In an open letter to Governor Romney and President Obama, entrepreneur Gene Marks argues that what's most important this election season is his son. And his son's son.
There are a lot of things about our political system that need changing. Everyone has ideas. Some want better re-districting. Others prefer online voting. I'm strongly in favor of increasing the voting age. And I state this from experience: my son just turned 18.
This is a kid who filled our car with diesel fuel last year because he "didn't realize" that the gas nozzle didn't fit. He's a kid that lives in a room that would likely be condemned by Haiti's health department. He's somehow (and I still haven't figure this out) broken both his hand and foot, on separate occasions, playing soccer in that very same room. He's seen the new Batman movie 10 times already. He climbed on the roof of our house with his other 18-year-old idiot friends to throw water balloons at passing cars. He is 18. And I am astonished to learn that this is someone who is legally now eligible to vote. And his vote is worth the same as my vote. This is truly what is wrong with our political system.
But I love him just the same. And his brother and sister too, of course. These are my kids. And sadly, they are our country's future. Yes, I run a small business. And I have all the problems that any small business owner has: cash flow, collections, employees, finding new business, taxes. But these problems don't keep me up at night. My kids keep me up at night: their health, success, future--and loud arguments during Xbox games. It's not just about my small business. It's more than that. It's about my life. And my kids' lives. And their kids' lives.
So Governor Romney and President Obama, during your big convention speeches, you don't need to say how important small businesses are to this country. You don't need to win our vote. We would prefer that you redirect your focus to something more important to the small business owner than his or her small business: our children. It's our children who are the reason why we are doing what we are doing. And the economy, the cost of college and health care, and our national debt impacts them directly. I ask you: lower your IQ. Use smaller words. Show a couple of YouTube videos. But please: speak to my son.
Tell my son it's OK to be wealthy.
My son, like most kids I know, likes money. He likes it because it buys him pizza and movie tickets and LeBron T -shirts. He has a summer job. He gets an allowance from me. He wants to have enough money to afford nice things in his life. Is this a bad thing? I don't think so. But nowadays it feels like it's a bad thing. My customers, big and small, are other businesses. Many of the people who lead them are accused of being "rich" because they earn more than $200,000 a year. Others have been made to feel embarrassed to be in the financial services industry. These customers have been laying low. Hoarding their cash. Not investing, hiring, expanding, or doing other things to flaunt their "wealth." Most small business owners I know earn a good living and work really hard. They aren't super-rich. But they'd like to be. We'd all like to be. When will it be OK for our kids to want to be rich again? What will our next President do to create an environment where it's OK for our children to make lots of money? A long term, low tax environment would be a great start. And a few less swipes at the "wealthy" wouldn't hurt either. Small business owners like me may not be "fat cats." But we'd like our children to be.
Explain to my son how you're going to help make education more affordable.
Unfortunately, education is becoming too great a burden for many small business owners. The cost of higher education impacts just about everyone I know who runs a company. That's because most of us have kids. I count myself very lucky that none of my kids are any where near smart enough to get into an Ivy League school. My son in particular will be one of those body-painted shirtless dopes, with his dopey fraternity friends, on a December Saturday cheering for his school's final football game. And for this I must pay anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 per year. Multiply that by three kids and you see what kind of an expense this is. My son doesn't want to be saddled with debt and I don't want to see that happen either. Perhaps you should offer some legitimate threats to withhold federal grants and loans to those schools that don't reign in their excessive overheads.
Revisit your health care proposals.
My son plays a lot of sports and he plays with a lot of enthusiasm--and little regard for his body. That means he gets injured a lot. How much? Do you get a volume discount from your kid's orthopedist? So health care is important to him. Right now we pay for all his broken bones and pulled hamstrings. But what about when he's older? Health care costs not only affect our employees. These costs affect the children of our employees. And our children too. As these costs rise so do our own costs--and our anxiety. This year's candidates need to reassure us, and our voting-aged kids, that their plans will reduce the costs we're paying for our children's health care, and make things more affordable for our kids when they're out on their own. We're still very fuzzy on the numbers. The President needs to sell his health care reform plan again. (I know, it takes a while for all this to sink in.) Governor Romney needs to clearly explain his competing plan. This way we can decide which candidate has a better way to reduce this enormous burden on our kids.
Tell us how you're going to diminish the national debt quickly enough to help my son out.
The cost of health care isn't the only enormous burden laying in wait for my son. He may think that the price of two Jay-Z tickets is astronomical (and he's right). But it's our national debt, currently approaching $16 trillion, that's going to be his biggest problem in the future. Even with all the talk about budget cuts and reducing the deficit, the fact is that both of the candidates' budget plans would increase our national debt from $3 trillion to $7 trillion over the next 10 years. When economists say that more stimulus is needed and America can handle more debt because the debt is largely "owed to the public," they must not have kids. Small business owners have kids. We know that our debts, if not satisfied, will fall to them. And we don't want that to happen. The whole point of being a successful business person is to make enough money to provide for our children, not to burden them. I'm not sure my son gets this. For now, he's more interested in watching repeats of SpongeBob (yes...SpongeBob). What hard decisions would a leader make to truly cut our national debt in a shorter time frame so that when my kid wakes from his Nickelodeon stupor his future hasn't been spent? I worry about this more than my business.
This election year, it's not about small business. Stop talking about us. Because that's not what we talk about. The small business owners I know talk about lopsided little league games, chaotic birthday parties, over-priced trips to Disney, and excruciatingly long school plays. We're parents and we talk about our kids. It's not about how successful we are. It's about how our profits can make a happier life for our children. And we want our President to be thinking the same way.
GENE MARKS is a columnist, author, and small-business owner. He oversees the Marks Group, a 10-person technology consultancy to small and medium-size businesses. A certified public accountant, Marks has also worked in the entrepreneurial services arm of KPMG. He writes for The New York Times, Forbes, and The Huffington Post.