Dan Popp
Small Business Saturday -- because government can't think of all the stupid ideas
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By Dan Popp
November 12, 2013

We live in a quixotic age. Causes, with their Months, Colors, Ribbons and Events, parade before our consciousness in an almost continuous stream. A float recently added to the procession is Small Business Saturday. It combines the hippie fear of big business with the marketing savvy of a name-brand nonprofit group. It's sponsored by American Express.

Trying to buy from "small business" as a category is absurd on its face. Your archetypical Corner Flower Shop buys its containers and coolers and cash registers from big factories. And those big factories sourced many of their inputs from small firms. Intentionally "shopping small" is a little like buying an "American" car made in Mexico in order to avoid buying a "foreign" car made in Kentucky.

I'll let you in on a secret that only small businesspeople know. Many small companies aspire to be big companies. Yes, unbelievable, isn't it? Often, a big business is just a small business that succeeded. Now, let's keep that between you and me and Connie Chung, OK?

We should participate in Small Business Saturday, we're told, because small businesses create most of the jobs. That's mainly because there are more small businesses than big businesses. Shifting your widget purchase from one vendor to another is unlikely to add any jobs. If the same amount of work is needed to assemble and process your widget, then no new employment-hours are created, no matter where you buy it. This is exactly like the fallacy of government "creating wealth" by moving a dollar from Ted's pocket to Fred's pocket. It's all in what you feed the unicorns.

You might expect that an entrepreneur like me would love Small Business Saturday. But I find it ridiculous and insulting. I don't want clients to patronize my business because it's small – I want them to buy from me because I meet their needs best. If a competitor can do better for you, I'll gladly give you their phone number and say, "Please call these guys. They'll take good care of you." Why would I want you to end up less than thrilled? Yes, let's all get less for our efforts, and feel better about ourselves. Does anyone else smell hippie?

The corporate cheerleaders for Small Business Saturday seem to conflate small with local – as if a large business isn't local somewhere. They tell us that this is about "strengthening communities." Well if you want a stronger community, turn off your TV, unplug your computer and go sit on the front porch, like people in communities used to do. Join the PTA. Start a Neighborhood Watch group. It's your personal engagement, much more than your charge card, that's required.

You know who bought locally? Primitive humans, before they figured out how to make boats. Thousands of years ago, people discovered that trade with distant lands brought exotic and desirable goods like salt, silk and coffee. They learned that buying distantly enriches the locals. Of course we're much smarter than that now.

For the sake of full disclosure, I do try to spend my money close to home. But I don't try very hard. There's no reason to send my dollar to Taiwan when I can get the same value in my own zip code. But if "keeping it in the community" takes more than a couple of mouse clicks or extra dollars, I'll place that order to Taiwan in a heartbeat, and sleep very soundly. Capitalism forces businesses – including local businesses – to be better. If you skew consumers' values, you take away that beneficial effect. You make everyone a little poorer when you give an artificial advantage to less efficient providers.

On its website, American Express describes itself as "a global services company," and "the world's largest card issuer by purchase volume." Your AmEx card was issued by a company headquartered in New York City. If you're really going to shop small and local, you'll "leave home without it."

What is this campaign really about?

Call me cynical, but all of this seems to be about spurring consumerism under the guise of altruism. The campaign's emotional power comes from tapping memes of distant corporate Goliaths vs. disadvantaged hometown Davids. Is there some Luddism lurking behind this Norman Rockwell reproduction? Maybe some vague environmentalist motive? Or just an ad agency betting that it can once again get a lot of people to think with their feelers?

None of this would be worth griping about if it didn't seem to me that Small Business Saturday feeds the popular myth of big business as bad (and small business as good). That myth is dangerous because it allows citizens to condone such evils as the existence of the Small Business Administration, and different sets of laws for different companies, based on size. These inequities don't spring from hometown American values.

If we're going to crusade against anything, let's march to end the stigmatization of the successful. Let's show our unity by each person using his purchasing power any way he darn well pleases. Let's pledge right here, right now, to wipe out quixotism in our lifetime.

With your help, I know we can.

© Dan Popp

 

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