Small Businesses Are Being Murdered
Updated: Oct 7, 2020
Back in early May an acquaintance asked if I thought "shutdown" would have an economic impact on business. "It's already happening," I responded.
It was already happening back in May. And it has been happening ever since. The economic wounds of the last six months have destroyed millions of small businesses. Millions of Americans have watched as their life savings, dreams and confidence have evaporated. If they are lucky they will bounce back in a few years. The scars of the economic devastation wrought by Covid-19 and shut-down will probably be invisible to outsiders, hard to quantify, and so so so painful.
Right now we don't have scars though. Right now we have open wounds. Right now we are metaphorically bleeding out like a gut shot soldier left on the ground while the battle rages on.
Shockingly few media professionals seem interested in what may be the biggest economic story of the last thirty years; the wholesale murder of millions of small American businesses. (A cursory internet search found one syndicated article that wasn't just a puff piece.)
Journalists have other stories to write about --the presidential election, forest fires in California, the perpetual scandal of Jeffrey Epstein, American cities torched by angry adjuncts from the local University. Showing an impressive commitment to post modernism a lot of journalists who work for "serious" news organizations are mainly reporting on their own feelings about the "tone" of other people's stories. Economists always have a tendency to be a few months behind the times. They wait for the data --and data can be fudged. Overwhelmingly they focus on big business and usually big businesses are either less reactive --or at least slower to react-- than small businesses. They care a lot about the stock market. In fact, if you watch business news on television you will mainly ONLY get news about a handful of large publicly traded companies. Hardly anyone ever talks about Main Street.
But the heart of America, the guts and soul of the American economy, is Main Street, not Wall Street. And the heart of America, Main Street, is hurting right now.
I'm not a professional media type. I'm an unpaid volunteer blogger for the Marin GOP. My actual work, what I get paid to do, usually involves me rubbing shoulders with a lot of small business people and thinking a lot about the bottom line.
For the last six months I've been thinking a lot about how much people are hurting. Because this is a story about people in pain... not just empty real estate and businesses with boarded up windows.
Businesses are never just about business. Businesses are about families and mortgages and vacations and buying new cars and putting food on the table and paying for tuition. Businesses are about family. A hair dressing salon or a barber shop? That is how people make a living. The media ran with the story of Nancy Pelosi getting ratted out for having an illicit haircut in San Francisco in September but the REAL story the media should have been covering is the story of the hairdressers and salon owners and colorists who haven't been allowed to earn a living in San Francisco for going on six months. Saying that some people's businesses are essential while others are "unessential" is basically saying that some people's incomes aren't essential. Those signs about limited capacity? Those signs are red flag warnings of someone's income being severely limited.... Maybe evaporating in the heat of shut-down.
These are the signs of Main Street in pain. These are the signs of desperation. These are the signs of the continuing shut-down.
So called "service industries" rarely get much respect. If you don't work in a barbershop or a restaurant you probably just think of those businesses as the place you get your hair done or the place you go for a dining experience. But restaurants aren't just about providing "dining experiences" for customers, they are about putting food on the tables of everyone who works in them. Every closed sign, every for lease sign, every going out of business sign, represents at least one family that doesn't know what is happening next.
The signs of pain are everywhere. Desperately optimistic handwritten signs, local business associations attempting to drum up business and "support our merchants" with a cute graphic and quickie printed flyers, these are all the signs of the economic bleed that is draining the savings of small business people.
Big businesses and small businesses alike are being murdered. The plywood is going up, the locks are going on the doors for the last time. There is no actual data yet about the empty office space and the empty retail space.... but I have been walking the streets counting the signs and my guess is we will have fifty percent retail and office space vacancies by November.
Failure rates are always high in the start up world and the restaurant world. Sometimes you need more than hard work and a good idea to thrive. Sometimes you need all the stars to align just to survive. But there is a big difference between failing and being shut-down. If your business puts up the shutters because of shut-down you didn't fail, you were murdered. Your dreams, your business and your personal economy were murdered.
Walk down any one of a thousand Main Streets and you can see the victims.
I've been counting the signs for months now. When I have a chance I take a photograph... I want to remember the businesses that were there before the signs went up. I keep the pictures on a file in my phone marked "pain." Friends think my fascination with "For Lease" signs is weird.
The "money-shot," the "action" and the "hook" I am told are homeless encampments and drug deals going down on the public sidewalks. But this is Progressive California, it doesn't seem to matter if we have an economic boom or a bust, we have heroin and homelessness.
But this is different... For Sale signs, For Lease signs, For Rent signs... $900.- steel filing cabinets being offered up for free on Craigslist, just empty out the office before the next rent payment is due... to me this is what an economy in the process of being murdered looks like. These signs are the tombstones of the middle-class.
Businesses aren't going down without a fight... independent business people are scrappy, anyone who has ever started or run a small business knows there will be tough times. But no one ever planned for anything like this.
If you don't live in California or New York the devastation probably isn't as immediately obvious. But the denial is probably just as real. And the denial isn't political... I've had conservatives shout at me about how they "don't want to hear anything bad!" I've had Liberals giddy with excitement over the "opportunities" they see once "all these old economy capitalist orientated businesses are cleared out"... My "Progressive" acquaintances want the economy as a whole to collapse --they are optimists and somehow convinced that their personal economies won't collapse-- if the "bourgeoisie" are hurt they are convinced that five bedroom water front homes will immediately become available to social workers and professional puppeteers who work for non profits. I don't have the academic credentials necessary to make judgements about someone's mental stability, but in the world of business I feel comfortable labelling anyone who thinks that "nuts."
In certain sectors of the American economy it is already 1934. If you don't know what that means you probably went to the kind of school where the teachers probably didn't bother to tell you who Benjamin Franklin was either. If you are lucky enough to have a living relative who was an adult during the Great Depression go ask her or him about the '30s. Do it now, don't wait. Sometimes you need to hear about something from someone who was there.
The New Left doesn't want you to hear this, but history matters. Not because a grounding in history will keep us, collectively, from repeating the mistakes of the past. But because, as individuals, understanding history will help us face tomorrow. And right now, in the business world, tomorrow is going to be tough. Heck, last month was tough.
There is no safety in denial... I know denial is appealing right now. You want to sit on your couch, drink a little too much, zone out on national political news and ignore the local stuff... But the local stuff is national. It is actually international stuff. Maybe you see opportunities in shut-down. The stock market? Maybe you are excited about a real estate bubble. Maybe you are excited about a real estate crash. The reality is that even if you are one of the winners in a losing economic cycle, if there are enough losers, if there is enough pain, eventually it impacts everyone. It even impacts people who are sitting hung-over on the shores of Lake Denial.
As of 2018 (the last year for which there is good data) there were roughly 30 million small businesses in America. Roughly half the non-governmental workforce works for small businesses. By and large small businesspeople ARE the American middle class. When small businesses are hurting, the American middle class is hurting. And when the middle-class is hurting America is hurting.
Main Street has been the engine of American economic prosperity for generations. It has also been under attack for decades. Main Street fought the malls, Main Street retailers fought the Big Box stores who dealt mainly in imports, bought in bulk, and never wasted time or money sponsoring the local Little League. (Think a minute.... think about all the local amateur sporting leagues and all the scholarships... Who pitches in money for a trophy or a dozen pizzas for the kids? Usually it isn't the big box store out on the highway, it is the local Joe or Jane with the local business where on a Tuesday afternoon the owner is behind the counter, or out back, or in the kitchen.) For the last few years Main Street has been fighting the internet giants and the e-tailers.
I live in a Liberal bastion filled with opinionated people who LOVE to talk about how much they care about "the heart and soul of the community".... But I know proud Progressives who go to the local bookstore to browse the books and then go online to order them to save two bucks... For my part, until shut-down I was the kind of Conservative who would walk into my local bookstore where the counter clerks wear "Tuck Drumpf!" t-shirts and order a conservative book. Because... I actually DO believe in supporting local businesses... And I am a Republican woman... which means if three bookstore employees tried to physically assault me simultaneously I'm pretty sure I could clean their collective clocks without chipping a nail.
Main Street matters. That shouldn't be a partisan political position. Main Street should matter to all of us regardless of our political party of preference. Because Main Street is the bellweather for the health and wellbeing of the American middle-class. Main Street is where little businesses start. Main Street is how thirty million plus Americans feed their families. Main Street is where hundreds of thousands of Americans get their first part time jobs as teenagers. The sales tax revenue from Main Streets across America is how local municipalities pay their bills. Hey... public employees... you may think it is cool if stores shut down... but those stores pay your salaries! When municipal revenues go down municipal employees get laid off.
Maybe you do all of your shopping on the internet anyway... Loads of people do... I've met people who mail order toilet paper. But you probably don't want to live with the blight of a town with no downtown. I have a nickname for what has been happening in my town for the past six months, I call it suburban blight. I like to see people cringe when I use the term. People who live in Marin are proud that Marin isn't "as bad" as San Francisco. Sure there is plywood around the Hilton in downtown San Francisco, homeless tents huddling in the alleys, trash in heaps in front of the blackened windows of boarded up restaurants and bars, a couple of weeks ago I saw a man lying shoeless facedown on the sidewalk less than sixty feet from the Tiffanys. But... on the other side of the bridge it is still o.k. right? Ummm.... no. It is not alright. The 'burbs are not alright. If you know how to count the signs, the signs of suburban blight are everywhere. And we should ALL care about this.
The sun is blazing hot still in my part of California... And the California sun has a tendency to make everything seem technicolor. Someone once told me you can't be serious in California, the colors are too bright. You need the slate grey skies of Westchester in February to actually think deep thoughts. But this is serious, so serious even the heat of the California sun can't dazzle away our problems.
We're in the early stages of a devastating economic cycle. Many of the For Sale signs will bleach out before there is an offer in contract. People whose lives seemed good back in February are now in the dark of a panic stricken night thinking about suicide. People do think about suicide when they are facing a crisis. And some people are facing a deluge of a crisis right now. They aren't alone, but they feel alone. Thirty million Americans snickered over Nancy Pelosi's illegal and hypocritical haircut. But how many people thought about the hairdressers and salon owners? I'm an out of the closet Republican woman and I've had people ask me on-line if Speaker Pelosi's haircut drove me over the edge and away from the Democratic Party.... It always make me a little angry... Yes, I am an ex-Democrat. No... I'm not that shallow. We have bigger issues to think about right now.
In a way the hypocrisy that Nancy Pelosi displayed when she slipped in to a San Francisco salon for a haircut even as the Mayor of San Francisco is STILL declaring that it is too "unsafe" to have indoor worship services is one of the reasons I'm not a Democrat anymore.
The Democratic Party has been offering lip-service to working America for a generation. Maybe back in the day, back sixty years ago when Joe Biden was still a child in Scranton, the Democratic Party was for the working guy and working woman. But that Democratic Party doesn't exist anymore and probably hasn't existed in my lifetime.
The modern Democratic Party is the party of social workers, sociologists, angry housewives, perpetually woke guys who slouch from campus to coffee shop and never seem to have a job, it is the party of wealthy techno elites and very poor people both eager to eviscerate the middle class of strivers and workers and savers.
The Democratic Party of my grandparents’ generation, the party of Al Smith, the party of unions and workers (actual blue collar unions, not the schoolteachers' unions) doesn’t exist anymore.
The Republican Party of a generation ago doesn’t exist anymore either… heck, the Republican Party of five years ago doesn’t exist anymore. The go-along-to-get-along country club Republicans who thought they ran the Republican Party are now professional “Never Trumpers” hoping there is a re-set to the gentleman’s agreement of the Clinton years when no one of any political party talked about jobs, or trade, or China and the main political disagreements revolved around abortion.
Donald Trump was a breath of fresh air on the political scene five years ago because he was willing to talk about jobs and trade, he was willing to confront the fact that Main Street had been hurting for a long time for a lot of different reasons. Before Trump few, if any, politicians were willing to talk about trade or jobs or American industry. Instead they were eager to slap a bandaid on the wound and change the subject of conversation.
Americans care about bread and butter issues. We care about our jobs and our families… It doesn’t take a political genius to figure that out. But it does take courage… especially if all the people “in the know” have an unvoiced gentleman’s agreement to avoid talking about bread and butter issues.
Personally I think Americans have untapped wells of courage. I think Americans are smart too… in general I think the average American is smarter than the average schoolteacher thinks we are. We are definitely smarter than the average politician thinks we are. But we’re rarely asked to be smart or courageous… I suspect a lot of politicians would rather just metaphorically tap an economic vein of the voters rather than let people tap their own deep wells of courage. Back in April and May if you were paying attention to the news from Michigan you could see that. Gretchen Whitmer the Democratic Governor of Michigan —who has since been nicknamed the “witless Grinch” by the internet— fell hard for lockdown. She tried to keep people from buying seeds for their gardens or taking their boats out on the lake to fish. If you know anything about the history of labor in this country you know what that means… it means the Democratic Governor of Michigan was willing to try and starve the voters into submission as part of her power play.
I’m not being dramatic when I say that. Michigan is a state of vast natural resources and also historically a state where the workers and the bosses went to war a couple of generations ago. Back in the day when union bosses were actual working men who represented workingmen’s unions you signaled to the bosses that your members were serious about holding the line in a strike by calling a strike out in late Spring or early Summer and telling the line workers and their wives to go home and plant gardens. If you aren’t bringing home a pay packet you need to be able to feed your family. Company towns were notorious for trying to ban the workers from planting vegetables. If you can grow your own food, if you can find a way to feed your kids without kowtowing to the bosses, you have power, you have independence. In a lot of places a vegetable garden is as much a symbol of independence as an American flag.
That is an independence that is under attack in Gretchen Whitmer’s Michigan. Maybe the Governor and her advisors aren’t the grandchildren of men and women who held the line against the scabs and professional strikebreakers and the bosses who didn’t want the working men and women to have rights and choices. The witless Grinch probably doesn’t know what a blast furnace is, doesn’t know the smell of coal dust, doesn’t like the crunch of snow up north, doesn’t know that Iron Bay is more than a cool bar, doesn’t believe in freedom and independence. But I don’t think the grandchildren of the men and women who faced down the hard-as-nails-industrial bosses of the 1930s have forgotten what independence is… Their grandparents didn’t fold when faced with the industrial bosses of the 1930s who didn’t want average men and women to be able to feed their families without kowtowing to the bosses. They won’t fold when faced with the wannabe bosses of the new Nanny State who would rather the citizens lined up at food banks rather than having the “right” to buy seeds to plant vegetable gardens.
The minions of the New Left like power… They also don’t seem to know much about reality. They live in a world where politics are a matter of fashion. So maybe it makes sense that other people’s life choices seem like fashion statements to them… I know people who genuinely don’t understand why anyone needs a pick-up truck. (Presumably they’ve never met anyone who works in the trades, or has a farm.) They think pick-up trucks and jobs and guns are weird fashion choices. Maybe they don’t realize that upstate or out in the woods taking a deer isn’t about some wild desire to blast Bambi, it is about putting meat on the table. Venison is cheaper than hamburger helper. (Personally I prefer elk to deer… it tastes better. But venison stew is a lot better than hunger. And yes, I have spent most of my life in Marin County…. but I haven’t spent my entire life in Marin. I know what an out of season deer is… and frankly I don’t grudge anyone with kids to feed a deer, whatever the season.)
Personally I have a lot of respect for people trying to feed their families. There are few endeavors more noble. The Democratic Party used to give lip-service to working people and their concerns. They don’t bother with that now. Frankly I don’t think they think they need the votes of workers anymore. They obviously don’t want the votes of small business people or Main Street. We’re disposable to them. They want the votes of looters though… apparently looting Chanel is a form of economic equity. But if you want to hunt, or fish, or garden, to feed your families…. apparently that is NOT o.k. These days it isn't even o.k. to work to feed your families... at least not if you live in California or New York, not if you are an "un-essential" business.
We live in a crazy world now. Looting is o.k. Gardening isn’t. We’re told to stay home to stay safe… but if we stay home long enough there may be nothing left when we leave our houses. We’re told crime isn’t crime… We’re told it is o.k. to loot Macy’s, it isn’t o.k. to fish. (Personally I’ll turn a blind eye to anyone who has more month than money and wants to take a midnight deer out of season. That isn’t the official position of the GOP, that is my position. But I think it is also a fundamentally American position… When in doubt I trust Americans to look after themselves better than the government can.)
Main Street should never have been politicized. Main Street is America. But the survival of Main Street is now a matter of politics. Saving the American economy shouldn't be partisan... but it is now. Donald Trump is willing to talk about jobs, the Democratic Party has become a party that literally wants to stop millions of Americans from keeping their jobs.
We should all care about Main Street. Deerhunters and conservative bloggers and woke househusbands in Kentfield alike. We should all care about Main Street. Main Street is America. Main Street is hurting right now... Every single For Lease and For Sale sign is like a tombstone. These are the tombstones of the American middle class.
These are dreams and lives... This is America. Every small business in America is a part of our collective beating heart.
We can't sacrifice our heart for short term political gain. I've reached the point where I think Democratic politicians are willing to play chicken with the middle class. They are willing to throw away our economic heart just to dump Trump. How can any American hate any politician so much that they are willing to sacrifice the beating heart of America for short term political gain?
We need to save Main Street. We need to save American industry. We need to save America.
I get yelled at a lot. Often by self described conservatives. (I think the last few decades have been very stressful for some people.) They want me to write their stories... share antiquated memes... argue with their loony self described Stalinist children about American history. (I have a degree in American History... I love America... I love America too much to waste precious time arguing with my fellow millennials who have fallen in love with political theories that really should be left in the dust bin of history.) I also get yelled at by angry old hippies --life in Marin-- and bitter Range Rover driving housewives. I wear political t-shirts you see... I practice my free speech rights. The Governor of California wants me to wear a mask... but the First Amendment says I have free speech... and I know a guy with a silk screen machine.
On a personal basis I have declared October my month of political speech. Today I am wearing my free speech t-shirt. Tomorrow I will wear my Buy American t-shirt. This is my commitment... From here on out I am buying American. I'll vote with my dollars. Maybe I can't save Main Street on my own. But I won't stick a knife in the heart of America.
On November 3rd I'm voting for Donald Trump. And every day I'm staying local. I'm buying American. I'm voting with my dollars to save the heart of America. What are you doing?