Matters Column

Small business success enriches the lives of all of us

January 25, 2013
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I listened to an interview with a woman on the radio recently stating that we need to get rid of the rich people in this country. When asked what she thought should be done with the rich people, she said, “Put them in jail.” When the interviewer asked her why they should go to jail, she said because if they got rich, they must have done something dishonest.

That scared me. What scares me more is that she is picking up her class warfare rhetoric from the holder of the highest political office in the country.

I came from Flint to Grand Rapids in 1972. I came from the heart of the United Auto Workers influence and Auto World (the failed mega-million-dollar amusement park) to the land of Meijer stores and Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. A group of politicians in Flint spent a fortune in taxpayer dollars building an amusement park based on the auto industry. Fred Meijer used his own money and that of other well-to-do Grand Rapidians to build Meijer Gardens, an ever-expanding and improving treasure for our community.

The difference is a contrast in cultures. In Flint, the dream was to get into the UAW. Workers’ comp and disability claims were filed from law offices that specialized in such claims. Back injuries were the preferred method of filing claims because they were hard to disprove.

The movie “8 Mile” illustrates my point. For those of you unfamiliar with southeast Michigan, 8 Mile is the highway marking the northern border of Detroit.

Southeast Michigan waits for Lansing and Washington, D.C., to save it — thus, Auto World. West Michigan uses its very considerable talent at wealth creation to solve its own problems.

The small business issue here is in the concept of economic gardening: Grow your own wealth in the community. Where will the next Rich DeVos, Jay Van Andel, Peter Secchia, Frederik Meijer, etc., come from? We need them. Their creativity, drive and dreams have made us all richer. I can walk through Meijer Gardens. That makes me a richer man. Grand Valley State University, Van Andel Arena, DeVos Place — all add to the richness of my life because of the efforts of these entrepreneurs.

I have Parkinson's disease. How do you suppose I feel about the Van Andel Institute, which is doing research on Parkinson's? I am sure the VAI is more efficient and has a better chance of success than government-run research. 

I hate hearing our philanthropists vilified and criticized by fools, no matter how high the level of the fool’s political office.

I heard a story 40 years ago that applies to the social battle going on in this country today. An American asked a Russian the difference between socialism and capitalism. The Russian answered that, with capitalism, one man takes advantage of another. With socialism, it's vice versa. In socialist countries, it is the people in government who are the head of the food chain.

Given a choice, would you prefer wealth to be acquired by hard work and creativity, or by service to the party? I don't care how you interpret that — it could be Democratic, Republican or People's. When the highest-income people in the country don't produce a product or service and work for the government, we are all doomed.

Small business is the engine that drives the economy, produces the jobs, creates wealth, etc. We have heard all that. One thing you don't hear often enough is that small business creates economic freedom.

A little more than a hundred years ago, the frontier closed. For more than 300 years, Americans could go west to start a new life with unlimited potential. The land was dispersed and the west was settled. The farm I have near Cheboygan was deeded to my great-great-grandfather in 1863 for service in the Creek Indian Wars. Opportunity for hundreds of years was tied to available land for free or cheap.

That frontier is still open through small business. Anybody, regardless of gender, color or place of origin, can still make a living or get rich in America. What a wonderful reality.

Listen to the noise out of Washington. There are politicians who believe that successful people don't deserve their rewards, and their success somehow diminishes less fortunate people. They believe that the politicians should determine who gets rich. Amazingly, in their utopia, it is them who become rich to the detriment of the populous. Who can resist the message from D.C. today: “I am going to take another person’s assets and give them to you. All you have to do is vote for me.”

Business owners are not good or evil simply because they own a business, any more than welfare recipients are good or evil because they are poor. It is up to the individual to accept their condition in life or change it.

The answer is to manufacture something or provide a service. Go out there and get rich. Washington won't love you, but Grand Rapids will.

If you believe in the Washington message, expect Auto World. If you believe in economic freedom, expect Meijer Gardens.

Paul Hense is the retired president of local accounting firm Hense & Associates. He also is past chairman of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

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