Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Profit Motive

I am not, never was, a believer in the profit motive. How long have I heard it said that the profit motive is what makes the world the wonderful place it is? No, I don’t believe it.

Why must everything the U.S. government proposes, for the past two decades at least, be filtered through the beneficial effects of someone making a profit from it—whether it’s providing housing for the poor, healthcare for everybody, art for our souls, even overseas wars for oil and death—or, OK, to be a little charitable, a “model of democracy in the Middle East”?

Even as we try to save the economy from utter collapse, we insist that somebody somewhere manage to make some money off doing what, from what I understand, would be equal to feeding five thousand people on five loaves of bread and two fish.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I have never ever turned a profit in my life, to my knowledge. Not one that had any dollar signs attached, anyway. I was the kid whose parents bought all the World’s Finest Chocolate bars he was assigned to sell as fundraising for this or that school project. I am the man who, when offered an annual salary almost ten years ago—a very modest salary, by any account—blurted out spontaneously that I would take the job for even less. Who in today’s America underbids himself?

Right now, with the highest university degree for my specialization (Doctor of Philosophy) and just over 30 years of experience in my chosen profession (college teaching), I have an annual salary equal to the starting salary of a police officer or an assistant human resources director in my state (North Carolina). No, I’m a piss-poor profiteer.

And, guess what, I’m okay with that. By and large. And, guess what else, I give as much bang per dollar—I’d say even a bigger bang—than the average Fortune 500 CEO pulling in $14.2 million a year.

Fundamentally, then, I am incapable of understanding why better must always mean bigger, or why, so long as I can live well on the rewards of my labor, I would need to make more ten years from now than I made ten years ago. (Which reminds me—if we’re in a depression now, when are movie tickets going to be a nickel again and a steak dinner, a quarter?)

I cannot think of the artist, musician, actor, writer, etc., who is famous for producing his or her best work because of the desire either to match or outstrip a previous success—or to create a sure-fire moneymaker. Yes, I know William Shakespeare was a businessman—actor, playwright, and theatre owner—but we rank his work by qualities other than its box-office receipts. And though history provides us with no clues as to his motives, it’s just hard for me to believe the man wrote King Lear mainly to capitalize on the public’s interest in nihilism and eye gouging.

In the case of Alfred Hitchcock, master filmmaker, the movies now recognized as his masterpieces—chief among them, Vertigo—were hardly financial successes at all. Put Vertigo and Slumdog Millionaire on any reasonable scale and see which one proves to be the greater artistic achievement. And need I mention Orson Welles? Or Van Gogh? Or, for that matter, who even dares compare present-day charts-topping hiphop to the socially conscious and politically motivated rap of Public Enemy back in the 1980s?

In the realm of science and medicine, I hear the profit motive invoked more routinely. My understanding is that, decades ago, science was a public venture financed by nonprofits or the government, often in cooperation with institutions of higher learning. Now it’s almost entirely profit-based. I ask you—shall we compare the Salk vaccine to Viagra?

And, back in the day, didn’t scientists use to pool their knowledge to find a cure for tuberculosis or build atomic bombs ahead of Hitler? In my recent past experience as a medical writer and editor, though, nearly all the information I looked at was the patented property of the pharmaceutical company that sponsored the research … and no matter how significant the data looked objectively, if the corporate execs could not figure out a way to squeeze a couple of zillion bucks out of it, it was boxed and warehoused somewhere deep underground next to Indiana Jones’s lost Ark of the Covenant.

So, no, frankly, I don’t understand why insurance companies have to be included in the loop if the federal government were ever seriously interested in providing baseline health care to every American man, woman, and child. And I don’t understand why contractors make so much money off the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—and why then even more contractors are hired to figure out just where the hell all the money is disappearing to.

And I don’t know why so many people think it’s a good idea to funnel government funds into gigantic corporations on the pretense that this is the most economical and “free” way to get much needed loans to mom-and-pop businesses, when, in fact, those same corporations turn around and refuse to loan money to moms and pops.

No, I don’t believe. I’m an unbeliever in free enterprise, free market, laissez-faire, trickle-down, all of it. (Nor do I believe in the federal government that we’ve had since at least the 1940s, upon which, as President Eisenhower once warned us, the globally heavy thumb of a “military-industrial complex” presses down hard.)

I don’t believe the poor are to blame for the current economic fiasco for signing their names to bloodletting high-interest mortgages in order to buy homes of their own.

I don’t believe unions or American workers or environmentalists are chiefly to blame for the collapse of the American automobile industry either.

I don’t think the current mess is the fault of millions of new “stockholders,” mostly coerced into the stock market as company after company shut down their retirement plans, who have little time after 8- to 12-hour work days to watchdog the goings-on in hundreds of companies thus far kept afloat by the cumulative effect of these inexperienced capitalists’ meager savings.

And, obviously as a teacher, I tend not to blame teachers or teacher unions for the disastrously weak skill and knowledge levels of America’s school children—and tend to recognize many of the critiques of the same for what they are—bald-faced attempts to destroy public education in America and thus turn every school (except for pricey private schools) into a mere training post for cheap, acquiescent labor.

Furthermore, I find criticisms directed against the “cultural elite” and academics—comprised almost entirely of folks like me who aren’t trying to top last year’s record-setting profits—and are hardly “elite” in the sense of class or net worth—are disingenuous attempts to stymie intellectual freedom and the free flow of ideas in a nation much in need of clear analyses and new ideas right now.

What we have is a society and a culture that need fixing. What we do not have right now is a profit opportunity, and what we do not need right now is craven adherence to forms of capitalism that are clearly exhausted and no longer functional.

No, I do not believe that “what is good for General Motors is good for the country.” It’s not true now, and I don’t believe it was ever true.

John Ruskin wrote, “There is no Wealth but Life.” I believe American culture has, for the past 50 years anyway, been squandering life in the vain pursuit of wealth. Right now, more than a bailout, American needs a “revival”—not of the religious sort, since religion long ago stopped being anything but a shill for power and wealth—but a revival of common sense, common decency, and a clear concept of the common good—literally the common-wealth.

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