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Politicians love to say they’re “business-friendly.” But what does that actually mean?

a pair of hands holding a newspaper that says "business" at the top.
Adeolu Eletu
We're asking business owners and leaders across the state what the phrase "business-friendly" means to them.

We often hear politicians use buzzwords: things like “media elite,” “fake news,” and “welfare state.”

Some of those seem straightforward enough. Others, not so much.

One Michigan Radio listener, Ellen Rusten, had a question about a phrase you’ve probably heard come out of a politician's mouth: "business-friendly." Rusten wanted to know, just what does that popular buzzword actually mean?

We've reached out to business owners and leaders around the state to get their answer. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing those conversations with you to get a better idea of “business-friendly” really means in Michigan.

Where did it come from? 

Let’s start by figuring out where the phrase "business-friendly" actually came from in the first place. To do that, we talked to Anne Curzan, Michigan Radio’s linguistics expert, and a University of Michigan professor of English, Linguistics, and Education.

Curzan says the phrase business-friendly started to pick up steam during the 1990s, along with linguistic cousins like “family-friendly” or “eco-friendly.” But the very first citing of it came much earlier: in 1948, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The simple definition of the term is something, or someone, that’s favorable to business concerns. But, Curzan notes, its real world definition tends to vary according to your politics. For some, it might mean low taxes and fewer regulations. And on the other hand:

“Some of the cynical folks will say – if we’re talking about a politician or a legislator – if you say they’re business-friendly, what that really means is they will follow corporate lobbyists,” Curzan said.

Listen to the conversation above to hear Curzan talk about why politicians love vague buzzwords, and how they act as a linguistic fashion trend.

Do big and small companies get same benefits from “business-friendly” policies?

Stateside's conversation with Doug Rothwell and Rob Fowler

Does the definition of "business-friendly" depend on the size of your business?

How does the number of people you employ or the amount of revenue you bring change the benefits you get from “business-friendly” policies?

To try to answer those questions, we turned to Rob Fowler, CEO of the Small Business Association of Michigan, and Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of Business Leaders of Michigan.

Both say that the state has made great strides in the last decade when it comes to being more “business-friendly.” Fowler cites lower business taxes and regulatory reforms as major helpers for small businesses.

But Rothwell says that despite these notable improvements, Michigan's reputation nationally still needs some work.

Listen to the full conversation above. 

What does “business friendly” mean for women and minority business owners? 

Stateside's conversation with Jamiel Robinson and Terry Barclay.

What obstacles stand in the way of women and people of color aiming to own their own businesses in Michigan today?

That’s one of the questions we asked Terry Barclay, president of the women-in-business-focused non-profit Inforum, and Jamiel Robinson, creator and founder of Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses.

Both Robinson and Barclay say that they think the term “business friendly” means different things to different businesses, and that when politicians talk about making Michigan a more business-friendly state, they may not have every business — or business owner — in mind.

“Different industries, different sizes of companies, are going to have different takes on regulation and tax policy and incentives. The core issues that I hear coming up over and over again are about access to capital, access to talent, and access to opportunity and networks,” Barclay said.

This problem also plays out on a nationwide scale. Barclay says that female-led startups received 2.2% of all venture capital funding in 2018.

“We need to face up to the data about women and minority-led firms and realize that we still really don’t have a level playing field out there,” she said.

Robinson says that government has a role to play when it comes to establishing employee rights like minimum wage legislation, paid sick leave, and ensuring dignity in the workplace. It can also help alleviate the financial burden that some of those policies place on small businesses by offering tax incentives and abatements.

“That’s where government can step in and make sure that businesses are being actually good for Michigan and not good just for themselves,” Robinson said.

Click above to Stateside’s full conversation with Jamiel Robinson and Terry Barclay.

Can "business friendly" policies be good for workers too?

Stateside’s conversation with Vincent Vernuccio and Lou Glazer

Stateside’s conversation with Vincent Vernuccio and Lou Glazer

How can Michigan encourage business growth while also supporting its workforce?

We spoke to people from two Michigan-based think tanks on either side of the political aisle to get their answer to that question.

Vincent Vernuccio is a senior fellow at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and Lou Glazer is the president of Michigan Future.

Both Vernuccio and Glazer agree that the state needs to focus on improving baseline infrastructure and removing unnecessary barriers to growth for business.

“Incentives are not the right way to attract businesses. It’s keeping it friendly across the board. Keep the environment good across the board, don’t pick winners and losers, don’t give special favors. That’s how you attract job creators,” Vernuccio said.

When it comes to ensuring that people who work make enough money to support their families, the two also agree that the market at this moment is not doing enough. Glazer says that fixing the problem requires the government to do one of two things: It can directly help workers through things like universal health insurance or an earned income tax. Or the legislature can mandate employers to provide benefits like a higher minimum wage or paid sick leave.

“From our perspective, you’ve got to do one or the other. You either have to have public programs that boost income for working families, or you have to have mandates, or some combination,” Glazer said.

Listen to Stateside’s conversation with Vincent Vernuccio and Lou Glazer to hear their thoughts on the “brain drain” causing educated workers to leave for jobs in other states and the changing structure of careers.

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