September 12, 2012 in City

Hal proves civility in political discourse possible

By The Spokesman-Review
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Hal Dixon is a businessman, entrepreneur and investor. He thinks the government needs to get off the backs of businesspeople to encourage the economy to flourish by lowering taxes, regulations and other burdens on the free market.
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Hal Dixon once told me that we live in different worlds.

Different political worlds, surely – Hal is a conservative, and I am not. But Hal, who is the most thoughtful guy who writes regularly to point out how wrong I am, was talking about something else entirely: how our work lives shape our political lives.

Hal is a businessman, an entrepreneur, an investor. Now retired at 63, he and his family have worked hard, taken risks, employed others and made money. He thinks the government needs to get off the backs of businesspeople – to encourage the economy to flourish by lowering taxes, regulations and other burdens on the free market.

I have worked for others my whole life, all the way back to high school. I’m concerned that for decades now, incomes have risen at the very, very top and nowhere else; it’s creating social divisions that are corrosive and deepening; and I think that politics is overrun with business-friendliness.

Me and Hal – it’s the oldest dynamic in the book. The worker and the capitalist. Labor and management. But somehow Hal has hung in there with me, writing often to debate and disagree, but always managing to keep us on a more or less friendly keel. He’s never been the one to forget his manners, and he always tries to win the argument on the merits, not insults.

Born and raised in Spokane, Hal went to Arizona State University and graduated from the University of Idaho with a degree in business management in 1972. He started working at his family’s business, Exchange Lumber and Manufacturing, and over a number of years worked into the general manager’s position. He eventually moved into commercial real estate, running Dixon Investment, until he retired.

Then, “my stepson decided to open a restaurant, so I became a bartender,” he said. For a while, at least. These days, he lives downtown and spends as much time as he can fly-fishing and traveling.

Hal thinks that a lot of us who dwell in the world of paychecks and dream of job security simply don’t appreciate the pressure, effort and sacrifice involved in running a business. The media and Democrats demonize businesses, he said, and underestimate the effect of government taxes and regulation on business owners and the economy at large. He points to the fact that Cabela’s and others were built at Stateline, in tax-friendlier Idaho, despite the fact that there’s a larger metro area right next door, complete with an airport.

He also thinks that a lot of us don’t understand how tax relief at the top ripples through the economy – but he isn’t doctrinaire on that point, acknowledging that the financial challenges facing the government may require some higher taxes, along with drastic spending cuts to get the deficit under control.

Hal and some of his family members own two restaurants on the North Side: the Downriver Grill, in its 10th year, and the Flying Goat. Around 50 people are employed in those restaurants, and the family has hundreds of thousands of dollars invested – a lot of money.

“It is a lot,” he said. “And we put that money at risk.”

He and his family have considered opening a third place. If Obama wins re-election, he says, he is concerned about the country falling back into a recession because of uncertainty surrounding the president’s policies on taxation and regulation.

Would it be so horrible – slightly higher taxes for the wealthy? I think not, and I think you only have to look backward a few years to find proof that higher marginal tax rates do not, in and of themselves, ruin the economy. But Hal says it is more a question of businesses being able to plan for the long term.

“I’m not doing a thing until after the election,” he said. “And if Obama gets elected, I’m not doing a thing, period.”

Like many of his political persuasion, Hal has issues with labor unions. He sees them as relics of an age when they produced valuable reforms; over the decades, he says, they have helped make it virtually impossible for American manufacturers to compete, and public-sector unions are engaged in what he sees as a corrupt marriage with Democrats that is not unlike what I see as the corrupt marriage between corporations and the GOP.

Hal and I had an interesting conversation over this and much more – over an excellent pizza at the Flying Goat. He sees a lot of what I value as economically naïve; I see a lot of what he values as the mechanism for producing economic injustice.

But he sets a good example, Hal does. In a time when everyone’s hunkered down in their ideological bunker, listening only to their fellow travelers, demonizing disagreement and assailing straw men, he has persisted in a strategy of engagement and persuasion. And he listens.

We may live in different worlds. But we live in the same one, too.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on

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