The most important economic trend for small businesses

I now count 42 years of my life as a small business operator. The first one was a sweet corn farming operated conducted separately from my family and neighbors at age 17. Since then, I’ve had quite a range of small business experiences from an internet based technology company to soft shell crabs. That range of time and experience gives me some ability to look at the trends. The one overriding small business trend that I see over my lifetime is this:

The amount spent on productivity-related items has decreased while the amount spent on government-related items has increased.

I suspect this is a widespread trend but I also suspect that I’ve experienced it more than most and that’s why I’m writing about it. I’m not aware of much research in this area. I think that if I were to conduct organized research on a small business topic, this would be it.

By “amount” I mean the actual nominal dollar amount and the portion of gross income.

By “productivity-related”, I mean things like office rents, staff, software, hardware, training, tools and equipment.

By “government-related”, I mean things like taxes, permits, licenses, fines, legal fees and insurance (especially health insurance).

It is easy to conclude that this is not a healthy trend for small businesses.

“Lack of oversight”

Lack of oversight by Florida International University, the Florida Department of Transportation, contractors and engineers is to blame for the deadly collapse of a pedestrian bridge on the school campus in 2018, federal investigators said Tuesday.” – UPI 10/22/2019

The tragic story of the 2018 Florida bridge collapse in the news again today results in each party pointing the blame at another; nobody accepting responsibility for the failure. It reminds me that this is the same rotten behavioral pattern that we see here at Money Island with each government branch or agency and contractor denying responsibility for the overall failure of the oversight but pointing the finger at another. I guess that one of the sobering realities of being an ‘adult’ is that you cannot expect responsible ethical behavior out in the real world.

We don’t have any resulting deaths here yet. But in 2006 my criticism of government for lack of oversight that caused infrastructure failures resulted in death threats against me and eventually, years later, a grand jury indictment for attempted manslaughter planned by government. In the most recent developments, the State Attorney General is willing to blame and sue anyone – literarily “John Doe and Jane Doe” named as defendants in the AG’s active legal action here that closed the marina and hosted businesses – rather than accept responsibility by government itself.

I no longer hold out hope that government will be held accountable for it’s responsibilities, nor its contractors. But I do expect to tell the story so that the truth about environmental injustice at the bayshore is not forgotten.

Our “undocumented” neighbors

A few of our local people are “undocumented” but not in the common usage of the word. They have apparently chosen and managed to live with little government interaction.

The most memorable example of this was a peaceful old man who lived just a few doors away on a branch of Nantuxent Creek. He had a boat and a dock that he built himself. Remnants of the dock are still visible today. He made his living on the water but I wasn’t astute enough then to pay attention to those details. He was poor but not destitute. He did not stand out from any other neighbors in those years. I think that’s the main point.

I remember my NJ-born waterman neighbor, a black man, who died about 15 years ago (2002-2003) in his 80s (he didn’t know exactly how old he was) primarily because had no significant contact with government his whole life. Other seniors in this community remembered him as a child in Newport so his story checked out. But he had no social security card, had avoided the draft, never received medical care except a local doctor. He bragged that he never had a social security card. He drove but never had a drivers license, never paid income taxes, etc. He had a cabin on the water on property that he apparently did not own. (The cabin was almost completely over the water. This would not be permitted today but there was no government enforcement in those days).

I’ll likely remember his name at some future time. Part of the purpose of this blog is to record partial histories so that they are not lost and may later be pieced together. For now, I’m leaving all names out of this published story. The only other thing I remember about him was that he was the only neighbor not connected to the shared water well. I heard that the former well owner did not like him and that perhaps racism was a factor.

An officer from the sheriff’s office asked me about him years later after I presumed or heard that he died. He did not die here. I vaguely recall something about a woman. His cabin was deteriorated from storms at that time. His cabin remained closed up for many years and was eventually demolished by the new property owner. (The new property owner came from Sea Breeze and also died a few years later). I still have a few relics from the old cabin collected after the demolition. The only other thing at the site is a bulkhead that was partly reconstructed later.

The fact is that according to the “law” he was illegal, a lawbreaker, a criminal, undocumented. But to me he was an ordinary pleasant guy who just happened to live here in peace at this remote rural place of Money Island. I helped him occasionally, including once with a medical issue, although I don’t remember any other details.

We still have some people in this bayshore area who live with minimal outside contact. When our kids were young they imagined these neighbors to be fugitives with some dark secret. I’ve come to realize that they are just people who made a different lifestyle choice. The politics of this is heightened with the fear of local ICE raids. Continue reading “Our “undocumented” neighbors”

#WorldMentalHealthDay and environmental justice in New Jersey

Today is noted in news broadcasts as World Mental Health Day. In this past week I’ve had more discussions about mental health than is typical.

The book “The Drowning of Money Island” released October 1 talks about the nervous breakdown of the former business owner who is still one of my closest neighbors. I did not know about this detail until I read the book. I might have guessed the mental stress that came with their post-Sandy bankruptcy. The book also questions my mental status and decisions; a topic best saved for another post.

Two days ago I met with another neighbor, a business owner and engineer, who said that I looked much better now than the last time he saw me. At that time I was in the middle of two brutal legal attacks by the State of New Jersey. Like me, he is struggling to get by day to day. We talked about how the environmental justice struggles of the bayshore have taken a toll on our businesses, our physical health, the compound effect of loss of sleep, and the effect that stress has on deteriorating our marriages and family relationships. We did not directly discuss our own mental health concerns; it seems like just not a thing that guys do.

The main point is that it is not nature that is causing the mental stress around here. We can deal with storms, flooding and lack of fish. Unnecessarily cruel government antagonism, a complete lack of empathy, and sometimes outright criminal behavior is causing the mental stress here.

In the years following Superstorm Sandy I often wrote and spoke about the increase in mental illness, divorce and drug use in our community. It still breaks my heart that I never saw some friends again since the day before Sandy hit. I heard that one later committed suicide. I recall two public meetings where Cumberland County Health Department officials nodded agreement with my anecdotal observations but had little actual data to back these observations.

My observations, again and again, indicate that the increase in mental illness here is a direct result of failures of government to implement fair environmentally just policies. I brought this to the attention of the Governor’s office again this past year. I have yet to receive any acknowledgement of my letters, speeches, emails, calls or social media messages. I conclude that it’s not that the government isn’t getting the message but rather than our officials are deliberately avoiding addressing this difficult issue.

Lessons from “The Drowning of Money Island”

I read Andrew Lewis’ book “The Drowning of Money Island” today. I am reminded that we can learn in at least three different ways from a documentary book like this. I did; and I’ll likely have many The learning aspects are amplified, of course, since I’m reading partly about my own story.

First, I benefited from reading the things I already know. Seeing familiar facts laid out in a book format, organized and interpreted by someone else brings a fresh perspective to understanding these facts. Andy’s analysis, for example, is something that had much more impact in writing than in our discussions.

Second, I benefited from learning new information and details. Andy spent about two years gathering information and conducting interviews. It is natural that he knows more about these topics covered than anyone else. Toward the end of the book-writing process I recognized this accumulated and began asking his opinion as an “expert” whenever a new bay issue came up. The book is loaded with details that I did not know before.

Third is the learning that does not come from what’s written on the pages. This is the analytical part, the real value of reading and structured education. I’ve been hugely influenced by many books in the past and this book will have an oversized impact.

I will comment later on details and lessons learned – some fall in each of these three categories.