Sen. Brown, the SBA, and Discrimination

June 24, 2011

I recently testified before the Senate Small Business Committee on the topic of the Small Business Administration. mentioned that there was a “bit of drama as the hearing ended” when Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) “upbraided” me for comments I had made in an exchange with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). Having watched a recording of the hearing, I think I should comment.

Proponents of the SBA argue that a “market failure” exists because some otherwise worthy applicants are unduly denied credit under the standard criteria used by private lenders. Therefore, the federal government should correct this alleged “failure” by incentivizing private lenders to issue loans to less credit-worthy applicants. The SBA does this by “guaranteeing” up to 85 percent of the loan’s value in the event of a default.

Sen. Paul asked me to comment on the alleged “market failure” in small business lending. In my response, I stated that the SBA’s loan guarantee programs are “inherently discriminatory” because the government backs loans for some businesses but not others. I noted that businesses that do not receive an SBA-backed loan are put at a disadvantage when the government backs the loan of a competitor.

In an attempt to simplify my point for the audience, I gave an example. Upon moving to the Indianapolis area several years ago, I went to a pizza shop. On the wall was a newspaper clipping about the shop, which mentioned that it had gotten started with an SBA-backed loan. There are innumerable places to get pizza in the Indianapolis area. So it struck me as being unfair that the federal government had assisted a particular pizza shop and therefore advantaged it against competing pizza shops that did not receive government support, or pizza entrepreneurs who might have entered the market without government support.

A visibly bothered Sen. Brown claimed that I said that “I wondered how they [the pizza shop] got the loan.” However, I never said that I wondered how the pizza shop got the SBA-backed loan. I thought that my anecdote illustrated a very simple point: the government had effectively favored one pizza shop over others. But Brown apparently didn’t get it, and instead proceeded to question how I could talk about discrimination when I knew nothing about “the facts” of how the pizza shop came to get the loan.

The entire exchange was bizarre – particularly Brown’s closing comments before he cut me off (my transcription):

I find it kind of inappropriate that you would make a statement as discriminatory for that pizza place to get a loan without having the facts … and I think this kind of rhetoric like that as you throw it around … and we hear those things in a whole host of areas in Washington … it doesn’t help solve the problem and basically step up, and you know, make it better and encourage people to take a shot in business.

Maybe it’s best that he cut me off because the hearing was a week ago and I still don’t know what to make of those comments. (Those interested can go to the 122 minute mark to watch my full exchange with Sen. Brown.)

Perhaps my use of the word “discriminatory” got Sen. Brown agitated. I admit that if I could do it over again, I would chose a different word or phrase given that the ruling class in Washington is particularly sensitive when you’re on their turf. Regardless, it’s a sad commentary on the size and scope of the federal government that I would be arguing with a senator over a federally-backed loan to a pizza shop.

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