If only tax credits were the answer

It’s the eternal question that haunts small business. Whether it is daily, weekly or monthly, the same brutal calculation has to be made: Was more money booked than committed?

Politicians, and certainly President Barack Obama, gathering from what he said in his State of the Union address, know that they need the support of myriads of small businesses.

They need the husband and wife who drive an 18-wheeler across the country and the baker who rises at 4 a.m. to make doughnuts for city office workers. They need the suburban bicycle repair shop; the ethnic restaurant in the rundown strip mall; and the Web design firm in a city loft. These are real entrepreneurs who start businesses from dreams, not from textbooks in business schools.

Politicians know America needs the entrepreneurial class. But they are morbidly disinterested in the real needs of this class. They demonstrate this in their only answer to the question of helping small business people: tax credits. In the 33 years I operated a small publishing company, only one year were taxes close to being a problem.

The problems for small businesses, whether making gadgets for Wal-Mart, running a salon or operating a travel agency, are the same: Banks think you are a nuisance and are loath to lend you money, or even take the time to understand your business.

Banks’ lending criteria are created by MBAs in marble towers, far from the street below. That’s why so many businesses have been launched on credit cards with previously established credit. It’s risky and expensive, but it happens all the time.

Then, there’s the problem of providing health care for employees. It’s punitively expensive if you provide it, and you feel morally at fault if you don’t.

Corporations —all corporations — are inclined to seek monopoly. Therefore, they squeeze small companies, whether it’s Target pressuring the local toy shop or Borders putting the old neighborhood bookshop out of business. They close those lines of endeavor to countless people.

For every chain restaurant, count one family restaurant that didn’t open. The family-run hotels and motels that dotted U.S. highways are gone. Things of the past.

Congress’ normal response, and one given by the president, is to give tax breaks to small businesses. Most small businesses would be glad to do well enough to pay taxes.

Once, there were many small business people in Congress. Now, there are few. The last congressman I knew who knew something about small business was Rep. Chet Holifield (D-Calif.). Powerful and hard-working, he chaired the House Government Operations Committee. He also operated a haberdashery in California. Are there many haberdashers left in the age of Banana Republic?

The Small Business Administration underwrites loans for small business, but it is a slow business. I knew a printer who qualified for assistance, but he was out of business by the time the agency agreed to help. Government is not nimble enough to help the person who can’t make payroll next Friday.

Obama should stop further complicating the tax code, which is a burden to small business. Instead, he should put together a brains trust on revitalizing small business. Forcing the banks to lend to small business is a good first step. The main problem for small business isn’t taxes, it’s credit.

Llewellyn King is co-host of television’s “White House Chronicle.”

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