In Washington, tax-cut conservatives face off against stimulus-now liberals to raise employment. In the real world, party orthodoxy crumbles and working solutions defy easy categorization.
RALEIGH AND DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA -- In two small, unassuming offices here, Bob Robinson and Eric Buckland are quietly making heroic efforts to help the American middle class. But American capitalism -- and the American government -- serve them both poorly.
The two men, the small businesses they painstakingly nurture and the difficulties they encounter are on-the-ground examples of the broad economic challenges the United States faces. Their stories do not present easy answers. Instead, they put the lie to Republican and Democratic orthodoxies regarding economic growth.
Start with Robinson. He is the executive director of the Raleigh Business & Technology Center, a primarily government-funded effort to help the poor and middle-class residents of southeast Raleigh start small businesses. The center -- and the neighborhood it calls home -- shows how a high-tech boom that has made Raleigh-Durham the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the U.S. nonetheless misses large segments of the population.
Southeast Raleigh has an unemployment rate of roughly 14 percent, three times that of Chapel Hill and other nearby affluent communities. Many local residents lack the education and skill levels needed to obtain high-tech jobs. Instead of trying to launch Internet startups, Robinson helps local entrepreneurs open flower shops, auto repair garages and bakeries. Over the last two years, he has also trained and placed 30 people in construction jobs. His new goal is to train people for entry-level jobs at Wal-Mart and Wells Fargo.
"It's not all about technology," he said. "We need jobs immediately."
Just down the street from Robinson's center, the South Wilmington Street Center for the homeless is filled to capacity. Frank Lawrence, the shelter's director, said a decline in the construction industry hit local lower-middle-class and poor households hardest. At the same time, residents of other cities have flocked here after hearing of Raleigh-Durham's boom.
"A lot of people moved here thinking there are jobs," Lawrence said. "But they don't have the skills to get them."
Robinson's center, though, doesn't neatly confirm liberal assumptions about the failings of the private sector. Bo Marshall, one of the small businesspeople Robinson's center trained, glows with pride when he calls himself a "serial entrepreneur." An American sense of self-reliance, not dependency, bubbles among the center's graduates. The magic of owning a small business that Republicans love to extol is palpable.
"They give us the essential tools," Marshall told me. "But it's up to the individual to get up and run with it."
Robinson said the center, which opened in 2000, tries to combine the strengths of the private and public sectors. It helps inexperienced contractors bid for public and private construction projects, trains small business owners in marketing and introduces its graduates to local banks.
"The best solutions that we are involved in include government employees who are knowledgeable and capable of aligning policies and procedures with small business owners' needs," Robinson said. "Along with banks that we ask to reinvest and sustain."
A few miles to the north, Eric Buckland is trying to create middle-class jobs as well, but in a completely different way. Buckland is the president of Bioptigen, an 18-employee high-tech startup that manufactures handheld retinal scanners used by eye doctors and researchers.
The company is based in the Research Triangle Park, a famed public-private partnership that over the last 50 years used skilled graduates from nearby Duke University, North Carolina State and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to draw major corporations. Now, as multinationals trim research-and-development budgets or ship such efforts overseas, park administrators try to keep rents low to accommodate small, high tech firms like Bioptigen.
Buckland's company relies on a combination of sales, private "angel" investors and federal research grants to function. Buckland says he is confident about the company's future, but it struggled with cash flow during the recession, dropping from 18 employees to eight. Like hundreds of thousands of other small businesses, it does not offer the quick returns and high profits that draw venture capital.
"It can't just be about billion-dollar wins that VCs target," Buckland told me. "We need investments in small and medium-size companies that feed the ecosystem."
At the same time, the Food and Drug Administration is blocking the sale of Bioptigen's clinical device in the United States. The scanners are sold in four European countries, India and Australia but are still awaiting approval from Washington.
"You have to balance two mutually exclusive goals," Buckland said. "One is promoting innovation in the economy and the other is protecting consumers against their fears. And the balance has shifted more toward protecting consumers against their fears."
Buckland's views, though, don't fit Republican dogma. While complaining about overregulation, he says the Obama stimulus definitely worked. Research grants included in the package helped his small business sell high-tech products to universities. And Buckland blames budget brinksmanship by conservative Republicans for delaying a $2.7 million research grant he expected to receive in December.
"It's really horrible," Buckland said. "I think Congress has no idea of their impact on small business."
Both men expressed exasperation with Washington partisanship. Robinson defended both the private and public sectors so vigorously that I struggled to peg him politically. Buckland, despite complaining about overregulation, said he leaned Democratic. Both called for pragmatism.
"My neighbor is a staunch Republican," Buckland said. "And we both agree that if you can get reasonable people to sit down together, they can reach an agreement."
"This polarization is killing us," he added. "We've got to get through that, if we're going to get through this malaise."
I concur. Out here on the ground, party orthodoxy crumbles.
This article also appeared on Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.
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