op-ed

When Huge Profits Aren’t the Most Important Thing


In case you haven’t noticed, here’s the one inarguable truth of American life: Everything is for sale. We pay for goods, services, necessities, luxuries, life, and death. We even pay for the privilege of paying–ever been stuck with an ATM debit card fee or the always ambiguous “service charge”?

That’s capitalism as practiced in the United States–anything worth doing is worth monetizing. Our national heroes are Abe Lincoln, Neil Armstrong, and Harold Flemsteppler, inventor of the pay toilet.

It’s a system that’s worked out pretty well for the most part, with exception to the occasional Gilded Age and ensuing depression. Those ugly crashes lead to reforms both legal and ethical, the voracious greed that fueled the most recent boom and bust checked for a time both by a renewed sense of civic duty backed by legislation that reels in the bad guys for a bit. Antitrust laws, for example, are great, but what’s even better is the resulting collective social agreement that maybe we should cool it on the whole “greed is good” thing for a little while. And then a few years pass, greed comes back into vogue, and the whole cycle repeats itself.

I’m not anti-capitalist, not by any stretch of the imagination. It’s the only system I have ever known, and it’s one that has worked out okay for me. I have a house, a car, records, books, a Lancelot Link lunchbox. There’s quite a few places around the globe where my simple middle class life probably seems extravagant.

But while I’m far from anti-capitalist I certainly see where the system could use some improvement. We’ve been stepping in the same boom and bust mud puddle for 250 years, after all. We have mentally ill people living in boxes on city streets, kids drinking contaminated water, and internet companies exchanging our personal data as if it were baseball cards.

I am much too dimwitted to solve these problems–I am a grown man with a Lancelot Link lunchbox, after all–but my hunch is that reform begins with an acknowledgement that not everything worth having is worth making a Scrooge McDuck sized pile of money from. Perhaps not every aspect of American life should be governed exclusively by profit motive.

That’s not to say that companies in the following sectors shouldn’t be profitable. Of course they should. Their employees and executives should live comfortably, their investors and shareholders should see a little dividend if appropriate, and Barb from accounting should have a complimentary birthday cake waiting for her in the break room. But maybe in some industries maximizing profit shouldn’t be the primary goal of the business.

On the other hand, if you’re Coca-Cola, go nuts. Charge 18 bucks for two liters of fizzy sugar water if you think you can get it. We can do without Coke if we choose to do so. Want to charge  $143 for a ticket to Batman Battles Star Transformer and the Furious at the local googleplex? Sure, give it a shot. I’ll stay home if I don’t want to pay that much.

When it comes to luxury purchases we can always say no, which is why Coke doesn’t cost 18 bucks per bottle. Coca-Cola’s greed is tempered by what people are willing to pay for bubbly water. Their profit motive is there, it’s simply kept in check by the market.

Where this breaks down is when the profit motive is the primary goal of industries we simply can’t do without. Here are a few examples:

The Penal System: If ever there was an example of an industry that should show zero profit at year end, it’s the penal system. You have to be willfully naive not to see that for profit prisons lead to increased (and unjust) incarcerations. Just ask former Pennsylvania judge Mark Ciavarella, who earned 2.6 million dollars and a prison stretch of his own for wrongly sending minors to for-profit juvenile detention centers.

Elections: Billions of dollars are spent on advertising each campaign season–billions. As a result, our representatives spend more time fundraising than they do representin’, and the number of lobbyists in D.C. far exceeds the number of congress people. Those lobbyists are stuffing billions into congressional pockets in exchange for favors.

Elections may not be directly bought in the U.S., but their purchase is fueled in part by a for-profit advertising industry making literally billions of dollars off the concept of free elections.

Health Care: A young relative of mine recently needed an MRI in order to diagnose a suspected brain tumor. That one MRI, plus two office visits to review the results, cost $21,000. It didn’t really; rather, that was the amount that was billed. Who knows how much insurance actually paid; regardless, the family paid over four grand out of pocket for the procedure.

My guess is that after all of the nice people involved were paid, the power bill for one hour of MRI use was taken care of, etc., that procedure actually cost maybe a tenth of what was billed. And that’s generous: According to a 2017 Business Insider study, the high end of average in my state for an MRI is around $1,500.

An MRI isn’t a Coke, at least not where a young person is involved. If it was me, I might have said no thanks. I’m past the halfway mark mortality speaking, so if I die I die, but who is going to say no to a potentially life saving diagnosis when a kid is involved? And that’s why this particular medical group gets away with their predatory pricing.

The funny thing is that if that same relative had opted for a boob job rather than a potentially life saving diagnostic procedure, the price tag probably would’ve been around $6,000. In other words, elective procedures often are much more affordable in our system than their mandatory counterparts. Our health care providers are literally holding our lives hostage in our for-profit system.

Water: Raise your hand if you don’t need water. Anybody? There is no more basic necessity than water. Under the best conditions, you might survive a week without it, under the worst you might only last a couple of days. And yet, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe had this to say while he was CEO of Nestle:

“Water is, of course, the most important raw material we have today in the world. It’s a question of whether we should privatize the normal water supply for the population. And there are two different opinions on the matter. The one opinion, which I think is extreme, is represented by the NGOs [non-governmental organizations], who bang on about declaring water a public right. That means that as a human being you should have a right to water. That’s an extreme solution. The other view says that water is a foodstuff like any other, and like any other foodstuff it should have a market value. Personally, I believe it’s better to give a foodstuff a value so that we’re all aware it has its price, and then that one should take specific measures for the part of the population that has no access to this water, and there are many different possibilities there.”

Nestle, of course, bottles water for profit, and not just any water: They siphon millions of gallons out of California’s San Bernardino National Forest and bottle it as Arrowhead. I! Drink! Your! Milkshake!

That we should have a right to water is “an extreme solution” when the profit motive is in play, and as a result kids in Flint, Michigan have been permanently damaged by lead poisoning and we’ve exchanged lush California forests for oceans full of plastic Arrowhead bottles. When big returns are more important than the most basic human necessity, the profit motive has driven us to moral bankruptcy.

Church.  Hold on a second, churches by definition are non-profit, right? Well, yes. And yet, weasels like Joel Osteen live in 17,000 square foot houses, which is roughly one square foot for each person who fits into his basketball stadium of a church. And then there are the churches who use their tax-free status to support various politicians and parties.

I know that this is a problem as old as civilization, but worshiping should not be a for-profit system. When it becomes one, it is a business, and like all other businesses it should be taxed.

Energy. Remember Enron? They held California hostage over power rates. They lied, cheated, stole. Employees lives were ruined when their retirement plans proved worthless. Remember British Petroleum and the giant oil slick where once the Gulf of Mexico stood? How about any of the myriad pipelines that have burst, aquifers trashed by fracking, mountains leveled by coal mining, Middle Eastern wars, on and on?

Energy is important. Sure, to some extent it’s a luxury but then again it isn’t. We need energy, and again–the companies who provide it deserve to make profits. But when the profit motive reigns supreme, shortcuts are taken, lives are put at risk, and sketchy geopolitical decisions are made. Even science–the most quantifiable of human endeavors–is called into question when profit is the only thing that matters.

College Sports: The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is a non-profit organization with a billion dollars in annual revenue. You know who doesn’t get a piece of that pie? The stars of the NCAA–the athletes. Kids are putting their bodies on the line for free in hopes of a payout down the road, while a greasy little cabal rakes in a billion per year under the heading of “non-profit.”

Public Education: The value of an educated public was acknowledged at least as early as Thomas Jefferson, and for many years our much-maligned public school system has done a fairly decent job of teaching our kids the fundamentals. But that system has been under extreme pressure from the profit motive in recent years. Sometimes the greed is obvious–the buzz of charter schools, etc.–and sometimes it isn’t so obvious. Many public schools these days are paid by attendance, a system that compels administrators to persuade parents to send sick kids to school. Given that an MRI might cost a family 21 grand, maybe spreading disease in exchange for head count isn’t such a great idea.

This isn’t just a K-12 problem, by the way. Compelled by greed, state universities are more interested in top tuition dollars than anything these days: A non-resident has a better chance of getting into one of California’s UC schools than a Californian does. Why? Out of state tuition is higher, of course.

Mental Health: Some people need help in order to function in society. When they don’t get that help, the society at large suffers, sometimes in big ways like crime and sometimes in seemingly little ways like increased homelessness (which is certainly a big way to the homeless). We used to help folks who couldn’t help themselves via public institutions. Those places had their share of problems, but the one we chose to focus on was cost. Why should the taxpayers have to pay to help a bunch of crazies, am I right?

And so we closed the institutions and turned the mentally ill out onto the streets. These days we use the penal system as de facto mental institutions and our police force as counselors, so the taxpayers are still footing the bill. The big difference is that now we treat the mentally ill like animals and criminals, and we’re all a bit more morally destitute as a result.

The Broadcast News:  There was a time not so long ago when television news was not considered a for-profit business. In exchange for free use of the airwaves, each network was required to provide X hours of non-commercial programming per day. Happy Days was for profit, but the ABC Nightly News was a civic duty.

As a result, the broadcast news had no skin in the game. Ratings didn’t much matter, as the news rooms weren’t subsidized by advertising. And because ratings didn’t matter, facts could matter.

Well, we fixed that, didn’t we? We fixed that real good.

How do we fix what’s broken? I don’t know. How much profit is too much profit? I don’t know.

I don’t know anything, really–all I have are opinions and observations. When capitalism works it’s a wonderful thing, but when profits mean more than ethics bad things happen. All of that plastic floating around in the Pacific isn’t an environmental problem, it’s a greed problem. Those jobs that went overseas? They aren’t a tariff problem, they’re an ethical problem. Homelessness, dirty water, our decaying infrastructure, whatever problem you care to name the root cause can probably be traced to voracious greed.

We know where all of this leads, because we’ve seen it again and again. Maybe if we just started with the industries where the profit motive shouldn’t reign supreme we could head off the next depression, or at least make it a little less painful.

Categories: op-ed

4 replies »

  1. Yep. Need vs Want. I don’t know the answers either, but regarding health care I think it would be a better place for all if we could tell little Billy, “Now if you want to be a doctor and genuinely help people, you’ll only make $75,000 a year at most. That’s the limit. Now if you want to make millions, you can star in a TV reality show.”

    Liked by 1 person

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