small business tax filers would pay a higher rate — about 940,000 individuals, many of whom are lawyers and doctors in partnerships. But those few percent account for 53 percent of all small business income.

GOP aides accept those facts but they say those few small businesses are the ones overseeing growing companies whom the nation is counting on to hire. According to a variety of analyses, the lion’s share of the tax hike would be absorbed by Americans earning well over $1 million.

Late in 2010, when the same debate played out, William Gale, co-director of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, called it a “myth” to suggest that ending the tax cut on top marginal rates would hurt small businesses.

“This claim is misleading,” Gale wrote in the Washington Post. “If the objective is to help small businesses, continuing the Bush tax cuts on high-income taxpayers isn’t the way to go — it would miss more than 98 percent of small-business owners and would primarily help people who don’t make most of their money off those businesses.”

There’s a new study covered by The Washington Monthly that shows that entrepreneurship and small business ownership is on the decline.  Get ready for this result.  It’s primarily Republican policies that are killing small businesses and not over regulation, over taxation or over anything else.  Here’s some interesting information about the decline and how some of it is due to other things too.

Data kept by the Small Business Administration, for instance, shows that the share of the working-age population that is self-employed has been declining since 1994. The share fell steadily until 2002, stayed level between 2003 and 2006, then began to drop again. Overall, between 1994 and 2009, the share declined nearly 25 percent.

This drop in the number of self-employed citizens relative to the overall working population is also captured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which isolates nonfarm workers. The BLS survey asks workers if they are employed by a private company, a nonprofit organization, or the government, or are self-employed. Self-employed workers are further separated into those who have incorporated their businesses and those who have not.

According to the BLS, the number of Americans who are both self-employed and not incorporated has fallen significantly as a share of the working-age population, from 461 per 10,000 in 1990 to 359 in 2011. This decline—more than 22 percent—reversed a long trend in the opposite direction during the 1970s and ’80s. The BLS data shows a somewhat different picture when it comes to self-employed persons who incorporate their businesses. As a share of the working-age population, their ranks grew 35 percent between 1989 and 2008, before dropping off sharply in 2009. Yet this increase in incorporation may be evidence not so much of rising entrepreneurship as of existing unincorporated one-person firms deciding to change their legal status—to take better advantage of new limited liability laws in many states, for instance, in order to cut their tax bills.

Even if we accept this number without question, however, the total share of the self-employed dropped steadily over the last two decades. In 1994 there were roughly 663 self-employed (incorporated and unincorporated) for every 10,000 working-age Americans; by 2009 this number was down to 606, an 8.5 percent decline.

If anything, there’s good reason to believe that this decline in entrepreneurship is even steeper than government data shows, thanks to what appears to be systematic miscategorization by the government of what counts as a true independent company. Since the 1990s, large companies have increasingly relied on temporary help to do work that formerly was performed by permanent salaried employees. These arrangements enable firms to hire and fire workers with far greater flexibility and free them from having to provide traditional benefits like unemployment insurance, health insurance, retirement plans, and paid vacations. The workers themselves go by many different names: temps, contingent workers, contractors, freelancers. But while some fit the traditional sense of what it means to be an entrepreneur or independent business owner, many, if not most, do not—precisely because they remain entirely dependent on a single power for their employment.

Again, it’s not taxes and it’s not over-regulation responsible for the decline.  Here are the two major reasons.

Perhaps the most common complaint among small business entrepreneurs is a shortage of financing. While the rise of the venture capital business might give the impression that financial support for entrepreneurs has never been easier to obtain, the truth is that only a tiny fraction of start-ups have access to venture funds. To get their businesses up and running, the vast majority of entrepreneurs today tend to rely at first, as they always have, on a combination of personal savings and contributions from family and friends. But with family balance sheets ravaged by stagnant wages and skyrocketing costs for health care and higher education, fewer and fewer average families have the savings needed to invest in a small business.

The effects of the radical consolidation in the banking industry that began in the 1980s are equally dramatic. Relatively few bank officers today have the leeway and local knowledge to lend to established local businesses, much less new ventures. This is especially true in bad times, when big institutions come under great pressure both from Wall Street and regulators. In Maryland, for example, Bank of America made 312 SBA-guaranteed loans to local businesses in 2007. In 2010, it made two. Consolidation also concentrates the power of a few financial institutions over small businesses, and radically raises the risk that entire funding systems can collapse all at once. The near breakdown of CIT Group in early 2009—averted only by a last-minute deal with bondholders—would have cut more than a million small businesses off from some of the most important forms of day-to-day business financing.

The single biggest factor driving down entrepreneurship is precisely the radical concentration of power we have seen not only in the banking industry but throughout the U.S. economy over the last thirty years. This revolutionary remaking of almost every economic activity in the nation was set in motion in 1981, when officials in the Reagan administration all but suspended traditional enforcement of America’s antimonopoly laws, a change in policy then adopted by every subsequent administration. Since then, regulators have done almost nothing to stop the great waves of mergers and acquisitions, with the result that control over most major economic activities is now more consolidated than at any time since the Gilded Age.

The effects have been nowhere more dramatic than in those sectors that have always been most congenial to individual proprietorships, like retail, services, farming, and small manufacturing. These were the activities most affected, for instance, by the type of “roll-up” strategies pioneered by financiers like Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital. In the case of the office-supply retailer Staples, Bain’s investment helped propel the company from a one-store operation to a 2,000-store international behemoth. Similar plays resulted in Home Depot capturing a vast proportion of the nation’s hardware business, in Best Buy capturing a vast proportion of America’s electronics business, and in Macy’s capturing a vast proportion of all department store sales. Just one company, Wal-Mart, now controls upward of 50 percent of some lines of grocery and general merchandise business—commerce that a generation ago was divided among tens of thousands of families.

So, next time you think that Republicans are the small business friendly party, think again.  It’s clearly the drive towards monopoly, market concentration and policies that benefit the One Percenters that’s killing US small business.