Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Profit Motive

About fifteen years ago I got into an argument with an old friend about the battle between VHS and Beta. My point was that while VHS eventually won the day, Beta was, in fact, the superior product. It was more dependable, cheaper to manufacture and had better video quality. He argued that because VHS won the format war, it was, by definition, superior. This argument seemed so innately circular that it took me a while to even understand what he was saying.

My argument was technological, his was Darwinian. For him, a businessman, the definition of superiority was, whatever survives, which is another way of saying, whatever makes the most money.

I have been reminded of this argument many times over the years and the older I got the more I came to see that our system, the American, capitalist system, almost always equates profitability with quality.

This argument is used constantly in the national debate on the role of government & the private sector. Whether we are talking about Social Security, healthcare, prisons or the military, the argument remains the same. Public run institutions are, by their nature, corrupt, bloated and wasteful, while private, for profit, institutions are efficient, innovative and, of course, profitable. If they are making money they must, by definition be doing a good job.

Profit=Good

(Personally, I’ve always had problems with this argument as there are many well run government organizations and many terribly run private ones.)

Today, that same argument is being used against public broadcasting in the battle to eliminate federal support for NPR & PBS. The argument is simple, if people really wanted Sesame Street or Nova or This American Life, they would pay for it. Or, another way of putting it, the value of the product is determined only by the profit it can generate.

Non Profit=Bad

By that definition, NPR, PBS and a thousand other government programs and charitable organizations, from Soup Kitchens to after school programs, have no value or, at least, the services they provide could be improved by adding a profit motive.

This philosophy is not only patently false but also deeply destructive.

Most corporations will tell you that they are in the business of making money and the products and services they provide are merely the means to achieving those profitable ends. Ford builds cars in order to make money. Fed Ex delivers packages in order to make money.

Fair enough.

However, how would you feel if the doctor, who is treating your mom’s cancer told you he was prescribing a particular form of Chemo in order to make a buck? Would you trust that he is absolutely dedicated to your mother’s care or would you run screaming from the room?

How would you feel if the people who’s job it is to make sure your food is safe are the same people who profit from their sales?

Now think about our increasingly privatized military and the military industrial complex which supports it. Do we really want profit to be the deciding factor in whether or not we go to war? If this idea makes you uncomfortable, you need to take a long hard look at how America works.

It’s not that I have a problem with doctors (or any body else) making a buck. However, a doctor, food regulator or military organization who is primarily motived by profit is a danger to my mom, the food supply and the rest of the world.

Perhaps more importantly, there are some jobs which simply wont be done by people looking to make a buck. No one dedicates their lives to helping inner city kids, protecting our forests, or even charting the origins of the universe for the money. Those jobs and hundreds of others like them are made no less important by the fact that they are unprofitable. Actually they are only unprofitable in a financial sense. They are hugely profitable in other ways.

Which brings me back to NPR & PBS. I have no problem whatsoever with for profit entertainment. If you write a song, produce a show or act in a movie which captures the public’s imagination, you should, make a lot of money. However, one journey through the channels on your television or glance at the movies in your local multiplex should give you an idea of just how low the entertainment industry is willing to stoop to get your dollar.

It’s a lot like fast food. Pump the product full of empty calories, throw it in a colorful package, market the hell out of it and start counting the money. It might make people sick in the long run but short term profit is all they care about.

And, make no mistake, this is making us sick. One look at 24 hour cable news can show you just how infectious and destructive the profit motive can be to our national psyche. If it bleeds it’ leads and in the end, the ones left bleeding are us.

Perhaps even more destructive is the world of children’s programming. Remember that doctor who told you he was treating your mom’s cancer for the money? Well the digital baby sitter you trust your seven year old with has the exact same motivation.

Again, I have no problem with the profit motive. I don’t care if game shows are designed to sell cars or if football exists to sell beer. I’m even happy to have kids get toys of their favorite cartoon characters. (I certainly was happy to play with those toys when I was a kid)

What I have a problem with is that the choice of what to show us is not motivated by truth or fairness or a sense of what is important for us to know, see or feel, but by profit alone.

This is why the quality of the material on public broadcasting is fundamentally different form what we see and hear everywhere else and why it is desperately important that we, as a nation, continue to fund a tiny sliver of programming whose value comes not from a monetary dividend but rather from a societal one.

The cost of public programming works out to approximately $1.25 per person. In other words for about the cost of a single song on itunes and far less than a cup of coffee at Starbucks we get radio and television who’s only motivation is to produce programming which is good for us. Personally, I think this is a $1.25 that we can’t afford not to spend.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Wendy said...

A fair and balanced (!) view. I would like your definition of what is "good" for us, in terms of public broadcasting. There are many who believe that it is left-leaning. Let's air out that old carpet!

11:10 AM  
Blogger Parvenue said...

Good post, as always...and I totally agree with the sentiment about public radio/tv, but here's the thing: the reason that public radio/tv are in jeopardy now has less to do with profit motive and more with the huge difference of opinion over "what is good for us" No one agrees what constitutes "societal benefit"; we're too divided for that...... It is not in the interest of the right to have NPR's message out there (the message being the truth,and rational presentation of both [or more] sides over the issues of our day), which message is perceived by the right as lefty-liberal...Since cuts have to be made somewhere, why not destroy the outlet for people who don't support us anyway? is the logic behind the now Republican-led House position..
It is part of the same philosophy that wants to eliminate the unions in Wisconsin--they don't vote Republican, so why should they exist?

And I do have some problem with the profit motive...it really should only be a motive, not the motive...there needs to be a balance and consideration of all the stakeholders, not just the shareholders...but as long as profit/money equals political power, we get what we have..

I'm not sure if this is off-topic, or not, perhaps the subject of another discussion, but there is a movie coming out where the premise is that the ability to use 100%
(or at least a much larger portion of one's brain) would lead to unlimited wealth and power....not even considered seems to be the possibility that use of that much brain power might lead to the conclusion that wealth and power are not the wisest things to seek...

sorry if I'm hijacking your blog..

11:22 AM  
Blogger sloan said...

I think another thing to keep in mind is that many corporations are looking at the short game because their investors are. That is destructive for anything that affects the long term outlook of a nation. Look at how the prison system changed, how getting rid of the psych ward led to rampant homelessness, or any other number of businesses that have failed over decades. Being successful in business for a decade is fairly common, being successful for decades is rare, and is usually led by those that invest, not those that look purely at short term profit goals.

11:46 AM  
Blogger Wendy said...

"it really should only be A motive, not THE motive...there needs to be a . . . consideration of all the stakeholders, not just the shareholders..."

Very aptly put!

4:30 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Great comments everyone.

I definitely agree that we need to start thinking of profit as "a motive" rather than "the motive". In fact, that is directly in line with the next to blogs I am working on now.

I also think Mark's contrasting short term and long term thinking is extremely important.

Finally, I don't know if I have a specific answer to Wendy's question about what "the good" is but I think if you begin by asking that question you are a lot closer to the answer than you will be if you begin by asking, "What will make the most money."

Thanks again for the great comments.

9:24 AM  

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