Mr. President, You Are Correct. I Didn’t Build ‘That.’

Recently, our President used some unfortunate language to point out that entrepreneurs rely heavily on government-provided support to be successful. While I am grateful to be a business owner in the greatest country on earth, and I am aware that I benefit from roads and national security, his comments got me thinking.

640x480-BuildThatSo here is a top-of-mind list of seven things my fellow entrepreneurs and I didn’t build:

#1)   A tax code that has nine times as many words as the Bible. I wouldn’t build the tax code. I am a simple man. Besides, as a businessperson, I like rules and procedures that everyone can understand quickly. Complicated rules tend to slow things down and require many, many more people and billable man-hours to manage them. What entrepreneur would want to create something that would waste so much time and effort?

#2)   A $56 trillion pile of debtFor you trivia buffs, that is a debt that on a per capita basis is worse than Greece, Italy, Ireland, Portugal and Spain. And it’s growing by $150 million an HOUR. I couldn’t possibly build this because I would have been out of business about the time my debt exceeded the price of a GSA convention. At about that time, the bank would come and take my house, which would make my wife really unhappy. Since I like to keep my wife happy, a large amount of debt is clearly a bad idea. The government doesn’t care about my wife, hence the debt.

#3)   The roads. At 17 I got close to making roads. At the time, I was working in construction, which is close to roadwork. I was also working at a furniture company and 31 Flavors. As I recall, even back then the government was taxing my paychecks so they could make roads. Hey, maybe I did help make the roads! I just wish I had a chance to do something about the mess that is known as the Hillside Strangler—a locally famous convergence of highways in Chicago that was reported to be one of the 20 worst traffic congestion spots in the country. Because of this, former Illinois Gov. George H. Ryan promised to fix it. He’s now in jail.

#4)   Government departments. I didn’t make one of these either, but I worked in one. In high school I got a summer job working in the Daley Center in Chicago. My first week on the job, I was told—in no uncertain terms—to “Slow the **ck down” by a coworker because I was working too hard and too fast. That pretty much convinced me that I wasn’t a fit for the public sector. I wouldn’t make a department where people were discouraged if they worked too hard.

#5)   Government shipping practices. According to The Heritage Foundation, the Pentagon spent “$998,798 shipping two 19-cent washers from South Carolina to Texas and $293,451 sending an 89-cent washer from South Carolina to Florida.” For those of you scoring at home, that comes to a combined $1,292.249. My business had shipping charges of $176,000 last year. They seemed high to me until I read this statistic. Just for kicks, I shipped washers from Chicago to Florida and Texas. Happily, the company I built was able to do it for $1,292,248.20 less than the government. I used the U.S. Postal Service, which is now losing $25 million a day. Thankfully, I didn’t build that either.

#6)   $500-a-plate dinners. I’ve never charged my “friends” to have dinner with me, but I gotta say, this is a pretty entrepreneurial idea. BBQ at the Maddock house! At $500 a plate, I’ll supply the (domestic) beer.

#7)   GM or Bank of America. I didn’t think the government did either, but a whole bunch of tax dollars went their way. Wait, tax dollars? Hey, that was my money, too. Did I do that or did you do that?

See? Now I am confused.

Having started half a dozen companies, I consider myself a serial entrepreneur. I also consider myself a moderate, bipartisan guy who votes for the person, not the side of the aisle they sit on. I voted for President Obama. I also voted for President Bush. You’re both very welcome.

I’ve talked to a number of other entrepreneurs about this, and I think I know why so many business people were annoyed at the President’s remarks. It’s because we gladly pay it forward. Most business owners pay taxes that are substantially higher than the median rate. We’re painfully aware that families and kids—including our own—are depending on us for paychecks. We are actually inspired by this reality. We do our jobs of creating revenue, profit, jobs, innovation, etc., so the government can do its job of spending OUR money wisely. It is not their money. It is the American people’s money. We need to trust them with it, and their comments and current behavior seem obviously disingenuous, since both sides are beholden to interest groups to win the next election.

It is beginning to feel like the government is vilifying businesses and successful people for making money. The last time I checked, my friends were paying their taxes. If big businesses are getting away with not paying their taxes, that is a government issue created on the administration’s watch. I know I did not build that problem—lobbyists and politicians did. Maybe you can find the reason why on page number 2282 of the tax code. Wait—make that page 4311. My bad.

We need to remember our roles here. I believe that entrepreneurs need to keep up their end of the social contract by paying a reasonable amount of money to finance government programs. I believe our government must be good stewards of our money and fully appreciate the wealth-creating role of business, which makes it possible to fund big ideas and worthy institutions. For example, The University of Chicago—where the President taught law and his bride was an associate dean—was generously financed through $80 million in Rockefeller’s oil wealth as was Spelman College and Denison University.

Here’s the final rub: We deserve the government we get. So when I see such irresponsible pork barreling, bickering and incompetence from Democrats and Republicans alike, I am reminded that I live in a democracy. I helped elect these people. I did build THAT. Yikes!

What am I missing? I bet there are all kinds of things that entrepreneurs would never build, but the government did. Oh, go ahead. Submit an idea. Writing this has been a strangely cathartic way to spend a few minutes.

Or maybe you just want to go build another company. But, remember, if you do start something new, make sure to ask for lots of help from our government. We’re all being told that we need it. And that, my friends, is the most dangerous thing of all.

First published on August 7, 2012.

Speaker Kits: videos and brochures