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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Did anyone listen?

By Steve Ahlquist in Rhode Island’s Future

Image result for social safety netOne thing you will notice at the annual Rhode Island Small Business Economic Summit is that elected officials are very deferential to the opinions and ideas of the various business owners and advocates who present their legislative wish list each year.

No matter how ugly, selfish or classist the ideas expressed by one of the speakers is, our elected officials simply smile and nod. (I wrote about the ugliest comments at this year’s Summit here.) Are dead millionaires paying too much in taxes? Let’s lower the estate tax. Sick of paying holiday pay to low-wage employees? We can look into that.

This year, however, was a little different. When late in the day, we finally got around to hearing from General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, he spoke at length about the accomplishments he was proud of in his first two years of office.

Then, before gave up his turn at the microphone, Magaziner pushed back and made the case for a strong social safety net.

“If you’re going to have a successful entrepreneurial climate,” said Magaziner, “you have to have a climate where it’s okay to take risks and it’s okay to fail. I do worry a lot, particularly at the Federal level, about what is going to happen in terms of the social safety net… because, if you want people to take risks, if you want people to stick their neck out and start a business and face the possibility of failure, it’s much harder to develop that climate if people will have to worry that if they fail they’ll lose their health coverage, they’ll lose their home, they’ll lose their ability to feed young kids.

“As we watch what happens over the next few months in Washington, whether it’s this talk of repealing Obamacare without a replacement or gutting the Department of Labor, just keep in mind, somewhere in a restaurant kitchen right now in Rhode Island, there is someone who has the skills, the talent, maybe even the capital to start their own restaurant, and the factor that they have to think about is ‘If it doesn’t work out, am I going to be okay?’

“You have to have an environment where it is possible to fail, and the consequences of failure may not be pleasant, but they’re not going to be life-threatening. If you don’t have that you’re not going to have a successful small business environment, you’re not going to have a successful entrepreneurial environment. States cannot take all this on on their own,

“States cannot take all this on on their own, so I would encourage everybody to watch what is going on in Washington and all of us should train some of our advocacy and some of our efforts towards making sure that… there is some semblance of a social safety net that is left in place because without that, people aren’t going to take risks as much, people are not going to be as entrepreneurial, and we’re not going to have as strong of a small business climate that we all want.”

It’s hard to know if Magaziner’s comments made any impression on the assembled small business owners, business leaders, and elected officials, but props to Magaziner for making the effort and putting the argument into terms the audience might understand.

It was the brightest spot of a bleak event.

Steve Ahlquist is an award-winning journalist, writer, artist and founding member of the Humanists of Rhode Island, a non-profit group dedicated to reason, compassion, optimism, courage and action. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of any organization of which he is a member. or Twitter: @SteveAhlquist