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Small Business Optimism

The day after Election Day, a reporter sought a comment on whether I, as the owner of a small business, was optimistic or pessimistic as a result of President Obama’s re-election.

My first impulse was to reject the request. I had not gotten much sleep after staying up late to watch the returns and write a blog post about the vote. I was crabby about the defeat of Mitt Romney, whom I supported; crabbier because I was wrong to doubt the pre-election polls that pointed to a likely Obama victory; and probably crabbier still because the Atlanta hotel where I was staying had turned out to be Election Night headquarters for the Georgia GOP. I learned this after I met a few colleagues to watch the returns in the hotel lounge, which is where I stayed with my computer after they went upstairs to bed.

First thing the next morning, I typed an instant message to Amy Laburda, my associate, who edits my posts. “I have a new definition of ‘the opposite of fun,’” I told Amy. “It’s sitting in a hotel lobby bar at midnight, surrounded by a group of drunk and dispirited Republicans, explaining to them why their guy is about to lose Florida.” (Romney did lose Florida, though it took a few days to make that electoral coup de grâce official.)

One gentleman took Romney’s defeat in a particularly personal and unsportsmanlike way. “Dudes, that’s it! I’m leaving! Just taking everything and moving,” he bellowed to a large cross-section of Georgia Republicans from a position about six inches south of my left ear. “What country can I move to?”

That fellow came to mind just as I was about to conclude that I would decline the reporter’s request.

I have voted in 10 presidential elections since I came of age. The candidate I supported has been the winner only four times. Life did not end. The Union survived, and often prospered, even in the face of my fellow citizens’ suboptimal choices. Or maybe it was some of my choices that were suboptimal. I may have been grumpy about this election’s result, but I certainly wasn’t angry or despairing. We’re going to have another election in just four years. If some bad decisions get made in the meantime, we will just have to deal with them.

It occurred to me that my laissez faire attitude toward electoral defeat is part of the approach that has made me a very satisfied and relatively successful business owner for the past 20 years. Owning and running a business is not about grabbing every last dollar for yourself. It’s about doing something you want to do, preferably something you love to do, and doing the best you can in circumstances that are seldom fully under your control. Ideally you address the problems, take advantage of the opportunities, and provide a good life for your household and perhaps others.

I decided to write a few paragraphs to share this perspective with the journalist.

I began with, “I'm optimistic, but not because I supported Obama. I did not. I'm optimistic because anyone who is content to be a business owner is probably inherently optimistic.” This is the only part of my comment that she used, which is an editorial decision that I have no quarrel with. Mine was the closing perspective in an article that noted small business owners generally supported Romney and were disappointed at his loss. I was in the same place as them, and, though my further comments were not in the article, I suspect many would have agreed with me in turn. “Optimism” and “pessimism” in this context are not really opposites; they are counterparts that simultaneously go into the art of running a business.

“If you own and run a business you have to recognize risks and challenges, but you also have to be confident in the ability of your team to meet them - and you know that there are rewards out there, too, including the reward of meeting the needs of the people you serve,” I wrote in the unpublished part of my note to the journalist.

“Would I have been more optimistic had Romney won? Yes. I think a Romney administration would have shown greater appreciation for the importance of predictability and flexibility in the tax and regulatory environment in which businesses operate. I think it would have better understood the opportunity costs inherent in imposing greater financial and time demands on business owners, diverting us from the task of growing our enterprises. I think it would have shown a greater appreciation of the long-term costs inherent in short-term debt-financed spending policies. I think a Romney administration would have been more realistic and enthusiastic about tackling the enormous task of entitlement reform. We're still waiting for Obama's team to decide what it wants to do with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which became wards of the government before he took office.

“But the system eventually manages to bring itself back into balance one way or another, even in the absence of good stewardship. If we don't stop going to the well of cheap credit ourselves, the well will eventually dry up anyway. Health care costs have to stop rising, or at least slow down, or else we'll all be buying nothing but health care someday. If there isn't enough money to provide all the benefits the Baby Boomers are expecting, the Baby Boomers are simply going to get less than they expect, whether we address this issue in a sensible way or not.

“Obama's re-election may mean a bumpier road for us business owners, but we'll get where we need to go, regardless. If we didn't think so, we wouldn't get behind the wheel.”

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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