Misrepresenting Small Business

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That’s the title of Stacy Mitchell’s terrific new op-ed in Business Week, subtitled “The two groups that have traditionally spoken for small business often push an agenda that only big business could love.” Citing recent legislative debates, she calls out the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for claiming to represent small business while actually carrying water for the Fortune 500.

Mitchell’s argument is consistent with my own experience in economic development. I remember years ago watching a board member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce address a national gathering of state and local economic development officials. For the first five minutes of her speech, I thought I had misheard where she came from: she sounded like a crusader for family-owned businesses. But then in a seamless sleight of hand, she turned to the meat of her talk, which was all very Big Business: issues such as free trade and deregulation. Feeling like I had just seen how a magician managed a trick, I looked around, but no one else seemed bothered.

If a state adopted a policy that helped a big business undermine small businesses, you’d think NFIB would complain, right? Well, we here at Good Jobs First have documented $1.2 billion in state and local economic development subsidies benefitting Wal-Mart (state law enables subsidies to predatory big-box retailers). Yet even though NFIB counts many small retailers—read Wal-Mart road-kill—among its members, I have only seen one NFIB chapter opine about big-box subsidies.

Mitchell’s op-ed coincides with a raft of criticism about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In the past year, as chronicled at U. S. Chamber Watch, its actual membership base has been revealed to be about one tenth of what it claimed. Some state and local Chambers have distanced themselves from the national body, as have several large corporations.

When more small businesses organize and stand up for fairer treatment in economic development and tax policy—as they sometimes do in groups such as the American Independent Business Alliance, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, and the Main Street Alliance —taxpayers will benefit.

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