Declining Entrepreneurship in the US: Fact, Fiction or Some Third Thing?

Ian Hathaway and Robert Litan at the Brookings Institute just came out with an interesting working paper showing that new business creation and entrepreneurship in the US has been declining since the 1970s [PDF warning]. Since people at Brookings know how to write a good paper for public consumption, the lede is right there in Figure 1.

And also since the Brookings Institute is really good a press releases, this report has been part of today's twitter tales. Plenty of people are blaming this on OABAMA, OBAMA TAXES, and OBAMA REGULATIONS.

I don't doubt the author's analysis, but entrepreneurship data is tricky, tricky stuff. I've spent far too many hours yelling at my excel spreadsheets, wondering why they don't add up, only to realize I was using the wrong definition.

What's a startup? What's a new firm? Are we talking about every new firm registered with the IRS? Firms that have incorporated with their Secretary of State? What about firms that have more than nominal turn over? Firms who employ more than just the founder? Are we counting farms? Franchises?

There are a lot of reasons why aggregate levels of entrepreneurship would fall over time. As much as I am loath to blame regulations (in the over 100 entrepreneurs I've interviewed as part of my research, I don't think any have ever mentioned regulations as a major challenge), but it's not like there are fewer building codes out there than in 1970. The idea that slightly higher marginal federal tax rates discourage entrepreneurs (who are unlikely to make a profit during the term of the president who raised or lowered the taxes) is such a stupid idea that it doesn't even merit a clever joke.

Rather, I think there are fewer opportunities for entrepreneurs out there. A Wal-mart in town means that there's no need for the local 5 and Dime, the appliance shop (and now that TVs are so cheep, no need for the TV repair shop). Now, consumer facing small businesses are only a small part of the overall entrepreneurial scene. But, it's hard to ignore the fact that major firms and franchises are able to out compete most independent entrepreneurs in the same field. McDonalds franchise owners work hard, but they have a lower failure rate than any independent restaurant.

The authors say they've got another paper in progress that'll control for external economic factors and that the decline in entrepreneurship survives the addition of control variables. But something like this doesn't show up in any econometric variable I know of. It represents a structural change in the economy.