Can There Be Too Much Profit?

Yes, that is a serious question. And in my reasoning, yes is also the ultimate answer to the question.

Trust me when I assert that I am a committed free-market capitalist. I believe in the power of the profit motive to move mountains, revolutionize the world, and spread assorted good things to millions of people. Without it, we might be still be living as serfs in 18th century conditions under the knuckles of some knight.

Profits motivate ordinary individuals to unleash their imagination, energy, and industry to create opportunities, innovation, and relief. Profits solve problems, feed people, and change the planet. Without profits, the world would collapse on a moribund economy that couldn’t even feed us, resembling the failed communist societies that herded citizens into forced labor in collective, state-owned enterprises, rife with corruption, fraudulent output, and dispirited participants.

But profits also introduce or exacerbate a very negative quality in mankind as well – greed. Greed ranges from the failure to be content with one’s rightful profit all the way to a psychosis that drives people to take enormous, self-defeating risks in pursuit of more profit, regardless of past overachievements. Greed can inspire people to do bad things to get more profit (note I did not say “earn more profit”).

Greed is everything from the mythical butcher placing his thumb on the meat scale, to the restaurateur selling chicken as beef, to Bernie Madoff running a Ponzi scheme with your retirement funds. Greed is dishonest and deludes people into bending or banishing any moral code.

Think about an industry that does not want to be responsible for some of the hazardous effects that the chemicals it produces might have, and decides that it’s cheaper to donate money to influence politicians than repair the problem. The politicians have their own profit motive – they want to stay elected. So they will attack the regulators on behalf of the industry and industry gets a lot of what it wants.

Polluted ground water? Increased cancer rates? Contaminated dirt? All are just collateral damage in the name of profits, jobs, and “good business.”

That scenario is greed at its worst, because the industry’s greed infects others using the common currency. The politician profits by selling their advocacy to the highest bidder, regardless of what is right, but who is contributing.

What happened to increasing profits by building a better mouse trap? By developing more productivity to deliver the same output? Or by creating strategic advances and new technologies that benefit someone? Why does today’s economy seem to achieve prolific profit growth only at the expense of one group of people by another (layoffs of workers by management), misrepresentation of value (triple rated CDOs built from subprime mortgages), or consolidation of one company by another (often with misrepresentation and at expense of someone)?

Too often profits seem to be driven by formulaic fraud. Go no further that the banking industry, and think of your credit card agreement. Ever read it? If you could really understand it (and I can’t), you probably would never have entered it. And that is the point – one party’s profit comes by suckering another party into a deal that will cost much more than the apparent sticker price, which is buried in a long legal document that might trip many attorneys.

In my mind, profits are owed to honest parties exchanging an honest value to another. Anything less produces too much profit.

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