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I received at least one email a day last week pitching a politics oriented web startup. The emails start off something like this.
Over $8 billion dollars will be spent on the upcoming 2012 election. The web and social media are critical tools for any candidate. Every candidate will need our stuff and since over $8 billion dollars will be spent, even if we capture a tiny part of that market, we will create a huge company. Did I say that over $8 billion dollars will be spent? Would you like to hear more about the amazing opportunity we have in front of us?
The polite version of my answer has been “Thanks for reaching out but we aren’t interested in investing in the politics vertical market.” But, echoing in the back of my head is “$8 billion dollars? You’ve got to fucking be kidding me.”
I could go on about a rant about spending $8 billion to elect people in one election. But I realize there are lots of different ways to look at this, including the common refrains of “it’s a stimulus for our economy” and “but it’s entertainment, just like football.” And I have no doubt that there are people out there whose immediate response is “but don’t you think your ad-tech related companies make a lot of money off of this?” And as I cycle through the next ten thoughts in my head, I realize that my personal thoughts about this will have no impact on what actually happens.
So instead I just vote with my own wallet and get on board the Howard Schultz Boycott Campaign Donations train. And while I have no doubt that some people can make money creating web services for helping candidates get elected, especially those that include mobile, real-time data, and geo-location, I have no real interest in investing in companies that have the singular goal of helping politicians get elected.
This afternoon in Boulder I’ll be on a panel as part of the White House Startup America Roundtable. If you weren’t invited to the event, there is a web site called Reducing Barriers to Innovation that you can participate in.
Over the past few years, I’ve spent some time thinking about how the government can help entrepreneurship. It started with my role as the co-chairman of the Colorado Governors Innovation Council which was my first involvement in any formal way with any government initiative. More recently, I’ve focused my energy on the Startup Visa movement and the Startup America Partnership.
When I was reviewing the agenda for the Reducing Barriers to Innovation program, the goal of the program was pretty clear:
“The Startup America: Reducing Barriers event is a regional platform that allows federal agencies to hear directly, from entrepreneurs and local leaders like you, how we can achieve our goal of reducing the barriers faced by America’s entrepreneurs. Senior Obama administration officials need input on what changes are needed to build a more supportive environment for entrepreneurship. “
On my run yesterday, I mulled over the big activities that I thought the federal government could do to “build a more supportive environment for entrepreneurship.” I came up with five things that I think are relatively easy to measure over the long run. Following are short thoughts on each of these areas with one specific idea (in italics) that I think would materially impact entrepreneurship in America in a positive way.
Tax Policy: Incent people to invest in startups. While there are several well understood tax policies that could be implemented, the simplest is to provide long term tax breaks for individuals to invest in new startup companies. As with anything tax related, there are endless politics involved and many of the things that actual get rolled out are so obscure that they either never get implemented or are to difficult for investors to understand. Make it simple – eliminate capital gains if an individual (who is an accredited investor) invests equity (i.e. risk of 100% loss of investment) in a private company with less than 100 employees.
Immigration Policy: Make it easy for foreigner entrepreneurs to come to the US, or for foreign students to stay in the US, and start companies. This is the essence of what we’ve been trying to solve with the Startup Visa movement. The new Startup Visa Act of 2011 has plenty of improvements over the 2010 Act (which was introduced but never went anywhere) but still is stuck in Congress. If the White House wants to make a difference here, it should prioritize the Startup Visa separately from “broad immigration reform” and help get it passed since the Startup Visa is much less about immigration and much more about entrepreneurship, innovation, and jobs.
Regulatory Policy: Cut as much paperwork and bureaucracy out of the system. While this one is talked about regularly by the people in government that I know, the regulatory environment just seems to get more and more complicated. The solution so far has seemed to be “hire more people to process more paper faster.” This clearly hasn’t worked – how about taking the opposite approach and cut 20% of all jobs within various government agencies responsible for regulatory activity? I don’t care if you pay the fired people for two years – give them healthy severances and incentives to go work in the private sector. Necessity will drive efficiency.
Investment: Focus investment in university research. Then open source the results. The federal government has been a historically successful investor in innovation and the creation of new technologies, often through funding university research. If you want a good example of this, read Bright Boys. Unfortunately, this has gotten really messed up recently due to our byzantine patent system and the evolving dynamics of university technology licensing organizations. The government should allocate even more money to university research programs, but the results of this research should not be able to be patented and should be free for anyone to license. This would drastically change the technology licensing game by simplifying it and shifting economic incentives aggressively to companies that actually commercialize (or productize) this research, rather than simply claim ownership to the “intellectual property.”
Customer: The federal government is an enormous consumer of products and services. While it claims to want to do business with entrepreneurial companies and so far pays its bills in a predictable manner, it’s a miserable customer to deal with. The procurement process is painful, many entrepreneurial companies have to work through government contractor gatekeepers (who take up to a 30% tax for doing nothing other than being the contracting party), and often the execution and implementation process is a disaster. Unfortunately, I don’t really have a suggestion for how to improve this since there are so many rules and regulations around this – I guess the answer is “see regulatory policy” above.
I’m continuing to think through this and refine my thoughts on it, so as always I’m open to any and all feedback, including “Feld – you are such a knucklehead – that’s a stupid idea and will never work, but try this.” Fire away.
After my Schoolhouse Rock posting on how a bill becomes a law, several people sent me alternative versions of the video. This one rang true to me.
This one – not so much – but it made me laugh out loud.
And then there’s this.
Over the past 24 months, a deplorable activity in the money management business came to light. It got the name “pay to play” but was just another form of bribery. The common description of pay to play is “the practice of making campaign contributions and related payments to elected officials in order to influence the awarding of lucrative contracts for the management of public pension plan assets and similar government investment accounts.” Yup – sounds like bribery to me.
However, for some reason, the definition of this expanded to include any campaign contributions to any state or local officials, regardless of the size. So, if I contribute $1,000 to the campaign of the Colorado state treasurer, I violate this SEC rule and become someone who is “paying to play.” Now, as someone who gets multiple calls and emails most days to contribute to campaigns as an election approaches, I can assure you that it has never occurred to me to support the campaign for a state treasurer. However, I do know that a candidate for state treasurer has called me asking for campaign contributions. And I’ve politely declined.
After studying the implications of this ruling, I’ve decided it prohibits me and my spouse (Amy) from making any campaign contributions to state or local races anywhere in the country. The NVCA has also studied the new SEC rule and has come to the same conclusion:
“This ruling is consistent with guidance the NVCA has been providing members. It is now even more important to have a firm-wide policy against political contributions to these officials / candidates. This restriction does NOT include political contributions to candidates running for federal office (U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate, U.S. President) nor does it include contributions to the NVCA PAC, which only gives to federal candidates.”
We’ve instituted this rule at Foundry Group, although it’s upsetting and offensive to me because I think it fundamentally violates my First Amendment rights. To err on the side of caution, we’ve determined that spouses cannot make state or local political contributions either. This infuriates Amy, as it should.
It’s even more upsetting when you consider that there is no cap on political contributions that corporations can make. The Supreme Court ruled on this in January stating that the government has no business regulating political speech. So, on one hand we have corporations who can give any amount to any candidate running for office while on the other hand my wife can’t contribute $1,000 to someone running for governor of Colorado.
Now, don’t misunderstand me – I think pay to play is grotesque. And Amy and I are huge advocates of campaign finance reform. However, the core problem of pay to play is bribery, not the active support of state and local candidates for office by individual citizens. They are totally different things and should be able to be easily and cleanly differentiated, without the government regulating my political speech.
I just got the following breaking news alert from The New York Times.
“U.S. Economy Adds 290,000 Jobs in April; Jobless Rate Rises to 9.9%”
Let’s parse this. The first clause says “U.S. Economy Adds 290,000 Jobs in April.” This means to me that a bunch of people found new jobs in April. A bunch. Yay! Good economy.
The second clause says “Jobless Rate Rises to 9.9%.” This means to me that the number of people in the U.S. that don’t have jobs went up in April.” A quick search showed that the March “jobless rate” (actually the unemployment rate) was 9.7%. That’s a big relative jump, especially given that it was 9.7% for the first three months of 2010 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Economic News Release titled Employment Situation Summary that came out a few minutes ago. Boo! Bad economy.
How could this be? The simple explanation is mid-way through the WSJ article titled U.S. Added 290,000 Jobs in April which appeared about six minutes after the NYT article:
“The two numbers are calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in different ways. The payroll figure is taken from a survey of employers, while the jobless rate is calculated using a household survey.”
I just read through the BLS report and looked at a few of the tables. Yes, there’s a ton of data here. However, it breaks all kinds of rules about how to present data to reach a conclusion. Our friends at the BLS need to hire Edward Tufte to get some help with their data presentation skills.
There are now two stories based on two completely calculations munged together into one sound bite. The explanation will likely turn into “more people are looking for jobs now.” But why is the denominator shifting around? Weren’t those people already jobless (unemployed), even though they weren’t looking for jobs? Oh – wait, if we include the people not looking for jobs in the historical unemployment calculation, the unemployment rate goes up, maybe by a lot. Eek – wouldn’t that be more scary.
It’s a simple game the government is playing with the numbers. Occasionally I’ll run into a company that does this – usually around revenue vs. gross margin dynamics, or bookings vs. revenue, or GAAP accounting vs. actual cash flows (where what really matters is cash flows.) Picking the better number vs. dealing with reality is disingenuous at best; presenting them in conflicting ways that obscure the message is bullshit.
Oh – and 20 minutes later the newest NYT Breaking News Alert is now “Four-Month Rise Strengthens U.S. Job Outlook.”