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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.

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