I’ve snickered about “E-Democracy” – the liberal-leaning non-profit that has been running email list-serve discussion forums for something like twenty years. Awash in non-profit money, they’ve expanded (more or less) all over the place – but have pretty much been a “progressive” echo chamber for most of the past fifteen years.
Which is, I suspect, all they were ever asked to be.
I watch ’em, still – especially the Saint Paul “forum”. Mainly for new blog material, or for warnings about Saint Paul government’s latest detour into delusion.
A group of contributors were discussing how to “save” the “soul” of Saint Paul. By “soul”, they really meant “small ma and pa businesses” (and, by extension I suspect, the correct small ma and pa businesses; no gun stores, no motorcycle shops, no bars in “my” backyard, yadda yadda).
And by “soul”, you mean “small, local, ma and pa businesses” , or so I assume from the thread so far.
And some of you are even flirting with some answers that sorta kinda make sense – but for the fact that they all rely on the agencies of politics to enable them. Meaning more “systems” for the well-connected to game , more picking of winners and losers by the people who are already in power. And this is non-partisan, by the way – it’s not even a Republican vs. Democrat thing .
But we could “save” Saint Paul’s “soul” in a breathtakingly short time – as in, make a huge start before the next Mayoral election . It’d require a lot of people parking a lot of their preconceptions, and working for the benefit of *city* and its people, rather than the betterment of the city’s political class  – but let’s just imagine for a moment.
Here’s how you bring back Saint Paul’s “soul” – its small business community:
First: Declare a ten year business tax holiday. Not a TIF district. Not an enterprise zone. Not a tax break for businesses that fit the favored criteria, or a subsidy to get them going. No. Slash business taxes; make them the lowest in the state by a statutory ten percent. Abolish all city sales taxes. Yes – this would require some drastic, and for some painful, cutbacks at the city level . But city government isn’t Saint Paul’s “soul” . You want small business – and, while we’re at it, jobs and opportunity for all those kids, immigrants and poor people? Give Saint Paul THE lowest business taxes in the state. And not by a close margin.
Second: Knock off the “living wage” talk. Many small businesses can’t afford it at all; others  can afford it only by hiring higher-skill workers who give much higher productivity than the traditional minimum wage worker. They hire fewer of them in the process. Why scare off small businesses? Not only should Saint Paul can the “living wage” talk, they should have a “training wage” for kids under 18 that work less than 20 hours a week *below* the regular minimums. That’ll actually make it *worth* it to hire the young and unskilled.  Long story short – let business pay for skills what the skills are actually worth on the open market – and let people work and learn the skills that make their time more valuable. That’s how its’ done *sustainably*.
Third: Put zoning back in its place. Quit trying to use the zoning process to create an urban utopia (according to the people in power, of course); pare it back to commonsense regulations. Especially parking regulations. It’s in the *businesses’* interest to make sure they have enough parking (why would you open a bar in a location with half a dozen parking spots?). Quit letting the NIMBYs hold the city’s economy hostage.
Fourth: Ditto regulations. Ruthlessly hack away business regulations that exist only to protect people who bent the ears of City Councilpeople 50 years ago. .
Fifth: Prune DSI back to inspecting for health and building-safety regulations according to *state* law.
So what’d happen?
Saint Paul would get *lots* of businesses.
Some would be chains. Yep. They have money, they invest it, they hire people and pay taxes. You can not use government to pick winners and losers without distorting the market and making *everyone* a loser.
But you’d also get a lot more local businesses – because *they’d be able to compete* without an arm tied behind their backs! And this city would develop a *culture* of entrepreneurship – people would start businesses because *that’s what people do* in Saint Paul . And that culture of entrepreneurship would open up financing, both through normal channels (the city would become a MUCH better risk for small business lending) and non-traditional (example: Asian family credit pools could start investing in Saint Paul, and start moving back from Woodbury and Burnsville. Maybe).
And that’s the *real*, *sustainable* way to “save” Saint Paul’s “soul” – create a place where someone can start at McDonald’s, learn the basics of how to get and hold a job, and then realize “Bull! I can make a better burger!”, write a business plan, find a location, and start grilling better burgers. And hiring a kid who works her way up, and decides she can do it better still. And so on.
THAT is how you “save” Saint Paul’s “soul”. 
So – let’s do it, shall we?
Private Sector Warrior
 – Interesting term, “Soul”. Metaphysical – as opposed to many other metaphors that could describe a city. So – how are souls lost? By falling for whatever Big Lie your worldview abjures. Like, to pick a hypothetical example, the idea that politics – which is nothing but the control over the state’s monopoly on force  – solves any problems without causing worse problems.
 The DFL, the special interests that support it; the hordes of rent-seekers, non-profiteers (including this very forum) and other favored members of the political class. And again, this is non-partisan; this would be equally true in a Republican city that’d been run into the ground – if you can find one.
 I’ve written about this before, in the past year; I won’t recap the whole proposal, but it does involve getting city government out of some areas. Kicker is, the city comes out way ahead. Stay with us, here.
 Including *both* Punch Pizza and Costco, by the way. From the President’s State of the Union! They were both terrible examples of businesses that pay living wages; Costco sells limited SKUs in bulk and locates only in fairly wealthy areas, and hires people at higher wages but with established skills (and contracts the minimum wage stuff, like working in the snack bar and handing out samples, out to subcontractors – who do NOT pay $11-15 an hour!). Punch is a high-end niche pizzeria with a high markup; time’ll tell if they succeed with the higher labor costs. But again – they also pick and choose who they hire. Go ahead – send your unskilled kid over there to apply. Let the forum know how it goes!
 But since this IS a city full of people who believe in living wages, start a program (privately) so that companies that pay better starting wages can advertise it on their front doors. Let ’em put big “We Start At $11/hour!” signs, so that people who DO value a “living wage” can put their money where their mouths are (and gauge whether they get the same bang for *their* buck that stores with lower labor costs provide.
 Classic example of this: when I was in Jacksonville on business a few months ago, I travelled almost entirely by “shuttle”. That is to say, a van. A single van owned by someone who met a minimum set of standards (four wheels, seatbelts), and kept the van clean enough to attract customers. It wasn’t a posh van, but no worse than a cab – smelled better than any cab I’ve been in, ever – and it got me around Jax quickly and cost-effectively. I talked with the driver; no serious regulations other than the same vehicle safety rules everyone has to follow (which are perfectly effective), no Taxicab lobby to worry about breaking his knees, and he makes a *solid* middle-class living driving that van between the hotels, the business district and the airport. One of them (whom I used twice, and talked with about the system) gave me a card – he does with all his customers – and told me to call him when I need a ride next time I’m in Jax. And I will.
Anyway – there is no way a local businessman could set up such business in Saint Paul. And that’s a shame; our system enriches the cab company owners, at all of our expense. This is just one of the examples of our business regulation making it impossible to start small businesses, for the dumbest reasons.
 Nope, it’s not “what people do” in Saint Paul in 2014. In Saint Paul in 2014, people work for government, or work outside Saint Paul. To the extent that there is a private sector in Saint Paul, it’s some very rugged people who can weather a lot of bureaucratic BS.
 Or shall we just continue making soothing sounds about helping small business by using policies that have made Saint Paul one of the most business-hostile cities in the upper midwest, all the while lining the pockets of the city’s political class and its hangers-on (sorry, those of you who I just described – it’s business. Not personal).
 I know – some of you see politics (in the form of government and the whooooole process) through soft-focus lenses. But it all devolves back to force. Try this: Stop paying your taxes, or put a statue the city doesn’t like on your lawn, or decline to send your kid to a government-approved school. Keep at it, and sooner or later someone with a gun shows up at your door to demand compliance. You can dress it up any way you want, but that’s really the essence of all politics at the end of the day.