Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Entrepreneurs

My Missouri friend, Greg, and his wife, Frances, just visited us for three days. They arrived in a gigantic pickup truck pulling an Airstream trailer that is as large as some people's houses. We showed them around the area, and one of the activities was a tour of the Maple Landmark plant, which makes wooden toys and is a leader in the U.S. wooden toy market. It is a small family-owned business, and Frances saw parallels with the spa business that she and Greg own in Missouri. Entrepreneurs occupy an important role in American society, and I thought I'd take this opportunity to say something about them.

Frances began her spa business in Jefferson City, Missouri several years ago, and when Greg retired from his job managing the Missouri Medicaid program he joined in. The business grew gradually, and they opened a second spa in Columbia, Missouri. The company has been successful and now employs about 50 people, including Frances's daughter from a previous marriage, Kim, and Greg and Frances's daughter, Ariel, who is now a Vice President. They have been engrossed in running the business since its inception, and are now trying to wind down somewhat and prepare for a generational transition. This is proving to be problematic, partly because Kim is dysfunctional and married to an irresponsible, unreliable, unemployed husband while incompetently raising three children, ensuring the continuation of the white trash tradition in the next generation of the family. Frances and Kim have ongoing feuds and confrontations, with Frances usually on the losing end. She would like to help her grandchildren and see them often, and provides Kim with a job, but Kim routinely threatens to deny her access to the grandchildren. As I said to Greg, if it were me, Kim would be history, but this isn't my family. Ariel seems competent enough as an employee, but does not seem particularly interested in taking full responsibility at the company. Her husband has a well-paying job, so they don't need the money. During their visit, Greg and Frances were frequently interrupted by issues that were arising at the spa in their absence.

Despite some of the negatives associated with the spa, Greg and Frances seem to derive a great deal of satisfaction from it. Although they were well off without it, they are now becoming quite wealthy and are spending their money according to predictable nouveau riche patterns. In their case, that has involved extensive home renovations and the purchase of the Airstream, the truck, a tractor with attachments and two BMW's. Most of their drive to conspicuous consumption seems to have originated in Frances, who grew up poor, while Greg did not.

Frances enjoyed seeing the toy factory partly because it operated like one big family. It was started in the late 1970's by a local Vermont man who had taken up woodworking when he was a boy. The business continued to grow, and his mother and his grandmother, who is 95, still work there. We met them on our tour, since they have only 40 employees. Some of the jobs looked boring and highly repetitive, but many of the employees multitasked, which would reduce the tedium. Overall, they seemed happy. Their products are far more specialized than you might expect, and they are beating the competition, including China. From the outside, it looked like a pleasant place to work. Part of the appeal to Frances was the communal feeling and having three generations working together. She took a picture of the grandmother and sent it to Ariel to show her how fulfilling working in a family business can be.

My take on entrepreneurship isn't as sanguine. Americans tend to look at it at the individual level, in which it is possible to develop products and services in order to better the economic circumstances of themselves and their families. That in itself isn't necessarily bad, but when an entire economy is operated on that basis, many of the long-term consequences are, in my opinion, undesirable. Unnecessary goods and services come into existence, and successful small businesses tend to grow and merge, ending up as large, impersonal corporations. Most small businesses fail, and in the process become a waste of labor and materials. To use the examples here, I don't think it would make much difference to the country or the world if there were two less spas in Missouri and one less toy maker in Vermont. At the macro level, it seems risky and arbitrary to allow individuals to "grow their businesses" in order to meet their personal economic goals when the benefits to society are so marginal. Admittedly, an entrepreneur-friendly economy does lead to a certain amount of innovation which might not occur otherwise, but most of that innovation is of questionable value, and the end result seems to be large corporations which, unlike the cheerful family operations mentioned, take little or no responsibility toward people and systematically fire employees in order to reduce costs. The logical outcome of this kind of arrangement is the wealth inequality documented by Thomas Piketty in Capital. The fact is that the cumulative effects of the American Dream fantasy have been global pollution, national overpopulation, corporate manipulation of governance, high unemployment, and an emerging society of rich and poor. Furthermore, the capitalist model followed by the Western powers is associated with ideological conflicts and wars throughout the world.

On a personal level, I have always found entrepreneurial people somewhat offensive, if only because they tend to be aesthetically retarded. Although I like and appreciate Greg and Frances in certain respects, it is impossible for me to relate to many of their interests. Greg barely made it through college and reads low-grade science fiction for entertainment. He is still interested in UFO's, which is something I outgrew in high school. On vacation, Frances seems to have no interests beyond sightseeing and tourist trinkets. She is indifferent to the arts, which have strengths here, and local history. Neither of them ever does serious reading, and they show little interest in anyone outside their immediate families. To me, the scope of their thinking would feel like imprisonment.

2 comments:

  1. Another interesting article on one of your personal events, written such that I feel I now know these people. Regarding your last para I too have felt similarly and in particular about an assistant I use to have at work. She was so naive and happy with sitting home at night and just looking at twitter. It use to drive me nuts how she could be so vacuous but then I wondered if she was happier than I was maybe I was the one thinking/living wrong.

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    1. "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise." - Thomas Gray

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