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The Death of a Thousand Paper Cuts

 
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By George Hager
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 1999; Page H8

People around town like to say that the quickest way to turn a liberal Democrat into a conservative Republican is to open a business. That's an exaggeration. But not much of one.

One of the most famously liberal of all Democrats, former senator and presidential candidate George McGovern, got religion when he bought a hotel and restaurant in Connecticut in 1988, only to watch the business sink into bankruptcy.

McGovern put chief blame on the recession ravaging New England at the time, but in a remarkable confessional he wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 1992, he admitted he had felt the heavy hand of government on his neck -- put there by the very laws he had helped pass.

"I . . . wish that during the years I was in public office, I had had this firsthand experience about the difficulties businesspeople face every day," he wrote. It "would have made me a better U.S. senator."

In his brief business career, McGovern learned something that most wage slaves never understand when they work in institutions that have someone else to handle the day-to-day business of dealing with government: It's a pain.

There are regulations to obey, forms to fill out, oceans of paperwork to be generated and filed that the government might never actually want to see. Entrepreneurs who dream of spending their waking hours building a business instead find themselves devoting increasing amounts of time to dealing with official requests. What's it like? Imagine going to the Department of Motor Vehicles, says one Maryland entrepreneur. Every day.

What's worst, say business owners who've been at it for a while, is the constant feeling that they've done something wrong. Rules change. Mistakes are made, sometimes by the business owner, sometimes by the government. Alas, officialdom is notoriously humorless about errors, even when they're theirs. Traumatized small-business owners dread the arrival of brown IRS envelopes containing notices that threaten "fine or imprisonment" if the recipient fails to comply.

Business owners' advice: Adopt a Zen-like attitude. Realize any encounter with the government will require either your time or your money. Spend the money to get a good accountant, and follow the advice you get. Be meticulous about your records. Spend the money to get a good bookkeeper. The choice between spending scarce dollars to keep your paperwork straight versus saving the money and risking the wrath of the IRS is no choice at all, says one business owner. "I'd rather starve and have a bookkeeper."

She was exaggerating, of course. But not much.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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