Every unemployed American reflects a failure of entrepreneurial imagination — a failure by someone to see how workers’ underused time can be transformed into profitable action. And in the Boston mayoral race, most candidates seem to understand, to judge from their job-growth proposals, that enhanced entrepreneurship provides a better path towards widespread economic opportunity than a more generous local welfare state. But while at least some of their ideas are good, city government isn’t structured in a way that makes a top priority of promoting new business activity.
For that reason, every candidate should promise to create a chief entrepreneurship officer — a tribune for startups who has real power and the sole responsibility of fighting for new business formation.
An under-appreciated aspect of Tom Menino’s mayorship is how he combined pro-business pragmatism with earthy neighborhood advocacy. Many New Yorkers suspected that Mayor Bloomberg’s support for Wall Street merely represented solidarity with fellow billionaires, and they have reacted by moving leftwards, nominating a progressive who shows little innate affection for business. In contrast, Bostonians had no reason to doubt Menino wanted an Innovation District because it was good for ordinary Bostonians, rather than because of some secret pro-Silicon Valley (or pro-Kendall Square) agenda. Consequently, his would-be successors feel comfortable espousing policies intended to ease entrepreneurship, instead of just attacking the 1 percent.
The economic inequities that exist in Boston today are best addressed by helping new businesses create jobs, especially the ordinary kind that employ people without fancy degrees. Some ideas advanced by mayoral candidates are dead right. Boston needs to take a battle ax to ancient regulations; the city should wrest control over liquor licenses away from the State House. Some proposals are more debatable. While continuing school reform is vital, adult workforce training typically has far more limited results.
And some of the proposals are almost risible. Encouraging residents to “Buy Boston,” as City Councilor John Connolly is doing, ignores the advantages of interstate trade that caused America to scrap the Articles of Confederation. Boston’s companies will compete most effectively in the global marketplace if they buy the best and most affordable, no matter where it is produced.
But any reform — sensible or not — will require more than mocking the existing regulatory morass, as Connolly has amusingly done on YouTube. The state Legislature won’t easily abandon its control over licensing. Entrepreneurs need their own champion in the administration — not an economic development czar, who would inevitably be drawn to big employers, but a leader who would be judged by the number of start-ups in the city and the quantity and diversity of the jobs they offer.
The position would have to bridge the gap between Innovation District techies and Vietnamese vermicelli vendors. The chief entrepreneurship officer should start with a brief but comprehensive regulatory review, exposing existing rules to ruthless cost-benefit analysis. The next step would be convincing the Legislature and the City Council to change rules that hold up small businesses unnecessarily.
The ultimate goal should be a setup where the chief entrepreneurship officer provides a single permit for every new business, much as the Devens Enterprise Commission oversees permitting on the former Fort Devens base in central Massachusetts. One-stop permitting doesn’t mean that health and safety would be ignored. But it would become the chief entrepreneurship officer’s job to bring required agencies and experts together, instead of imposing added costs on budding job creators.
Reform is never easy. Needlessly burdensome rules sometimes have a superficial logic and steadfast supporters. It’s easier for a new mayor not to get drawn into fights over them. That’s precisely why candidates should commit not just to improving Boston’s business climate in broad terms, but to empowering a high-profile official whose sole task is to create the new enterprises that will secure Boston’s future.
Edward L. Glaeser, a Harvard economist, is director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.