Last week I traveled back east for two wonderful reunions, one a biennial gathering with my extended family and the other was an angst riddled glimpse of my tax dollars at work in Washington DC. The DC portion is a trip that I think every business owner in America should make periodically. Don’t visit just because of congressional rep or the Small Business Administration being there but go because many of the fundamental explanations of American enterprise are there.
At a visual level, seeing the glistening historic stone buildings around Washington, especially by night really is a soul stirring experience. They are some of the most famous and memorable images in our culture. There are reminders of our country’s proud history in all directions not to mention the artifacts of some less than proud moments. Yes, I went by the Watergate complex twice! In fact I don’t think that anyone can truly understand America without spending some time in the capitol. It is like a classroom for what being an American really means and if I were the emperor, anyone who wants to become a citizen would have to spend at least two days there.
When I spent time on Capitol Hill and other venues it was surprising that there weren’t any noticeable signs of the continuing recession. I see more panhandlers and day laborers during a fifteen minute walk in Los Angeles than during two days around the District of Columbia. Watching the painters, landscapers, security people, food vendors and others reminded me that small businesses supply many services in the district and their prime customer the federal government has been spending more money recently, not less. As I was weighing the price of a metro ticket against the cost of taking a cab across town, some Washington business owners were probably smiling at their large federal contracts. But, that was not what startled me most.
It was while visiting the Library of Congress building near the capitol that a major disconnect between today’s legislators and the founding fathers became painfully apparent to me. In the library you can learn about the processes that lead to the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, Federalist Papers and other foundational documents for America by reading the documents. Looking at that information which outlines the original American vision and government’s role, you begin to wonder what documents our members of the House and Senate have been reading. If we use those founding documents as a template for the business of government in America, the message is that today we badly need streamlining, right sizing and a new strategic plan. I feel that Washington should also be the center of business leadership in our country and not a burden or major obstacle to our enterprising spirit.
None of the historic monuments had more impact on me than the magnificent Lincoln Memorial. The place where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech is open 24 hours a day and a nighttime visit is simply spectacular. Gazing at the huge stone statue of Abraham Lincoln is both inspirational and humbling. History has shown America’s 16th president to have been wiser than most of the men who’ve occupied the White House. There are inscriptions of two of Lincoln’s best known speeches inside the building, the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural speech but my favorite slab of wisdom from the great president follows. It could be a credo for every entrepreneurial thinker and business owner in the country.
You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich.
You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.
You cannot lift the wage earner up by pulling the wage payer down.
You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred.
You cannot build character and courage by taking away people’s initiative and independence.
You cannot help people permanently by doing for them, what they could and should do for themselves. ……..Abraham Lincoln
I’d gladly vote for compelling every politician at any level of government to keep a copy of President Lincoln’s advice on their person at all times, maybe even having it tattooed on the hand they use to sign legislation! While America’s largest businesses have lobbyists sell their points of view to the Washington crowd, small business has much less clout though they form the bulk of the job creation force in the country. When you look at the most destitute cities in America, they are the ones that big business has abandoned. Their recoveries will depend on small business as the healthiest communities are built on the bedrock of thriving enterprises with less than five hundred employees. The president and senior officials pay verbal tribute to small business a couple of times per year, but when you look at their appointment calendars, the big meetings are with big money.
I do hope you take your entrepreneurial self to Washington and when you do you’ll notice that the literal distance between the congressional offices and the congressional library is only a few hundred yards. There you can personally be inspired by reading the founding fathers smartest thinking and best advice. Right now I feel that there is a yawing chasm between what our forefathers intended and what recent crops of Capitol Hill residents are doing. The divide is so sharp that the two bodies of thinking might as well be in different countries. I want us to get back to the business of living the great and original vision of America.