Strangling innovation with red tape
As a Democrat whose politics are undeniably liberal on social issues, I lamented the outcome of the midterm elections. But as an entrepreneur with two software start-ups under my belt, I couldn't help but celebrate - and more than a little. As the fall campaigns wore on, I had found myself listening closely to the Tea Party, nursing the hope that its message would push both major parties to change the way they do business.
To understand my motivation, pick up the November issue of Washingtonian magazine. The annual Salary Survey notes on Page 81 that top trade association leaders (industry lobbyists) make multimillion-dollar salaries to "keep tabs on what the federal government was doing or might do."
These outsize earnings are symptomatic of a disease that is slowly killing the American economy. We are creating so much regulation - over tax policy, health care, financial activity - that smart people have figured out that they can get rich faster and more easily by manipulating rules on behalf of existing corporations than by creating net new activity and wealth. Gamesmanship pays better than entrepreneurship.
It is always hard to start a business. It is especially hard to start an innovative business, one that will foster a new technology or business method. Incumbent players in a market have an inherent advantage: Momentum counts for a lot, and it takes tremendous effort to get customers comfortable with a new product - or even to hear about it in the first place.
Given the difficulty of starting a company from scratch, and how economic activity is generated today, you can start to see why, if you were a rational market actor, you would be trying to get a piece of the government action.
The combined expenditures of federal, state and local government are rapidly taking over our economy. At the beginning of President Obama's term, government spending made up 35 percent of gross domestic product. Now, it is up to almost 45 percent, which puts us seventh among advanced economies.
And the Obama administration's new regulatory initiatives make this considerably worse in subtle ways.
The two largest pieces of legislation enacted in the past two years - health care and financial reform - are very vague. Take the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It has a broad mandate to protect us from financial abuse, but when it comes to the actual implementation, the Brookings Institution wrote that unelected regulators will decide "almost everything" about how the organization works.
This is highly dangerous to innovation, which depends on clear and transparent rules. The more complexity, the more incumbents are favored. They have the capital to participate in complicated regulatory proceedings. They can hire high-priced lobbyists to present facts in a light most favorable to them. The more incumbents are favored, the harder it is for new companies to gain traction.
For a preview of what a complex regulatory process looks like, consider our tax system. The World Bank ranks the United States 62nd in the world in terms of how easy it is to pay taxes - and with a 16,000-page tax code, this is no surprise. In 2009 and 2010, Capital Tax Partners, a leading lobbyist representing Goldman Sachs, Apple and others, earned about $20 million in fees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
So, what is to be done?
From an entrepreneur's perspective, we need a national campaign to create transparency in our legislation and a national moratorium on the creation of commissions, regulators and czars. It is time for Congress to do the hard job of saying what lawmakers mean in clear and easy-to-understand language.
It is also fair to hold our leaders to a standard of transparency. We should reject bills that are thousands of pages or that delegate vast authority to unelected regulators.
Entrepreneurs are in an unusual situation. We are staunchly pro-business, believing that new ideas properly implemented can change the world.
Yet we are hardly represented by the business lobbying interests in Washington. Like most Americans, I recoil at the fact that the man who runs the U.S. Chamber of Commerce earns about $3.9 million a year. He doesn't represent me.
The next two years will be a critical time to see whether all the promises of a more transparent America are realized. If not, maybe it is time to create an entrepreneurs party, where wealth and value creation are prized above rule manipulation and influence peddling.
The writer is chief executive of TownFlier, a software company dedicated to improving digital communication and collaboration.