The Uncommon Life

Mr Bolotsky Goes to Washington

November 29, 2012

I had the opportunity to visit the White House this week to meet with President Obama, Vice President Biden and their economic team. As the founder & CEO of UncommonGoods, I was one of 15 small business leaders asked to participate in a discussion on the Administration’s approach to the economy and the fiscal cliff.

It was a friendly, relaxed atmosphere, despite the formal setting. When Vice President Biden entered the Roosevelt Room, everyone rose and stood at attention. Laughing, he told us all to sit down – he wasn’t the President. Later, when the President entered, everyone rose again and the President introduced himself to each of us. I had an opportunity to let him know that my wife worked with his late mother and I showed him the UncommonGoods catalog. The President browsed it, admiring many of our products. I let him know that 50% of what we sell is US-made, including a handmade Sea Serpent sculpture that I suggested would look great on the White House lawn. He told me it was a non-starter – “Bo would be too scared of it.”

When we got down to business, the President reassured us that he was committed to working out a reasonable compromise with the Congressional leadership and that we should not expect a repeat of the 2011 budget battle. He also emphasized his commitment to extending the middle class tax cuts, while allowing tax rates for those earning above $250,000 annually to expire. Our group then had an opportunity to give the President suggestions and ask him questions.

When my turn came, I encouraged the President to use his bully pulpit and Federal procurement policy to encourage businesses to take a “triple bottom line” approach – where people and planet are emphasized, along with profit. When the discussion turned to income inequality, I suggested that we raise the minimum wage and peg it to inflation, so that it does not remain a political football. I also volunteered that our country would be well served to have fewer folks in the finance and legal professions and more in the general business sector. Finally, I asked that the Federal government assert leadership in the battle over sales taxes for internet shopping. I suggested that consumers be required to pay sales tax for internet transactions, an issue that is being hotly contested on a state-by-state basis.

Out of courtesy for my peers in the meeting, I told him that I would be happy to share my 9 other ideas with his team after the meeting, which I did. At the end of the discussion, Vice President Biden asked me for my business card, and told me he’d be in touch. I’m curious to see where that goes. I spoke to another Administration official who assured me that not only would a continuation of the middle class tax cuts be part of the initial budget deal, but that there would also be some reductions in government spending in order to help us get closer to a balanced budget.

While we face tough challenges ahead, I was encouraged to see our government officials engaging in open dialogue with a diverse audience from across the country. For now, I am back at my desk, dreaming of alternative decorations for the White House lawn this coming spring.


  • Reply Sven Eberlein November 29, 2012 at 11:33 pm

    Dave, this is great, I’m so happy that folks like you get the ears of the President and Vice-President. That alone gives me reason for hope. Great that you were able to talk about the Triple Bottom Line. I’m wondering if they were already familiar with it and what they think about it. Ditto with Benefit Corps, would be great to hear them publicly mention it.

    This all begs the question now, what were those other 9 ideas you pitched? I hope you post again with the secret recipe for survival, success and happiness you slipped to POTUS and VP. 😉

  • Reply Dave Bolotsky December 2, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    Here’s the list of ideas I shared at the meeting:

    Small Business Meeting – November 27, 2012, The White House

    What the Federal government can do to help businesses like UncommonGoods:

    A. Prepare our work force for skills needed

    1. Education – financial incentives for teaching computer programming in elementary/secondary schools. In general – level playing field so that property tax is not primary driver of funding – poorer kids should have opportunity to go to good schools. Radical idea – if you have more kids, pay more for school, subsidize for lower income.

    2. Immigration reform – provide easier path for programmers to get H1Bs and Green Cards.

    B. Regulatory Reform

    3. Online sales tax – provide clarity to online retailers, level playing field with store-based companies. Dealing with complexity of thousands of municipalities. We are happy to pay sales tax where we do not have a physical presence, just want law to be clear and applied to all online retailers.

    4. Allow post office to close more branches, make Saturday (and perhaps Sunday) a premium service, but not for traditional delivery if not profitable. Effective resolution to pension situation. Keep postage affordable.

    5. Limit credit card interest rates that banks can charge to consumers – too high currently relative to cost of capital.

    6. Raise minimum wage and index it to inflation – encourage states to do the same.

    7. Health Care Reform – don’t know what it will mean – will it have unintended consequence of causing businesses to drop employees from insurance since health care exchanges will be less costly and provide equal level of insurance – i.e. $150 per month vs. $300+ per month?

    C. Legal Reform
    8. Patent reform is needed – stifling innovation – legal arms race – lawyers buying patents as business – patent trolls.

    D. Fiscal Issues

    9. Fiscal cliff – uncertainty is a negative for consumer and business spending. When the budget battle dragged on during summer 2011, we saw a significant sales slowdown. Next time, please don’t make the deadline January 1 – risk of cloud cast on holiday season.

    10. Simpson Bowles – increase Social Security and Medicare eligibility age, end mortgage deduction for high-end home buyers, consider eliminating charitable deductions, limit military spending. Eliminate carried interest deduction.

    E. Path to Sustainability

    11. Benefit Corporations – use bully pulpit to promote socially responsible business practices – create seal -encourage states to pass legislation establishing public benefit corporations. Concept that shareholders are not the constituency, but a constituency. Business managers also have responsibility to employees, community and environment. Federal procurement can favor sustainable businesses.

    12. Energy independence – Federal government should provide leadership on fracking – determine how to develop safe fracking protocol, if possible. Increase investment in public transportation where cost-effective. Encourage bicycle transportation in densely populated cities – reduce traffic, pollution, increase exercise and livability of street life.
    Encourage composting (reduce space devoted to landfill and transportation costs, improve soil quality), line drying and cold water washing (reduce energy use).

    13. Create national small biz steering committee – bipartisan – alternative to US Chamber of Commerce and NFIB – both seem highly partisan. Could White House incubate something through SBA? Someone like Jack Stack of Springfield Remanufacturing to lead?

  • Reply Jonathan Haidt December 12, 2012 at 9:49 am

    Dave, this is a great list of common sense reforms!
    Not too partisan — i like the fact that you endorse careful fracking.
    How cool that you got to say some of this directly to the President!

  • Reply David Dana March 8, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    Dave – you get my vote, as ever. Best to you and yours.

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