Episode 111: How “Small Business” Rhetoric Is Used to Protect Corporate America
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: “Obama lauds small business owners in his State of the Union,” The Washington Post read. “I have always said that there is nothing more optimistic — perhaps maybe getting married — than starting a small business” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi tells us. “John Kerry would raise taxes on 900,000 small businesses,” insisted a reelection ad for then-president George W. Bush.
Adam: Everywhere we turn we are centering the needs of and reminded of the glowing status of the quote-unquote “small business”. They are the bipartisan holiest of holy in our economy — a scrappy little guy that also props up the moral pillars of capitalism, evidence that with a little elbow grease and knowhow anyone can build a business in their image. Small businesses are one of two major vehicles for COVID-19 relief — a wholly uncontroversial good that both parties, all ideologies, everyone, can agree are worth protecting and prioritizing.
Nima: But what do pundits and politicians mean exactly when they say “small business?” How does our romantic vision of the small business owner match up with reality, and how is their plight used as a messaging vanguard to strip away environmental and labor regulations, tort protections, taxes and a host of safeguards against corporate greed.
Adam: Evoking a wholesome image of Mom and Pop candy stores in Appleton, Wisconsin for laws that will ultimately benefit Hedge Funds, Dupont, Koch Industries, and a murderers row of polluters and worker abusers.
Nima: Later on the show we will be joined by two guests. First, Lisa Gilbert, Vice President of Legislative Affairs at Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that champions the public interest in the halls of power.
Lisa Gilbert: In thinking about small businesses I think the way that we talk about them and the way most Americans think about them are the corner store, it’s the businesses on Main Street, the businesses where you knew the owner growing up, it’s the new startup businesses that are small and your friend or your neighbor has started making something and selling it on Etsy, and those businesses are certainly not the ones that are complaining about being choked by massive amounts of regulations, you know, they are trying to get off the ground and use the government and use what’s offered to enable themselves to be successful. So certainly, you know, those are not the people who are worried about this and in fact, those are the folks who actually benefit from a great safety net and clear regulations for health and safety and protecting workers being on the books.
Nima: We’ll also talk to Bryan Quinby, co-host of Street Fight Radio.
Bryan Quinby: They are talked to by both political parties all the time. They are the people that are super important and obviously, it’s because “small businessperson” is an aspirational goal for a lot of working-class people. I also think that they get so much lip service and politics, because they’re running cover for the large corporations. Large corporations use small businesses so that they don’t have to raise minimum wage, and I think the Chamber of Commerce understands that and uses that and that’s what makes them a little more conservative, too.
Adam: The veneration of small businesses as the sole focus of big business concern trolling social issues or tax policy or regulation has really kind of come to the surface recently with the George Floyd protests. This really kind of drove home this framing which is something that we’ve seen over the last week, which is where, especially right-wing media, Fox News Breitbart, Daily Caller, Daily Wire, Ben Shapiro, has spent a lot of resources focusing on small businesses and of course, the thing they love more than anything is minority-owned small businesses that have been subject to what they call looting. So these are a couple headlines. Fox News, “Small business owners fear worst after rioting, looting destroy storefronts during pandemic,” CNN, “Small businesses across America were struggling to survive. Now they face a new threat,” presumably that’s I guess looting.
Nima: ABC 7 in Chicago had this headline, “‘They weren’t protesters, protesters have a cause’: Business owners attacked after storefront looted in South Loop.” Seattle Times had this: “For many Seattle-area small businesses, recent looting damage only adds to challenges of reopening.” Fox Business, “Looting, violent protests breaking backs of small businesses we need to restart America.” Another one from Fox Business, “Struggling small businesses confronted with looting, insurance questions.” ABC News, “Small businesses already hurt by coronavirus face more devastation due to looting.” And on and on and on.
Adam: This is a more urgent, more recent version of everything we’re going to talk about on today’s episode. But the general idea is that most of the looting for example in downtown Chicago was against Target, high-end fashion stores, Saks Fifth Avenue etc. Some of the higher-end Nike stores.
Nima: But that’s a really hard thing to rail against, right?
Adam: Yeah, nobody really cares about that.
Nima: Even if you’re a conservative, even if your motivation is to discredit a movement, is to discredit protesters, is to discredit whatever else is going on to feed your worldview, it’s still hard if there are big box stores having their windows smashed, to rail against that. And so small businesses become—
Adam: The thing we focus on.
Nima: Exactly, the catalysts for outrage and a new level of injustice that is supposed to then marginalize what is actually being addressed, the injustice that is actually being addressed by the protests. There’s a new injustice, and it’s smashed windows of a Mom and Pop store.
Adam: Yeah. Which again, is not that that didn’t happen, that does happen. But that of course, the media focuses on that and ignores all the other stuff for the most part, because look, on the DVD commentary of Ocean’s 11, Steven Soderbergh says something pretty funny. He says, they’re asking him why, why rob a casino? He’s like, cause who’s going to root for a casino? You know, casinos rob people all day.
Adam: If you find a casino chip on the floor, you don’t return it to customer service, right? And generally, I don’t think a lot of people feel bad stealing from Target. I mean, these are multibillion dollar corporations. So to really tug at those heartstrings, which is the entire thesis of the episode we’ll expand on later, to really tug at those heartstrings you got to, you got to find the smallest Mom and Pop known to man, the most minuscule business possible, preferably with a minority owner. So then that becomes a stand-in for the general property destruction that we see, and becomes the point of sympathy and the point of entry for the sympathy for the sort of Chamber of Commerce crowd.
Nima: And not that there shouldn’t be sympathy, I want to be clear, right? That actually sucks if your window’s smashed and your stuff, you know, is not there when you go into open your store or that you can’t open your store because there’s a fucking pandemic also. But it’s a matter of emphasis. It’s a matter of where the media is putting its attention. It’s a matter of how many stories you hear about small businesses, in contrast to the reality of what is happening and the larger story, the larger context, of a society that literally murders people based on the color of their skin. And that is what needs to be explored. Not just again and again and again having headline after headline after headline about small businesses, pulling at the heartstrings, and diverting attention.
Adam: Yeah, so for the purposes of this episode, we want to sort of clarify what we mean by ‘small business.’ There are various definitions, some say less than half a million dollars a year in revenue, some say, less than 12 employees, that’s a sort of federal definition under Title VII.
Nima: It’s like the same thing as, you know, ‘middle class,’ they’re certainly something that exists, but the parameters for defining it are so huge that it just gets exploited and weaponized all the time.
Adam: Yeah, so to be clear, the purpose of this episode isn’t to dump on Mexican immigrants who own a restaurant in Queens. I don’t think they’re these great class warriors. The goal is to sort of talk about why we center small business owners and how the image of the Mom and Pop, the image of the immigrant business is used as a bludgeon to advance corporate interests and also works to deify a group of people who are by definition, not workers and are not exploited by their bosses, albeit sometimes they’re poor.
Nima: So the small business rhetoric is routinely used as a shield in a number of different ways, including: pushing Republican tax cuts, opposing labor laws, environmental regulations and anti-discrimination laws, and lastly, and most recently, rhetoric surrounding reopening the American economy during a pandemic.
Adam: And one Ngram search shows that the use of the term “small business” or “small businesses” in American academic literature and media really took off in the early ‘80s, late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It had been used for decades, used in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the SBA predates that, but uses of small business as a concept and as a concept that we center exploded just after World War II and then really exploded — doubly so — starting in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s during the rise of kind of Reagan vision of America, sort of more conservative turn of America. This also correlates again, like we talked about with the rise of numerous right-wing think tanks, American Enterprise Institute, Cato, the rebirth of American Enterprise Institute I should say, Cato, Heritage. Now I don’t know if they’re directly related, we don’t have evidence of that, but the focus on small business definitely correlates with a conservative turn of the country in general. The Koch brother-backed think tanks, and other libertarian billionaire-funded think tanks love the term “small business.” Just by way of example, Reason.org has used the term “small businesses” 800 times, American Legislative Exchange Council’s website, otherwise known as ALEC, has used it 850 times, American Enterprise Institute’s website uses the term 2,400 times, the Cato Institute uses it 3,000 times and the motherlode, Heritage Foundation, uses it 4,500 times and this is just on their website, this does not include their policy papers and other public rhetoric.
Nima: So to dig into some of the examples that I listed just a little bit ago, we’re going to talk about the ways that the small business rhetoric is really used to advance a number of different things. Unsurprisingly, all of them are really conservative, really right-wing, really anti-labor. So the first is the push to advance Republican tax cuts, and there is no greater example of the small business rhetoric used and — I don’t know — overused then in the early years of the George W. Bush administration. So there were massive tax cuts pushed through in both 2001 and 2003 and you saw, in advance of this, the Bush administration and its supporters, both legislatively and also in the media, really push this idea of small businesses.
Adam: So there’s an article from the Associated Press in April of 2001 headlined, “Bush vows tax cuts, reform. Small businesses would benefit from proposed changes.” Reporter Scott Lindlaw would go on to say, quote, “President Bush, pinning hopes for economic revival on small businesses, promised another round of tax cuts and a simplification of a tax code.” They love simplification of tax code. Later that year, also in the Associated Press, an article with a headline that says, “Bush tax cut helps Main Street.” First paragraph, “One of the most important parts of President Bush’s tax-cut plan is the reduction in top rate. That’s because the top rate affects mostly small businesses, which create 75 percent of all the new jobs.” That is a straight report somehow. Later in 2003, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, this is a second round of tax cuts, “Bush tells how tax cuts can aid small businesses.” Reporter Bob Deans would say, quote, “Pressing his pitch for a 10-year, $1.6 trillion tax cut, President Bush said Tuesday that the cuts could help small-business owners gather the capital to create new jobs.”
Nima: They’re the job creators, Adam.
Adam: New York Times, June 2003, “Bush Promotes Tax Cuts as Big Aid to Small Businesses.”
President Bush, facing criticism that the latest tax cuts would mainly benefit the rich, asserted today that tax savings would bolster small businesses, which he said are a key part of the nation’s economic growth. ‘In order for our economy to recover, we must remember the strength and the importance of the small-business owner in America.’
Now, of course, who benefited was the super-rich. 2017, Steve Mnuchin repeatedly, they couldn’t quite keep Trump on message for this, although he did it a couple times, but Steve Mnuchin repeatedly referred to the December 2017 tax cuts as being driven by helping small businesses and small business owners.
Nima: The next gambit of using small business ownership to push through shitty laws, or to repeal good laws, is this idea of the bludgeon against labor laws and against environmental regulations, against anti-discrimination policies, because if you do that, there’s just so much fucking red tape that small business owners somehow can’t do their work providing jobs and stability to our American economy.
Adam: So, literally the first thing Trump did when he got in office—a couple days before he got in office—he met with 12 business leaders from Fortune 500 companies, top corporate executives, and the first thing he did on January 20, 2017 when he got into office was submit paperwork for Executive Order 13771 that was ultimately signed on January 30, 2017, 10 days later, he signed the order flanked by what he referred to as small business owners. I want to listen to that clip right now.
President Trump Signs Executive Order on Business Regulations
President Trump signed an executive order cutting government regulations on small and large businesses. He made…
Donald Trump: So this is small business and this is regulation and this will be the largest-ever cut by far in terms of regulation. These folks are small business owners, and they’re great people. They’ve been representative of the community, the Small Business Community. To the press, anybody? Would you like to say something to the press? Anybody? Become famous back in Syracuse?
Man #1: Just thank you for doing this because small business has just been buried in a tidal wave of red tape and to break that will really change the world for us. Thank you.
Man #2: Absolutely.
Woman: Thank you.
Adam: So the small business owner we hear from, who’s standing behind him, is an Oklahoma-based real estate developer named Dennis Bradford, who is a multi-millionaire real estate developer in Florida who was appointed to Trump’s, quote, “Small Business Advisory Council” unquote. According to his bio, he’s a “Real Estate developer, consultant and investor. Principal at Genesis Group, Broker Principal at Island Investment Realty, LLC and Genesis Realty, LLC.” He sells timeshares, he sells houses in the Caribbean. According to The Guardian, Dennis Bradford—they looked up all Trump’s Advisory Council people—quote, “declared bankruptcy in 2012 with liabilities of more than $3.1m, according to court filings in Oklahoma City… The Bradfords reported $99,000 in tax liabilities to several states and the federal government. In an interview, Bradford said he had worked his way back to success in business. He blamed the bankruptcy on the 2008 downturn in the Florida real estate market.”
Bradford currently lives in a million-dollar home in Oklahoma City while selling Florida and island real estate. So, this guy is the representative of small businesses.
Nima: Thanks for destroying the red tape for Dennis Bradford.
Adam: To be clear, this executive order that Trump signed is very pernicious. Executive Order 13771 in effect says that the federal government cannot create a new regulation without repealing two other regulations and making sure that the regulation they want to advance is cost-neutral. This has been a right-wing agenda item for a very long time and through the stroke of a pen Trump made it so.
Nima: Now, the bill of course mostly existed to — what else? — protect large corporations, but mysteriously these Fortune 500 executives were not allowed to attend the bill signing as the —
Adam: Mysteriously he was not flanked by —
Nima: He was not flanked by, you know, Forbes, because that wouldn’t be as good of a talking point. But just a little over a week after this bill was signed, on February 8, 2017, the organizations Public Citizen, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Communications Workers of America filed a lawsuit against the implementation of this executive order, Executive Order 13771. The lawsuit states that passing this order is unconstitutional because it violates the separation of powers and oversteps the authority allowed under the Take Care Clause. Now, obviously, as a first act of the Trump administration doing something blatantly unconstitutional to benefit gigantic corporations and rich people, pretty on brand, and it’s only continued from there.
Adam: According to Public Citizen, the law would prevent oversight from Motor Vehicle Safety and Motor Carrier Safety Act; Occupational Safety and Health Act; Mine Safety and Health Act; Toxic Substance Control Act; Hazardous Materials Transportation Act; Federal Railroad Safety Act; Federal Water Pollution Control Act; Energy Policy and Conservation Act; and Endangered Species Act and Clean Air Act. So, all of these Acts, as I’m sure you imagine, are probably not that important to a guy who owns a convenience store around the corner or someone who runs a popsicle stand in Schenectady. These are good for large corporations, which of course is the point. Similar pro-business efforts have taken shape in Congress under the auspices of protecting small businesses as well. In 2015, James Goodwin at the Center for Progressive reform wrote a really great article called, “The Anti-Regulatory Crowd’s Small Business Rhetoric is a Scam” in which he detailed the ways in which the Small Business Office of Advocacy, a small, under-the-radar bureau effectively functions as an anti-regulatory sister to the much better known White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. This was all under Obama, but like the OIRA, it works on behalf of powerful corporate interests to attack crucial regulatory safeguards for protecting the public. Quote:
Last summer, the Government Accountability Office [otherwise known as the GAO] confirmed that the SBA Office of Advocacy was little more than a shill for big business in a damning report. The GAO could find no evidence whatsoever that the SBA Office of Advocacy was actually working to help real small businesses. Under the Regulatory Flexibility Act, the SBA Office of Advocacy is supposed to comment on pending agency rulemakings to highlight concerns that small businesses have with them. However, the SBA Office of Advocacy could provide the GAO with no evidence that its decision to intervene in particular rulemakings was ever motivated by concerns raised by small businesses. Nor could the SBA Office of Advocacy provide any evidence that the substance of its comments were based on actual small business concerns. Indeed, the GAO could find no evidence that the SBA Office of Advocacy had ever spoke with any real small businesses at all.
Instead, on the basis of several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, CPR and the Center for Effective Government has found copious evidence that the SBA Office of Advocacy takes its marching orders from powerful trade groups, such as the American Chemistry Council — groups that no have no legitimate claim to serving as a representative of small businesses interests.
So this is fairly routine, this is just one example, this happens all the time. Big business interests are framed as caring about small business because after all, Nima, how can you oppose small businesses?
Adam: It’s like the middle class. It’s an unassailable, moral good.
Nima: They are what makes America America. Now, obviously, this goes back years and years, but just, you know, one other example, in his opposition to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 which loosened the statute of limitations under which workers can sue employers for pay discrimination based on characteristics such as gender, race, age, disability, et cetera, Senator John Ensign swore up and down that his opposition to Lilly Ledbetter was to protect — what else? — small businesses. At the time a CNN article said this, quote:
Some in Congress opposed the law because of its potential chilling effect on small companies. Senator John Ensign, R-Nevada, was one of 36 senators who voted against the act. He believes it will facilitate more discrimination suits — a costly distraction at a time when small businesses are critical to a U.S. economic recovery. ‘Small businesses simply cannot afford to ‘lawyer up’ and fight back,’ Ensign says. ‘Our country needs more jobs, not more lawsuits.’
Adam: ‘I would really care about women’s rights and protecting gay people from being discriminated against but those damn small businesses.’
Nima: ‘They just can’t afford the lawsuits that will inevitably occur from when they discriminate against people, and we need them now more than ever.’
Adam: A follow-up effort in 2012 to strengthen Lilly Ledbetter was stopped by Senate Republicans because according to the New York Times, quote, “potentially onerous compliance issues for small businesses.” Small businesses are infamously exempt from the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s Title VII. Title VII refers to the federal law that, quote, “protects employees against discrimination based on certain specified characteristics: race, color, national origin, sex, and religion.” According to a Texas Law Review explainer, quote, “Title VII defines ‘employer’—e.g. someone who is covered by the Civil Rights Act 1964—as ‘a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has fifteen or more employees for each working day in each of twenty or more calendar weeks in the current or preceding calendar year.’” So people who have less than 15 employees are infamously exempt from the Civil Rights Act, which means that there is still state protection, but under federal anti-discrimination law, they can’t be held accountable for it.
And at the time when the Civil Rights Act was trying to pass, and this is probably one of the reasons this carveout exists, one of the major objections to it, it did rely on small business or small entity rhetoric. A Pensacola News Journal op-ed from two former presidents of the American Bar Association, so these people weren’t nobodies, they were two ex-presidents of the American Bar Association, Loyd Wright and John C. Satterfield — John C. Satterfield was probably the single most popular pro-segregationist jurist and lawyer that we know of at the time — warned the then-proposed Civil Rights Act of 1964 would be an attack on quote-unquote “small establishments.” Quote:
The Civil Rights Act of 1963
—which is what it was at the time—
would also bring under federal control individuals and businesses never before thought to be constitutionally subject to such regulation. For instance, under the bill’s Title II, any person who pays a business license to a state or municipality could be included. Thus, the Act brings in almost every profession and every business — lawyers, realtors, small establishments, theaters, restaurants, gasoline stations, hotels…
Nima: So yeah, so even from the beginning about regulation, anti-discrimination law, you see these carve outs for small businesses to protect quote-unquote “small businesses” against paying fair wages, against discrimination, against both treating their workers and their potential customers fairly. So another example of this is that minimum wage increases that are advocated for, fought for, are routinely concerned trolled regarding the effect that they will have on what else small businesses. So this is nothing new. So you have the Des Moines Register back in March of 1992 with the headline, “Iowa wage law takes toll on small firms” and then a few years later in the Times and Democrat from South Carolina, this is in 1995, there’s an interview with a quote-unquote “businessman” named Austin Cunningham, who tells us this, quote, “You have to pay competitive wages, not minimum wages. That’s the way the market works.” End quote.
Adam: In May 1998, The New Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, “Restaurants live or die by minimum wage,” which has an opposition figure representing the local restaurant association saying that minimum wage increases will hurt restaurants. By the way, none of this ever actually ends up happening. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution February 2013, Guest Column, “Wage hike bad idea for many reasons. Proponents of President Barack Obama’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour say it would bode well for business and the overall economy. Opponents label the rate increase a jobs killer that would hurt small business owners.”
Now here’s a fun one. In Michigan the most vocal group opposing increase in the state’s minimum wage laws and sick leave paid laws that were pushed in 2017 and 2018 was a group called Small Business For A Better Michigan. Now, who funded Small Business For A Better Michigan? The bulk of their money came from the Michigan Manufacturers Association, the Michigan Restaurant Association, the Michigan Retailers Association, and the Michigan Bankers Association, industry trade groups for large corporate interest. The Michigan Manufacturers Association is funded by U.S. Steel Corporation, Kellog, Pfizer. The Michigan Restaurant Association through its national branch is funded by Yumbrands, McDonalds, et cetera, et cetera.
So time and time again, whenever states try to propose a minimum wage increase or worker protection, new OSHA standards, paid sick leave is a big one, mysteriously these groups called Small Businesses for a Better Michigan or Texas Small Business Advocacies, magically appear out of nowhere and guess who funds them? Hint: It’s not actually small businesses.
Nima: The last point we want to make about this is about how small businesses are used to build a case for the unsafe quote-unquote “reopening” of state economies during our current pandemic. So the right-wing billionaire-funded think tanks pushing to unsafely send people back to work in the middle of this pandemic have repeatedly used rhetoric around — what else? — protecting small businesses, to justify this lobbying campaign. So it’s important to contextualize just how barbarous this is. One model, created in March in consultation with the CDC projected that up to 1.7 million people in the U.S. could die of COVID-19 under a worst-case scenario. The Imperial College London put this number at 2.2 million. We already know that COVID-19 is disproportionately killing black and Latinx Americans as well as poor people.
Now, while ALEC, which is funded by the Koch brothers, has sought to publicly distance itself from the protests to ‘reopen’ the economy — a phrase that actually I hate and that should never be used but it is used in this political rhetoric because why would you want something closed? Right? Doesn’t that seem terrible? Isn’t that bad for small businesses, so you have to reopen as opposed to keeping people safe and alive — but while the Koch brothers have basically, you know, done the arm’s-length thing that they did with the Tea Party with this same “protest movement,” quote-unquote, they have, behind closed doors or on legislator calls and press statements, they have been aggressively pushing for this completely unsafe move.
On April 1, 2020 ALEC had a legislator call about small businesses in the era of COVID-19, on which the host, Bill Meierling, argued, quote, “legislators will need to consider economic issues, how to jump-start the economy, and focus on supporting small business owners.” End quote. So on the same call, again, it’s a legislator call, meaning ALEC is on the line with lawmakers giving them their own talking points. So on this call ALEC Chief Economist Jonathan Williams reiterated ALEC’s support of small businesses and entrepreneurs and free markets across the states. He also said this, quote, “This is where a majority of all the net new jobs created in the United States has taken place over a period of years.” End quote.
Adam: In an April 22 statement from the also Koch-funded Heritage Foundation — pretty much a who’s who of evil billionaires and corporations — which wielded significant influence over the Tea Party organization as well as the Trump administration, the statement read, quote:
Carol, an owner of a small professional firm in California, summed up the squeeze on small-business owners: Her firm won’t survive if we don’t get back to “normal” within a month. Though her employees are working from home, her business’ income is cut in half while expenses remain almost constant. She has laid off people, and the higher-paid professionals who work for her are electing to go without pay so other staff can still get paid.
Nima: I guess her expenses aren’t remaining constant because she’s laying off people.
Adam: The Heritage Foundation and ALEC on are not funded by small businesses. They’re funded by large corporations. But nobody wants to say, ‘I want to reopen my baby poisoning factory.’ That sounds bad, right? I don’t want to reopen Dow Chemical, I don’t want to reopen a meatpacking plant, that sounds sort of sinister and evil and non essential. This is why you have to bring out these bleeding heart stories about Carol who owns a small business. Now I want to stop and say that it is not to say that Mom and Pop small businesses are not suffering under COVID-19. There are by a lot and the PPP program is a horrific nightmare, but these people who are supposedly representing the little guy like Heritage and ALEC, spend millions and millions of dollars a year to pass anti-worker, anti poor-legislation. They supported the gutting of unions via Janus. The Heritage Foundation basically writes the scripts to undermine the Trump administration’s anti-worker and anti-regulation policies. So their heart bleeds rather selectively but what they want to do is use these very sympathetic stories, which I think a lot of people would be sympathetic to, as a bludgeon to hit you over the head with what they’re really doing, which is trying to help the bottom lines of Fortune 500 companies.
Nima: And so the rallies we see around the country about reopening the economy, these are astroturfed by the same organizations. Recently, The Guardian reported that, quote:
Despite ReOpen Virginia billing itself as a ‘grassroots group of people and small business owners,’ founder Kristen Lynne Hall said the idea for the protest came from the organizers of the ‘Lobby Day’ demonstration earlier this year. That demonstration was organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group that has donated tens of thousands of dollars to politicians.
Adam: FreedomWorks, which has been a major supporter of these open up the economy astroturf protests, according to The New York Times,
Nonprofit groups including FreedomWorks and Tea Party Patriots have used their social media accounts and text and email lists to spread the word about protests across the country. Most of FreedomWorks’s 40 employees are working remotely on the effort, helping to connect local protesters and set up websites for them. The group is considering paid digital advertising to further increase turnout.
The president of FreedomWorks wrote in a Washington Examiner op-ed published April 21, quote, “For starters, states should begin allowing small businesses to resume operations at the owner’s discretion.” So these quote-unquote “open up economies” that are astroturfed by, again, groups funded by billionaires, which FreedomWorks is, are using as the tip of the rhetoric spear, the rhetoric around helping small businesses.
Nima: Maybe my favorite thing that we’ve seen in defense of small businesses in the era of COVID-19, is the hand-wringing over the small mom and pop defense firms. So you have an article published in Defense News on April 24 of this year with the headline, “COVID cash crunch still hurting small defense firms.” And so Mom and Pop store down the street that is assembling weapons and fighter planes, right? So somehow these get lumped in as the small businesses that drive the American economy, that put people back to work, that make us who we are. Included in this are the so-called “small suppliers” that contract with Lockheed, that contract with L3Harris Technologies, that contract with Raytheon, to produce killing machines, these are also supposed to be the small businesses that desperately need to be helped.
Adam: Yeah, so pretty much the defense industry has kept open plants and pushing and lobbying for keeping open plants that make weapons in Mexico and India, and the rhetoric they’re using to do that is that the downstream suppliers are small businesses that are going to be hurt if the defense industry stops making weapons, missiles, bombs, aircraft during the COVID pandemic. So basically, if you’re a PR person, and you sit down and you’re saying, ‘How can I get someone to support this right-wing agenda, which is basically lining the pockets of a handful of people?’ It makes sense, you want to start with these bleeding heart stories about small businesses because in principle, their interests are aligned with your interests when it comes to quote-unquote “opening the economy” or comes it to anti-worker legislation, when it comes to anti-environmental regulation. Now, of course, within the small business community I’m sure there are good liberals et cetera, but broadly speaking, some of the core features of what the right-wing wants they largely agree, so of course, you’re going to center a sympathetic story versus the largely opaque and unknown corporate lobbying elements of the far-right and I think that the small business rhetoric is built in a laboratory specifically to play on the fact that yeah, you go to your coffee shop, and you know the guy who owns it, or you go to your taco stand, and you know, the guy that owns it, and so we’re naturally inclined to sort of sympathize with those people, whereas we’re not naturally inclined to sympathize with meatpacking plants and chemical factories.
Nima: To talk more about this, we’re going to be joined by Lisa Gilbert, Vice President of Legislative Affairs at Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that champions the public interest in the halls of power. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Lisa Gilbert. Lisa, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Lisa Gilbert: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
Adam: So, we spent a great deal of the time at the top of the show talking about the ways in which quote-unquote “small business” rhetoric is used by Chamber of Commerce types, the Republican Party and trade groups funded by large corporations to shield themselves from criticism and to promote peeling back regulation and to undermine labor power and union power and your work at Public Citizen and your work and y’all’s work there, just as a matter of pure messaging and PR, how often do you come across this rhetoric and how effective do you think this rhetoric is to shield these corporations from accountability?
Lisa Gilbert: We come across this type of rhetoric constantly. It’s the number one argument on the part of big corporations to try to make it seem reasonable to roll back regulations or not put in place sensible public protections, which would be how we frame it, and so it’s really the thing that, as you pointed out, the Chamber of Commerce has adopted as their mechanism to pretend that they have the best interest of regular Americans and Mom and Pop businesses at heart when actually what they’re trying to do is shield their biggest constituents, companies like Exxon or big tech companies.
Nima: From your work in actually talking to, working with, partnering with people who actually do run maybe what we would consider actual small businesses, what is their read on this kind of rhetoric? Do they feel like this is actually about them or is this so blatantly transparent and maybe the “them” here is even something that we should try and define, how would you even best talk about what a small business is in a way that is not this clearly kind of dog-whistle propaganda term as so often use in our political rhetoric?
Lisa Gilbert: Absolutely. So in thinking about small businesses, I think the way that we talk about them and the way most Americans think about them are the corner store, it’s the businesses on Main Street, the businesses where you knew the owner growing up. It’s the new startup businesses that are small, and your friend or your neighbor has started making something and selling it on Etsy, you know, it’s a truly small entity, and those businesses are certainly not the ones that are complaining about being choked by massive amounts of regulations, you know, they are trying to get off the ground and use the government and use what’s offered to enable themselves to be successful. So certainly, you know, those are not the people who are worried about this and in fact, those are the folks who actually benefit from a great safety net and clear regulations for health and safety and protecting workers being on the books.
Adam: Yeah. So I want to talk specifically about this executive order that Trump signed in late January of 2017. It was the first executive order he submitted on January 20, he signed it on January 30. And this was Executive Order 13771, which prevents regulatory bodies from creating a regulation without repealing two regulations and being cost-neutral. The obvious implication of this is that basically regulatory bodies can’t create new regulations. And Trump when he signed this executive order was surrounded by quote-unquote “small business” owners. We showed in the intro that that was obviously nonsense, because the one small business owner who spoke during the event is somewhat of a sleazy real-estate developer in Oklahoma, so you know, this isn’t exactly, like you said the corner store guy, but I want to talk about that executive order, Trump literally shielded himself with human small businesses, and who it actually benefited and who it seeks to benefit.
Lisa Gilbert: So, the feelings we have about this executive order are strong, so strong that it led us to sue the Trump administration, because we find it so nonsensical. You know, the very idea that for every new public health protection we put on the books we have to arbitrarily take off two other ones that have nothing to do with the new one you just created is absurd. So, you know, we worry hugely about what it means for regular people when you’re, you know, sort of picking off the books, health, safety, environmental, consumer, finance, worker rights, protections, you know, just clearly shows that the Trump administration is only out to help the biggest corporations who don’t want to be hemmed in by those rules. So I think our underlying concern about this is that it would have taken lots and lots of rules off the books. I think an interesting fact about this, though, is that the Trump administration has struggled to comply with its own EO, so we haven’t actually seen for every new rule, two taken off the books, you know, we don’t believe this EO was constitutional in the first place but we also find it ironic and mildly humorous that they’ve been unable to figure out how to do it in a way that actually works.
Adam: Yeah, because it has Heritage Foundation written all over it. It’s sort of this hacky, maybe even sort of Cato Institute where it’s like hacky anti-regulation rhetoric that you sort of get that doesn’t, like you said, is just completely arbitrary.
Nima: Yeah, it’s a total talking point, right? That you’re saying, ‘Oh, we’re, you know, slashing government red tape or slashing Big Brother,’ just by this kind of mathematical equation that is literally one step forward, two steps back, except as written in an executive order, it makes absolutely no sense. I think one of those rhetorical shields, you know, this is a talking point, that’s a talking point, they sound kind of superficially good in a stump speech, because it’s like you’re standing up for small business owners, standing up for the Mom and Pop shop. Another one of these rhetorical devices, this kind of shield, is that of Republican tax cuts. So, you know, listening to, this is now decades ago but listening to, you know, say speeches given by George W. Bush in the early 2000s, you’d think that all the money from tax cuts goes directly to salt of the earth, Jeffersonian, yeoman farmers, but can you, Lisa, tell us about how this weaponization and exploitation of the idea of the mom and pop shop that is struggling to survive and yet is the, you know, heart of a community, how is this used in Republican efforts to cut taxes both at the federal and of course, the state and local levels?
Lisa Gilbert: Yes. So, you know, in thinking about that question, both calling regulations “red tape” and raising up the idea that people should feel burdened by their taxes, it’s a similar talking point about government kind of keeping you down or making it harder for you to succeed. I think one of the reasons they can be successful is, you know, as people are starting new ventures or running a small business without a lot of help, without legal counsels on tap or without a kind of deep understanding of how best to go about setting up their new business, they can struggle and feel local permitting ordinances, for example, can feel like red tape, you know, they’re not something that a federal change to our rulemaking procedures will make any difference in, they are something that your local government, your town, your county, your city has put in place as you set up your small business, but it can feel like there’s too much red tape and so, you know, when that idea is raised up, you might think it’s appealing to do away with regulations. And so it’s just really capitalizing on a feeling that a small business owner might have and then using it, as you said earlier, as a rhetorical pivot to try to push for a big federal thing, which has almost nothing to do with what small businesses are actually doing on the ground.
Adam: Yeah, because one of the things that I think that’s missing in this conversation and we discussed this, we recently did an episode on tort reform, I think we’re becoming the official podcast of plaintiffs attorneys, but —
Lisa Gilbert: We’re angry about that, too.
Adam: (Laughs.) Is that like, there’s not a sense of what the human cost is, people talk about things like red tape and regulations as if they exist in a moral vacuum or they’re just done by a bunch of liberal busybodies who need something to do, things like environmental regulation, OSHA standards, have a real human cost. So how do you y’all at Public Citizen, how do you sort of get across this idea that this anodyne Reaganesque discussion about regulation misses that these regulations weren’t created for the LOLs, they weren’t created for fun, they have a reason, and what are the human stakes of repealing regulation or neutering regulation from, you know, everything from the EPA to OSHA?
Lisa Gilbert: So when we’re explaining why regulations are important, a) we rarely use the word “regulation,” because it is inherently associated with red tape as we’ve been talking about, and that’s why the Republicans are successful.
Adam: ‘You guys are such buzzkills, man.’ Yeah.
Lisa Gilbert: Exactly. But we talk about them as public protections, as sensible safeguards that we need and in fact, depend on. The people in this nation are looking to government if there’s a Wall Street crash, if there’s a COVID crisis if there’s a BP Oil disaster, if there’s the Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal, whatever the thing is, the corporate wrongdoing, the crisis, the disaster, you know, we look to government to regulate, to put in place public protections so that people are safe and healthy. And so the way to explain what’s happening is to talk about real life examples, and also, what people depend on and what they’re looking for government to actually do.
Adam: Because in many ways, I feel like people take for granted, sort of like with abortion rights, where the next generation takes for granted, like I have to explain to my niece who’s 10 years old that there used to be something called acid rain. Now I wasn’t even alive for that, but acid rain would come down and kill people and then the EPA was like, ‘Hey, let’s get rid of acid rain.’ There used to be lead and gasoline. I don’t think people appreciate the sort of benefits of it and because it’s not readily tangible, they just assume, like you said, it’s a bunch of statist liberals out to sort of —
Nima: Well right, because it’s just kind of dragging small business owner Elon Musk down, right?
Adam: Lake Erie used to be on fire, goddamnit! Like… sorry.
Lisa Gilbert: I think another thing people sometimes forget to talk about is the actual monetary benefits of regulation. So one of the rhetorical things out there is that regulations are somehow costly to the economy and to regular people, but actually, when you regulate in a smart way, the benefits far exceed the costs at least two to one, but many analyses say by far more, you know, and the Trump regulatory executive order irrationally excludes consideration of benefits. You can only look at the cost to businesses when you look at what needs to be taken off the books. So, you know, just such a biased, clear illumination of why they’re doing this. They want to help major corporations.
Nima: In terms of that order, how do they even define a cost to small business?
Lisa Gilbert: I mean, it’s a great question. It’s done by each agency looking at an assessment that then in turn goes through a centralized agency called OMB. So every, every time you do a rule, you have to do a cost benefit analysis and those are what are sent to the centralized repository. So they have to pull out that assessment and look at only the costs rather than the benefits when deciding whether something is worthy of staying in the Federal Register.
Nima: Sounds kind of red tape-y to me. (Laughs.) It sounds like, ‘Oh, here’s a new rule and you have to send it around to all these things and so this government body determines what is actually a cost to small business but we’re not actually taking into account any human costs that are maybe associated with that.’
Lisa Gilbert: You are singing from the Public Citizen songbook. We definitely agree with that critique, and we’d like the rulemaking process to be faster so that we can help people more quickly.
Adam: I for one really wish Big Brother would stop preventing me from selling my fiberglass pills that I’ve been trying to market. Frankly, I think it’s literally the same thing as Naziism. Well, thank you so much for joining us —
Nima: Your damn monorail you just can’t get purchased these days. (Laughs.)
Adam: (Laughs.) I know, man. You guys are such liberal busybodies.
Nima: Well, Lisa, before we let you go, what can you tell us about what Public Citizen is up to these days and how other folks can check out your work, get involved, and maybe move some of these issues along in a much better way than what we’re seeing lately?
Lisa Gilbert: Definitely. So you can learn more about Public Citizen at citizen.org and you can see the things that we’re working on in this current moment. Obviously, a lot of our advocacy has pivoted to focus on what needs to be in the relief packages, so we’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about everything from increasing funding for our elections so that we can transition to vote by mail and actually have a safe and fair election come November, to increasing funding for testing and tracing, to just thinking about how to better enhance oversight as taxpayer money goes out the door to corporations around the country and bailouts, we want to make sure that there are guardrails on that money and the entities and new institutions are empowered to hold these companies accountable.
Nima: Are you seeing anything in the new HEROES Act that people need to be aware of that maybe isn’t getting much attention?
Lisa Gilbert: I mean, the bill is enormous, so I’m sure huge swaths of it are not getting enough attention.
Nima: Because it’s 4,000 pages.
Lisa Gilbert: Correct. I think one of the things that we’re excited about, which is what I mentioned at the top about what we’re advocating for, we were really thrilled to see $3.6 billion for securing our elections included and hope that it survives the process of negotiation with the Senate, with Mitch McConnell, and something that we’re hoping is made stronger somehow through the process is oversight provisions.
Nima: Awesome. Well, that is a great place to leave it. Lisa Gilbert, Vice President of Legislative Affairs at Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that champions the public interest in the halls of power. Lisa, thank you so much, again, for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Lisa Gilbert: Thanks.
Adam: Yeah, I think that’s interesting that they’re the one of the few think tanks that has enough money or enough clout to protect regulation, to push laws protecting people and to protect unions and defend unions. So I’m sure they live and breathe the small business bullshit and you spend a lot of your resources showing why this is not coming from, nor is it particularly benefiting, small businesses but is in fact benefiting not small businesses. It’s Mr. Burns on top of the castle twiddling his mustache.
Nima: Joining us now to talk about how working for small businesses is not necessarily all that it is cracked up to be in Republican talking points is Bryan Quinby, co-host of Street Fight Radio. Bryan’s going to join us in just a moment, stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Bryan Quinby, co-host of Street Fight Radio which airs in part on WCRS in Columbus, Ohio. You can follow him on the Twitter machine @MurderBryan, that’s Bryan with a “y.” Bryan, it’s so great to have you back on Citations Needed.
Bryan Quinby: I know, I still get tweets from the last time I did it so I’m very excited, too.
Nima: Well awesome. So, one of the one of the first things that actually we want to get out of the way right at the top, right from the get-go is to deconstruct this myth that small businesses are somehow per se better to work for, or more kind of pro-employee than gigantic corporations and I think this really infuses so much of how we understand this term, “small business,” how it’s weaponized and leveraged in the media and in politics. So everyone here on this podcast, everyone probably listening, who’s worked for a so-called Mom and Pop shop will tell you that, frankly, the pro-employee aspect of small businesses is bullshit. So can we begin by comparing people’s perception of that wholesome, candy cane store in downtown Appleton, Wisconsin, versus the more seedy elements of what we also can possibly refer to as entrepreneurship.
Bryan Quinby: So in 2015, I graduated from college and I needed to do something between that and either grad school or becoming a podcaster, which, when you become the podcaster, it really makes you feel bad for doing the college, but I got this job at a deli. I couldn’t believe they hired me. In one day I was hired and then the next day I came, and I worked one day with everybody, and they were like, ‘Hey, you’re really going to work out, you can start here.’ So I had started there. And my previous work experience before this was at a giant cable company where there is this layer of bureaucracy. I mean, even if you’re being treated unfair, it feels like you have some kind of way, you can get out of things, you know, it isn’t just, you’re not just stuck.
I got a job at this deli and a lot of my co workers were ex-felons because it was right by the mission. And after the first month, because he was very nice to me for the first month I worked there, I started to notice that if you were one of the people that are a felon, or just somebody who, it’s hard for them to get a regular job, this guy was treating people terribly. He was screaming at people because he knew they needed the job, and I just figured out in that moment that this is way worse! It sucks to work here! I have to live under this guy’s rules. He’s the owner there’s nobody to go to above him. You’re stuck.
Adam: Yeah, because anecdotally I know that I worked in the restaurant industry for 11 years as a cook, as a waiter and a bartender, and I did it all, I worked for Outback Steakhouse Incorporated, which is obviously a very large corporation, I worked for Be Our Guest which is a large restaurant chain in New York City, I think has now been bought by someone, but I also did some Mom and Pop. I did the West Village cokehead owners, I did the small Austin-based, earthy, granola type and I didn’t see any real pattern of which was better but the thing is, I would say two things.
Number one, I think that what annoys us and what we talked about on the show is the assumption that somehow small businesses are more pro-employee or better for employees. There’s some institutional argument they’re less toxic, you know, Mom and Pop stores are not necessarily funding the American Enterprise Institute or, you know, anti-abortion Congressmen, you know, this sort of a, institutionally, I think big corporations are more evil, but the perception that they’re all nice is I think the thing I really want to dig in here and I want to specifically talk about how they’re sort of designed to be kind of hotbeds of reactionary-ism. Now, Donald Trump was the preferred candidate, according to one poll of small business owners, roughly 60 to 40 percent, so a 20 point difference. And in many ways, small businesses, especially those with physical locations, like retail and restaurants, are kind of designed in a lab to generate Republicans, right? Razor-thin margins means that they hate unions and labor regulations and taxes, paranoia about security theft means that they all sort of, not all, but many of them become kind of Blue Lives Matter chuds. My first job was at Chick-fil-A, and if the cops parked their cars in our parking lot, we would bring them free chicken sandwiches, because they were worried about being robbed. This is common in restaurants and that may be justified or not, but it’s sort of like homeownership, 401k is taking your retirements and putting in the market. It seems like the obsession with the funding of and the focus on small business, either by design or accident, will make people more conservative, because you’re sort of invested in the pillars of capitalism, but you’re also very precarious, right? It’s not like someone on Wall Street who just moves numbers around on a computer, and Wall Street actually votes, has a tendency to be more liberal, strangely enough, ironically enough, then your kind of guy who owns 14 Subway franchises, right? So I want to talk about these incentives and the social function that this kind of struggling, aspirational millionaire class serves to kind of flatten the class differences and to really kind of create a vanguard of reaction when it comes to regulation, taxes, et cetera.
Bryan Quinby: Right. I think there’s a lot of these small businesses that, I mean, basically, they’re small businesses that shouldn’t exist. It’s people that are, you know, they have a tough time dealing with employees, so it’s high turnover and they think that that’s because employees are bad, when, in fact, the pay’s bad, and the environment’s bad at a lot of these small businesses. So the only thing you can do is quit to get out and move on to something else and I think that attributes to their more conservative nature, and I also think they are talked to by both political parties all the time, they are the people that are super important and obviously it’s because ‘small businessperson’ is a aspirational goal for a lot of working-class people. I also think that they get so much lip service in politics, because they’re running cover for the large corporations, large corporations use small businesses so that they don’t have to raise minimum wage, and I think the Chamber of Commerce understands that and uses that and that’s what makes them a little more conservative, too.
Adam: Yeah, because that’s sort of the gist of our intro, basically, which is that, it’s not so much that there isn’t really a such thing as struggling small businesses per se, it’s that that becomes a stand in, that the sort of proverbial candy cane store in Appleton, Wisconsin becomes a rhetorical vanguard for the Koch brothers’ baby poisoning factory. And this actually does touch on what we talked about in the Mike Rowe episode that you came on to talk about where the line between the working-class man and the owner is intentionally blurred, right? It’s sort of like Joe the Plumber, this is a small business owner, but he’s also working class and so what’s the sort of distinction, and that kind of blurring of the lines, sort of like to term “middle class,” I think it’s quite deliberate because you can’t have class conflict if you’re not sure what class someone’s in, right? And so small businesspeople are centered because they have the intent of muddying who’s sort of the David and who’s the Goliath.
Nima: Well, because then you also can’t raise wages because it would hurt the small business owner.
Adam: The candy cane store in Appleton, Wisconsin. When really that’s not the end goal. That’s not who’s really funding these initiatives, right?
Bryan Quinby: No. I also think that when I first heard about the small business thing, because I kind of believed in this, there was a period where I would be like, you can’t do this to small businesses. I don’t know why. I never owned one until now.
Nima: It’s everywhere so you just blurt that out randomly. It’s not your fault, Bryan.
Bryan Quinby: (Laughs.) Yeah, but it was, I was at a Bernie Sanders rally in 2016. And I was working at this camera store, in a warehouse in the basement and in the interview, they asked what I would like to be paid and I said, ‘How about $9.50 an hour?’ Which I would have liked to have been paid a lot more to work in a warehouse and they were like, ‘How about $8.60?’ and talked me down to $1 almost less than what I wanted to make. So there’s this Bernie Sanders rally happening in town in 2016 and I go to walk around it, see if I know anybody, maybe I was going to try to go in, but I didn’t RSVP so I don’t know what I was doing, but I saw the guy that owned the camera store that was paying me $8.60 an hour standing outside holding a Fight for $15 sign.
Bryan Quinby: And I was like, you actually have the power and once we started running our business, me and Brett did everything ourselves until we could afford to pay $20 an hour to the people that work for the show.
Bryan Quinby: And I think that’s the thing, is these people think they’re entitled to have an employee, to have a business when most of them can’t, they honestly can’t support an employee, they shouldn’t even have any. If you want to run a candy cane store, then I guess you’re going to have to work nine to five at the candy cane store.
Nima: Well, right because I think that that is so much of it that it, you know, there’s this idea that a small business is just the better version of big business, right? The problem are these, you know, multinational companies, but the small business owners, that’s the real, that’s the heartland stuff, right? Or that’s the stuff on Main Street where, you know, you have a lamp store or you have a restaurant or you have a bar, all this sounds great. That is great. It’s just that the incentives for doing so and the way that you maintain that and the way that it is rhetorically weaponized to make it so that workers still have no protections because now you’re protecting someone else, right? We see this in stark ways during our pandemic. So Koch-funded groups like ALEC and the Heritage Foundation, always use the language of small business to argue for increasingly unsafe working conditions, but especially now, very much unsafe conditions with a rapid return to work, the quote-unquote “reopening” of the economy, which is like this bullshit frame — and I’m even sorry I even use that phrase because I don’t think anyone should ever use that phrase, so apologies — but opening businesses, right? There’s this idea of framing the companies that risk losing their profits as the victims, rather than the workers who risk losing their lives simply by going back to work. What have you seen, Bryan, in terms of like this mom and pop shop used by wealthy people, or their surrogates and advocates, as a rhetorical device currently during the COVID crisis to hold people hostage and get people back to work in unsafe conditions?
Bryan Quinby: Right. Well, what me and Brett are hearing about a lot now is that people who previously furloughed somebody are now calling them and saying, ‘Hey, I need you to come into work because I’m going to get this loan and if it’s not for payroll, I don’t get to keep it, I have to pay it back.’ So they’re actually bringing people back but cutting their hours, because they still really can’t afford them, but we got that call—and all the small businesses, or a lot of the small businesses, have become essential somehow, so they are risking the workers. I think, if you’re on a construction site, you can socially distance and you can do stuff like that, but there is a CBD store in Columbus, Ohio on one of the main roads, and CBD is the part of weed that doesn’t get you high. People use it for pain relief and stuff like that and it’s the new fad. It’s like the new cupcake store or —
Bryan Quinby: Whatever the fad is, you use CBD to try to get rich, they call it the green rush. And this thing has been deemed essential and it’s making their employees come into work. And a lot of the calls we got yesterday have been people, I do a call-in show about work, and a lot of the calls were people getting called back into work so that either the business can get the PPP loan, or because they say they have to open up. I felt from the beginning, if anybody was going to get taken care of it was going to be small businesses. I didn’t expect us to even get a check. So it seems like in this crisis, especially, the hope is that the employees are seeing that they have some power, and I would hope that a lot of them decide together not to go to work. If you work for a small roofing well, roofing I just said is okay I guess. (Laughs.) But if you work for a small restaurant or something and they’re making you come in —
Nima: An essential oils shop.
Bryan Quinby: Yeah, if you work for a place like that —
Nima: Which might not actually be that essential.
Bryan Quinby: Yes. Every idea I came up with was a bad, weird one. (Laughs.) Yeah, it’s just I’m seeing a lot of these stores deem themselves essential and I kind of feel like if there was some way to do it, I would let every small business owner open up their stupid whatever beard oil store, I would let every one of them open it up, but they have to work the whole shift. You’re not allowed to bring employees in because employees are being threatened now.
Adam: Right. There’s an extortion element to it.
Bryan Quinby: Yeah, because if they’re being told, if you don’t come back to work then you will have voluntarily quit, and you won’t be able to collect unemployment anymore.
Adam: To me, this is sort of maybe where I would morally draw the line and maybe this is a bit of a liberal copout, but if you’re a small business where the person who owns it works there 12 hours a day, I feel like I would sort of morally compartmentalize you versus a quote-unquote “small business,” which is usually just like, again, a guy who owns five Wendy’s franchises and golfs all day. If you have skin in the game, and you’re willing to risk your life, it’s like, at least you’re at least doing the thing you’re asking everyone else to risk they’re doing, of course, you’re also doing it for your own profits to be clear, it’s not as if it’s the same thing.
Nima: The thing about fetishizing small business owners is that you get to have someone who’s simultaneously a victim and a hero. So, always being victimized by government regulations and taxes and, you know, rising calls for wages — Oh, no! — but also, you know, they are the mainstay of the so-called American Dream, right? The American Dream is built on, ‘Oh, then you then you can open your flower shop or you can open your restaurant or you can do your thing, you can start a company from your garage and then you eventually get employees and this is how you build wealth that you generate, and then you can become a homeowner and then you’re in the middle class,’ all this fucking shit, it all adds up into this equation, but what is so often missed is once you become a small business owner, you then have people working for you, right? Usually, usually. And when that is the case, you then become less of the victim and you need to actually do things for your workers that maybe you don’t want to do and that is what is never talked about in these articles lionizing small business owners, right? That it’s always just these are the people that need to be kept safe in our system and I guess I don’t even know who turns the lights on in the morning but we have this romantic idea that it’s the owner always and only.
Bryan Quinby: Yeah, I mean, that’s what you wish. I mean, a lot of these landscaping businesses are really big on, they have to hire a bunch of people, they’ll start, the owner just mowing lawns and does landscaping. They have to hire people and the margins are so thin that the people they’re hiring, they’re paying nothing and as the business grows, they don’t ever have to pay out more because they’re the victim. They’re also some of the most powerful people in the town and that’s what I’ve been seeing with these protests a lot too is these aren’t, this is small business owners, but in the media, it gets phrased like this is workers, these are the people working at Target and these are working-class people.
Adam: Yeah. And it gets complicated because you’re like, okay, they’re not vice president of Goldman Sachs, but they’re still business owners, they’re still capitalists, their job is to, for better or for worse, it is incentivized to exploit employees to maximize their personal gains or their return on the investment to their investors. And yeah, there’s not a ton of actual workers, except for maybe a few religious wackos and Nazis, who legitimately are begging to go back to work rather than making whatever it is, if they can at all, the money on unemployment. So you have to sort of be careful to distinguish between that because I think that you can use Joe the plumber and the whole Mike Rowe gimmick is the business owner is the worker and it’s like, they’re not though, they’re not. And again, just because you’re not the CEO of McDonald’s doesn’t mean —
Nima: You don’t have to be wearing a monocle —
Adam: Right to be a fucking psycho capitalist.
Bryan Quinby: You’d be driving a $50,000 big, huge black truck and then that person gets framed as the dude who is a roofer. When I was a roofer, and I couldn’t afford a $60,000 black truck—they get the valor of being a small business owner, but they also get the valor of being the worker. So they use both of those things, and oftentimes in the media, it feels like with NPR especially, that’s who they use to be the voice of the worker when the thing is, the workers are the ones that, they’re taking advantage of workers, they’re the ones that keep the wages low.
Nima: Well, right, because the landscape owner is going to be the one interviewed, right? Not the people who they employ.
Bryan Quinby: I think something, because of the show I do, and I get the calls from people who are working real jobs, I think people would be totally shocked to hear how people think about work in America on any media outlet. It just isn’t, they don’t talk to our service workers ever, they don’t talk to any of the people that are doing the construction or working in the warehouses, they don’t talk to any of these people. So that means that people who have upper-middle class or whatever, you know, who have money, they have to look to these chuds and these big coal rolling trucks and be like, ‘Oh, well, that guy has a rough demeanor, he must be a roofer.’
Adam: Yeah, there’s a lot of like middle-class cosplaying. I grew up with these guys, and it’s a lot of people to drive around in trucks and listen to country music and they’re an assistant accountant that Arthur Andersen or whatever and it’s like, okay, that’s fine, I get it, we all have a little bit of an effect, but you know, that’s the people come out to a lot of these protests and it’s, you know, my fear is that actually will begin to over time, much like the Tea Party did, can trickle down into actual workers, people begin to internalize the needs of their bosses because, and this is a totally different episode, but we could talk about it all day, is that the Democrats haven’t offered them anything else, right? There’s no alternative being offered here. There’s no social democracy, no $2,000 a month payments, except for unemployment, which goes to less than 20 percent of people, you’re on your own anyway. So I think I do think that there’s a risk that these “open up the economy,” quote-unquote narrative can be attractive, but much like the Tea Party, it is largely a bourgeois astroturf movement, but bourgeois astroturf movements can gain popularity.
Nima: So much of what we’re seeing in these protests and Bryan, I’d actually love to hear what you’ve been hearing from the folks that call in, but so much of what I see is people demanding that businesses start up again, not because they want to work, but because they want people to work for them. They want to get their hair dyed and their nails done not because they want to do people’s hair and they want to do people’s nails, they want to go and have people put their own lives at risk so they can get cheap pedicures and keep their roots brown, but that is what we’re seeing. It’s not people demanding that they go back to their own jobs. They want other people to go back to their own jobs.
Bryan Quinby: You’d be surprised at how much people don’t like going to their jobs. And protesting if, like you said, a lot of people didn’t get a stimulus check and a lot of people didn’t get—if your parents claimed you on your taxes last year, which is possible when you’re 18 or 19 and you live out on your own, my nephew didn’t get a stimulus check because his dad claimed him on his taxes last year, but he now has his own apartment, his own expenses and has been laid off from work and doesn’t really know how he’s going to pay rent. And yes, it’ll trickle, some people will want to go to work. The people that are suffering will want to go to work, but the few people that do get on the unemployment rolls might resist a little bit going back to work.
I’ve heard two stories in the past three days about places that were saying ‘We’re essential, we don’t want to close the company,’ and then the employees just saying like, ‘Well, I’m not going to come in then and I’m going to work from home’ and they were like, ‘Okay, well, I guess you’re going to work from home then.’ (Laughs.) If there’s only 10 people, you can do that, but we get a lot of calls from people who are kind of really struggling with what, see what we get is we get emails, so we’ve decided, it’s StreetFightRadio.com is the email address and you can always message me on @MurderBryan, we’ve decided we want to be Wikileaks, but for internal emails from businesses, so we’ve been collecting, not collecting, we’ve been reading every week internal emails from bosses.
Adam: Oh, I’m sure you get some real despotic shit these days.
Bryan Quinby: It’s bad. It’s bad. There is actually a Lowe’s podcast for its employees and I can send it to you, but they are talking about, ‘We got to take advantage of this thing. People are going to be working on their house.’ It’s like, some of these big businesses have podcasts, so that they can get messages out to the employees instead of meetings and that’s been pretty bad but we have gotten some pretty wild small business stuff and, you know, we’ve seen chains of people saying, ‘I don’t think we should come to work’ and then the boss yelling at them, and then everybody deciding they aren’t going to come to work in front of the boss, multiple stories of bosses not blind CC-ing on an email, and then people being able to organize in that way because they’re all on the email chain together. So people are recognizing their power now. I understand why they don’t want to go to work, I would be afraid to go to work. I don’t think I would go to work if I was a guy that worked a real job for a living now. I think I would stay home.
Nima: If you weren’t just a small business owner?
Bryan Quinby: Yeah.
Adam: I think your general take-home is that if you can’t afford to pay for help, you shouldn’t have help. That seems like a pretty good moral declarative.
Bryan Quinby: Yes.
Adam: Before you go, do you want to talk about what you’re working on, what the show is up to, what people can expect, what’s in the hopper?
Bryan Quinby: So uh, my Patreon, Patreon.com/StreetFightRadio, you have to type it all in because they consider us an adult podcast, so you have to go to the actual address for some reason.
Adam: Adult podcast?
Bryan Quinby: Yeah, adult-oriented, like it’s porno, is what they’re saying.
Nima: You mean you won’t show up if you get searched for?
Bryan Quinby: No. You have to type in —
Adam: Wow, that’s going to hurt a lot.
Bryan Quinby: Yes, it does. Patreon.com/StreetFightRadio, but we do miniseries on our $5 audio tier and that’s what I do and we have done shock jocks, Kid Rock, was a four-episode miniseries about him.
Adam: It was a thing.
Bryan Quinby: We’ve done shows with my teenage daughter called Teen Fight where we learn what the teens are up to and what they’re thinking and currently, right now, we’re doing something called Holy Boys where me and Tom Sexton from the Trillbillies talk about evangelical mega-pastors and we’re about three episodes into it.
Adam: Oh. I’m into that shit for real.
Bryan Quinby: They’re the best. (Laughs.) They’re like, I listened to, we’ve done, so far we’ve done Jimmy Swaggart, Creflo Dollar and Pastor Carl Lentz.
Adam: Oh. Dollar is good. Dollar’s got a lot of meat on the bone for that one.
Bryan Quinby: I grew up atheist. I just never had religion in my life.
Adam: You missed out on all the fire and brimstone fear when you were 10 years old keeping you up late at night.
Bryan Quinby: I just did Jack Hagee and he does that, the Hellfire.
Adam: No, I went to his church as a child for about six years.
Bryan Quinby: Oh, my God. Really?
Adam: Yeah. Hagee put the fear of God in me from about the age of 9 to about 14, maybe 8 to 14.
Bryan Quinby: He’s terrifying. He really does —
Adam: Yeah, I know Cornerstone Church, man, he milked my grandma dry. Took all of her fucking money, that guy’s a major scumbag. Major scumbag.
Bryan Quinby: Adam, I gotta get you on to talk about John Hagee before we end this.
Adam: If you want to talk about Hagee I will gladly come on and talk about Hagee, that man kept me up late nights, I thought every thought I had was Satan going to come after me. Anyway.
Nima: Well, I think that is a great place to leave it Bryan Quinby, co-host of course of Street Fight Radio which airs in part on WCRS in Columbus, Ohio. You can of course follow him on Twitter @MurderBryan, that is Bryan with a “y,” Bryan, as always, thank you so much for joining us on Citations Needed.
Bryan Quinby: Thank you for having me. It’s my pleasure.
Adam: Yeah, I think the discussion about, again, I know it sounds, maybe semantics or whatever, but it’s how you define things matters so much in this case, because I got to think that real estate developers who sell timeshares in the Virgin Islands are not small businesses by any objective metric, right? And so the media repeats these concepts, uses this sort of vague jargon, any kind of jargon a slogan or term if there’s one thing I guess we’re beating into your head in the show over the last three years, is that any term that sort of launders class conflict or flattens class conflict should raise some alarm bells, right? Because ‘small business,’ where does that sort of fit into a kind of distinct class scenario? And of course, those things are elevated and centered, much like ‘middle class’ precisely for that reason, because they don’t necessarily have a good guy and a bad guy, there’s just this thing we all agree is good and everything we do is going to be pursuant to protecting and advancing that guy.
Nima: And they sit in this nebulous, middle ground, right? So it’s hard for there to be a binary between like a 1 percent and a 99 percent. Or like, you know, owners and workers, they create this middle ground much like a middle class, right? It’s not rich people versus poor people. Well, there’s a middle class, there’s this nebulous, amorphous, undefined middle that can range from just not being in poverty to being exorbitantly wealthy, just not one of the wealthiest people in the country or the world, right? So there’s this huge range and small business does that same kind of thing. It launders this, right? It’s like you are an owner, but you also, I mean, depending on who you are, you may still work a lot, you may employ just a few people and treat them fairly, but you also could just sit in an office or not come in at all, and have tons of employees that make barely any money and have no benefits. Those are both considered small business owners. So this isn’t about the people who have the jewelry shop down the street, and a few people work there, and they’re all paid really well, or, you know, whatever, and they’re kind of all in it together, that is one kind of small business, right? But so are these defense contractors who have factories, they just don’t make as much as what would be considered big business.
Adam: Yeah, at the very least, that’s a lawful neutral. It’s not an inherently moral thing, which we tried to talk about with Bryan, again, having worked for and had wages stolen from small businesses before in Austin, when I was in college and just after. Look, on an institutional level, small businesses such that they are have way less power than like a Walmart, you know, small businesses really aren’t funding the Heritage Foundation or ALEC. So institutionally large corporations are more sinister because they just have more power but that doesn’t per se make small businesses good, not per se. I think again, we can sort of find examples of that being the case, but broadly speaking, this idea that the small business should be the atomic unit that we use in legislation and taxes, strikes me as not correct, because what we’re talking about when we’re talking about small businesses is we’re not talking about the worker, we’re not talking about the poor, we’re not talking about people who don’t have access to capital, even if it’s a small amount of capital, and I think that’s kind of the problem. So when, you know, Nancy Pelosi goes around and she goes on MSNBC and someone says, ‘How is the coronavirus package going?’ The first thing she mentions, the very first thing she mentions is small businesses and entrepreneurs. That’s a problem. Because this is essentially this is the head of the progressive party and their first instinct is to center this very vague capitalist cohort of people who may or may not be bad people, I don’t know, but they’re, not as a class, their interests are antithetical to workers and they’re antithetical to labor and to unions and I think that that’s a problem and this is the function of that term is it allows people to take Goliath and make it seem more like David, I think that’s a pretty cynical sort of rhetorical sleight of hand which is of course why we did a whole fuckin’ show on it.
Nima: So that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work, if you are able to, through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your help through Patreon is so appreciated it keeps the show going and an extra special shout out, as always, to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. This episode script was co-written by Sarah Lazare. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, June 17, 2020.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.