The Problem of Profit

Bill Maher penned an article (“Health Care Problem Isn’t Socialism, It’s Capitalism“) a number of months ago that arguably captured an essential problem in American culture: the commodification of every aspect of our society. This is to say nothing about the merits of the current proposals of health care reform, but the increasing philosophical materialism and reductionism permeating through the American social fabric. The logic of this distorted view reduces material goods to dispensable goods that are only valuable insofar as subjective value is placed on that good. This unbridled consumerism has even led to human life being reduced to a dispensable good contingent on the subjective value placed extrinsically by society, or in certain situations, by another individual (the obvious examples being abortion and euthanasia). It is from this perspective, particularly, that one might argue that Maher’s article is spot on.

Health Care Problem Isn’t Socialism, It’s Capitalism by Bill Maher (Real Clear Politics, July 2009)

How about this for a New Rule: Not everything in America has to make a profit. It used to be that there were some services and institutions so vital to our nation that they were exempt from market pressures. Some things we just didn’t do for money. The United States always defined capitalism, but it didn’t used to define us. But now it’s becoming all that we are.

Did you know, for example, that there was a time when being called a “war profiteer” was a bad thing? But now our war zones are dominated by private contractors and mercenaries who work for corporations. There are more private contractors in Iraq than American troops, and we pay them generous salaries to do jobs the troops used to do for themselves ­– like laundry. War is not supposed to turn a profit, but our wars have become boondoggles for weapons manufacturers and connected civilian contractors.

Prisons used to be a non-profit business, too. And for good reason –­ who the hell wants to own a prison? By definition you’re going to have trouble with the tenants. But now prisons are big business. A company called the Corrections Corporation of America is on the New York Stock Exchange, which is convenient since that’s where all the real crime is happening anyway. The CCA and similar corporations actually lobby Congress for stiffer sentencing laws so they can lock more people up and make more money. That’s why America has the world;s largest prison population ­– because actually rehabilitating people would have a negative impact on the bottom line.

Television news is another area that used to be roped off from the profit motive. When Walter Cronkite died last week, it was odd to see news anchor after news anchor talking about how much better the news coverage was back in Cronkite’s day. I thought, “Gee, if only you were in a position to do something about it.”

But maybe they aren’t. Because unlike in Cronkite’s day, today’s news has to make a profit like all the other divisions in a media conglomerate. That’s why it wasn’t surprising to see the CBS Evening News broadcast live from the Staples Center for two nights this month, just in case Michael Jackson came back to life and sold Iran nuclear weapons. In Uncle Walter’s time, the news division was a loss leader. Making money was the job of The Beverly Hillbillies. And now that we have reporters moving to Alaska to hang out with the Palin family, the news is The Beverly Hillbillies.

And finally, there’s health care. It wasn’t that long ago that when a kid broke his leg playing stickball, his parents took him to the local Catholic hospital, the nun put a thermometer in his mouth, the doctor slapped some plaster on his ankle and you were done. The bill was $1.50, plus you got to keep the thermometer.

But like everything else that’s good and noble in life, some Wall Street wizard decided that hospitals could be big business, so now they’re run by some bean counters in a corporate plaza in Charlotte. In the U.S. today, three giant for-profit conglomerates own close to 600 hospitals and other health care facilities. They’re not hospitals anymore; they’re Jiffy Lubes with bedpans. America’s largest hospital chain, HCA, was founded by the family of Bill Frist, who perfectly represents the Republican attitude toward health care: it’s not a right, it’s a racket. The more people who get sick and need medicine, the higher their profit margins. Which is why they’re always pushing the Jell-O.

Because medicine is now for-profit we have things like “recision,” where insurance companies hire people to figure out ways to deny you coverage when you get sick, even though you’ve been paying into your plan for years.

When did the profit motive become the only reason to do anything? When did that become the new patriotism? Ask not what you could do for your country, ask what’s in it for Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

If conservatives get to call universal health care “socialized medicine,” I get to call private health care “soulless vampires making money off human pain.” The problem with President Obama’s health care plan isn’t socialism, it’s capitalism.

And if medicine is for profit, and war, and the news, and the penal system, my question is: what’s wrong with firemen? Why don’t they charge? They must be commies. Oh my God! That explains the red trucks!

9 Responses to The Problem of Profit

  • Remember Jesus’ parables about profitable servants, and about earning talents, etc. Every thing under the sun has value, and it can only be worth anything to anybody if it can appreciate in value. Once it appreciates in value, someone has profited.

    Profit is not evil. God profits by our very souls. Jesus drew an intimate parallel with the parable about ‘rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and rendering unto God what is God’s.’ There is an economy of souls, else there would be no Heaven and no Hell, no judgment. If all souls are ultimately of equal value, why save some, and destroy others? If God could profit from souls in Hell, why destroy them?

    All souls are not ultimately of equal value. Some profit God, some do not. Similarly, every thing under the sun has value, and the economic system that allows for the unhindered exchange and increase of every thing of value is capitalism.

    It allows that which is profitable to increase. It allows that which is unprofitable to fail. Socialism does none of these things. It tries to save unprofitable companies and inhibit profitable companies. Look at the lack of profitability of any government programs for proof. And look at the continued lack of profitability after throwing even more money at said programs.

    Remember the parable, ‘To him that hath, shall be given more. And to him that hath not, shall be taken away even what he hath.’ This is a spiritual capitalism; God rewards those who profit Him spiritually, and punishes those who are unprofitable.

    The parable is not, ‘To him that hath shall be taken away, and to him that hath not shall be given’. This is the essence of socialism. Taking away from those who have, and giving to those who have not.

    But don’t confuse taking with giving. God already commands charity, and it is always given in freedom and in love. Any other transfer of wealth is coercion and force, which is theft. Further, Jesus says ‘you shall have the poor with you always’. He did not say, ‘you shall only have the poor with you until some date in the future’. There will always be an unequal distribution, and it is God’s doing. We cannot comprehend His reasoning for this.

    God knows who is rich towards others, and who stores up for himself. Man cannot read hearts, and thus cannot set up a government system to identify who “has more than he needs”, and thus have his goods taken away from him.

    God knows who covets, regardless of their material wealth. He knows who is deserving of His grace and compassion, and who may benefit by suffering through lack. Man knows none of these things, and it is folly for Man to attempt to dream up clunky socialist systems to ‘right social wrongs’ for a whole society when he cannot even wholly judge what one man deserves at any given time.

    We are lucky to have received such material blessings from God, and we can thank the free system of exchange He has devised (capitalism) for the wealth and diversity of our goods and services, and also for the standard of living it has bestowed on us. God is watching our reaction to his grace. Will we respond through humble charity? Or like Bill Maher? Our words and our actions are being noted, and they will influence God’s decision down the line regarding how much Grace He will send our way.

  • I don’t think profit is inherently evil, but you simply can’t use that parable to justify it. A parable isn’t meant to be taken literally; Jesus was illustrating a point about SPIRITUAL goods, not material goods.

    If parables are to be taken literally, then the parable of the workers in the vineyard means that everyone should get the same wage for different amounts of work and effort.

    “Spiritual capitalism” is a phrase I’ve never heard before. But you can’t conflate the spiritual with the material. The latter is always subordinate to the former. Materialism is a disease which rots and corrupts the spiritual, and it occurs when it is elevated above the spiritual in the minds of the people. And no society, no culture, no nation can survive without a spiritual essence.

    So anyone arguing for a capitalism unfettered by moral and political truths is a fool that is arguing for the destruction of society. I believe in private property and competition, I believe a person has a right to earn a profit – but all within the framework of a system of moral values and political institutions.

    Unrestrained materialism and individualism will destroy society, it will incite class hatred, and no amount of moralizing about the sacredness of the individuals unrestricted right to riches will stop it. As Aristotle said, we should not simply hand out money to the poor – but the true friend of the people and the true friend of the republic will make sure they don’t get too poor by ensuring that there is enough property and opportunity to go around.

  • At the same time the current Health Care bill is an anathema to the principles of American exceptionalism.

    We are not a European country.

    If you want socialized medicine move to Canada.

    We are Americans and we can certainly fix health care, but not under this socialistic take over of 1/6th of the U.S. economy.

  • It used to be that there were some services and institutions so vital to our nation that they were exempt from market pressures.

    You can’t exempt an institution from market pressures by legislative decree. The same pressures will still be there, albeit in a different form.

  • I’d love to see more private fire fighting services. I’d love to see more soldiers unwilling to invade other countries unless Congress is willing to pay them exorbitant salaries. TV news is useless to anyone under 60.

    Ex-cons from private prisons have no worse a recidivism rate than those from public prisons. How can that be?! Shouldn’t profit drive private prisons to create monsters? Fact is, as with almost everything the government pays for, if the incentives are correctly aligned, private institutions can match or outperform public institutions. It’s not so much that private institutions are that good. More often, government is just that bad.

    As for health care, I’d love to see the current insurance system dismantled and a return to the out-of-pocket days that Maher describes. But I don’t think that’s what Maher really wants. He doesn’t want hospitals motivated by charity. He wants hospitals motivated by the strong arm of the government.

    Bill Maher actually holds up the postal service as a model. Because everyone knows those greedy bastards at UPS and FedEx are incapable of providing the high level of service we’ve used to at the post office.

  • I spend a lot of time on political blogs, where (like everyone else) I have all the answers. But I’ve got no answer for this. There are two fields that used to be dominated by churches, education and health care. Since corporations and government have taken the lead in these fields, there have been some improvements in both (mostly in the number of people serviced), but the costs have become unbearable. You read that we’re a “service economy”: half of those employed in the service industries are in education or health care. While I care about both issues, and support some reforms in each, I don’t think we’ve figured out how to run education or health care without thousands of nuns.

  • Our current healthcare system is neither a private market or state run system. It is an awful hybrid of both.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/09/how-american-health-care-killed-my-father/7617/

    Until those who criticize free market solutions realize this we will only continue to talk past each other.

  • Re: Joe’s post:

    The parable about the workers in the vineyard is not about everyone getting paid the same for different amounts of work (socialism). Otherwise, the Lord of the vineyard would have said that it is right that everyone get paid the same, regardless. But what did he really say? He said, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?” (capitalism). In other words, isn’t it my decision how much I am willing to pay in exchange for work? The answer is ‘yes’. But in a socialist system, it is NOT lawful to do what you will with your own, because what you own belongs to the state.

    Further, he says, “Is thine eye evil because I am good?” The worker is coveting the terms of another’s transaction. But the Lord of the vineyard kept his word and paid the first worker what both parties had agreed upon. It was only later when the worker saw the Lord’s generosity with the last group that he began to protest. This type of coveting goes on to this day.

    There’s a lot of talk about greed infesting capitalism; this is meaningless. The greed of either party to a transaction that is freely entered into by both parties is powerless to oppress either party. The greed of the seller cannot make the buyer pay more than he is willing, nor can the greed of the buyer make the seller lower the price or increase the amount of the product.

    Capitalism has nothing to to with greed. It has to do with freedom and respecting private property. If greed leads to you covet, then God will judge you. If it leads you to break the law, then Man’s laws will judge you. If it leads classes to envy other classes, then God will judge the individuals that associate themselves with those classes.

    I agree with you that capitalism without a moral and political framework is a recipe for disaster, I don’t know who’s arguing for that. Any economic system without morality is doomed. The problem with socialism is that it tries to wed Man’s idea of morality (not God’s) to a political framework, which is a worse recipe for disaster than unbridled capitalism, as has been proven time and time again.

    Capitalism isn’t made to protect gullible people from snake oil salesmen. However, it protects individuals to act charitably by letting them freely exchange their own private property, which is paramount. Socialism destroys charity, freedom and private property.

  • Trace,

    In any case, the Lord is setting down an awfully strange precedent if the parable is to be taken literally or as some kind of economic lesson (or at the very least, revealing himself to be either foolish or unjust in his own personal dealings) – but it isn’t. It isn’t social commentary. It is the use of images and concepts from everyday life to illustrate a spiritual truth to simple country folk. The REAL point of the parable is that you can convert to Christ even late in life and you will be saved, as surely as one who has been saved since childhood – this cannot be translated into material terms in any kind of literal way.

    “There’s a lot of talk about greed infesting capitalism; this is meaningless.”

    It is not meaningless, when the greed really exists, when corporate fraud and corruption exists, when people’s livelihoods are destroyed.

    “I agree with you that capitalism without a moral and political framework is a recipe for disaster, I don’t know who’s arguing for that.”

    When you argue that the parables are literal endorsements of a capitalist mentality, it sounds to me as if you put a material, economic process on the same level as a spiritual truth if not higher. Even if that is not your intent – I don’t speculate on intent – that is the effect.

    “Capitalism isn’t made to protect gullible people from snake oil salesmen.”

    No, but something must protect the naive and the innocent from the degraded lust and greed of the damned. It is a sin to prey upon people, to deceive them and lie to them, to exploit them for personal gain. Only a sociopathic predator and an enemy of the common good reasons to the contrary.

    “Socialism destroys charity, freedom and private property.”

    I agree – but capitalism if it is unchecked leads to a materialist mindset that undermines faith, family, community, and country. These permanent things are far more important than the profits of the moment, the swindle of the hour.

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