The Profit Motive and the Common Good

I’m not someone who’s opposed to working for a living.

I’ve been working in one form or another my entire life, from delivering newspapers when I was 12 to working at the Army Navy Store my whole senior year of high school. I promoted my first New York Times-bestselling author before I was a junior in college, and at 24 I started a company out of my living room that grew into the eleventh-ranked public relations agency to work for in the country. In many ways, I’ve achieved the stereotypical American Dream of material success through blood, sweat, ramen noodles and all-nighters. I lived the “start-up life” long before it was an inspirational hashtag, and I’ve paid my dues along the way. So perhaps people will listen when I say that earning your way to the top shouldn’t be the non-negotiable cost of having a secure, decent, happy life.

I am not entirely certain why this is controversial.

But controversial is exactly what it is. We have an entire culture centered around the idea that you are worth your economic productivity and nothing more – where martyrdom is lauded and a lack of sleep and free time are held up like trophies where basic life-saving medical care comes at an exorbitantly prohibitive expense and a single misplaced step can throw your entire life (and that of your whole family) into financial chaos that can resonate for decades. For millions upon millions of Americans, the basic necessities of life are subject to the whims of an uncontrollable economy.

Which is, it seems, exactly how Donald Trump and many in the GOP seem to want it, at least if their budget and health plan are to be believed?

Last week, the administration unveiled its 2018 budget, called “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” featuring literally trillions of dollars in cuts to the assistance programs economically distressed Americans depend on most. This should surprise no one; since day one, Trump has been promising cuts in essentially everything save the military: defunding Obamacare, defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Cutting the NEA, the NSF, the EPA. Medicaid. The Departments of Energy and Education. Low-income energy assistance.

School lunches. Food stamps. Meals On Wheels.

And these are just the most high-profile of cuts to programs that provide necessary social services. The assumption behind each of these cuts is that private initiative can (and should) fill the gaps. It’s the expansion of charter schools. It’s the empowerment and enrichment of insurance companies. It’s letting corporations drive scientific research in directions that benefit them directly.

In other words, it’s about breaking down one of the core functions of what the government is supposed to do, supporting the common good, and replacing it with self-interest and the profit motive, and by extension, restricting a secure and good life (and access to the tools that make it possible) to the already well-off.

Because here’s the thing: companies aren’t in the business of helping people. They’re in the business of making money. That’s a much bigger gap in both theory and practice that many in the GOP want it to be.

The argument often goes that the unfettered market will always settle into an equilibrium that’s beneficial for everyone. Except that is demonstrably untrue; absent government regulation, markets act to maximize profit for short-term gain. The rich get richer, and the poor are driven deeper and deeper into poverty.

We had to ban child labor by fiat; companies by and large weren’t abandoning it on their own or providing education. This hallmark of the western experience – free, compulsory, universal public education for everyone until age eighteen instead of manual labor for children as young as five – is the direct result of ongoing government intervention.

The free market didn’t do that. An honest commitment by public authorities to the common good is what did that, labor costs be damned. In fact, some people are pushing to maintain it in developing countries, all in the name of the cleansing power of the market.

And let’s look – frankly, honestly, truly look – at the healthcare system our free market has erected: private health insurance provided by companies who only turn a profit if they pay healthcare costs for as few people as possible, offering plans with massive deductibles to the people who can least afford them (effectively denying them the benefits they’re paying for), refusing coverage for people with pre-existing conditions (i.e., those who need it the most), and on, and on, and on. The market has decidedly not stabilized in anything approaching a sane, humanistic approach to making sure people don’t die for lack of money. Rather, it has stabilized as precisely the opposite of that: an exploitative system designed to minimize assistance and maximize profitability at the cost of human lives.

That is what the market does.

What’s so utterly perplexing about this whole discussion, whether we’re talking healthcare, school lunches, literacy programs, or anything else is the complete lack of perspective. “Why,” it has been asked by Republican congressmen (inevitably, specifically congressmen) “should I be forced to pay for maternity insurance? I’m never going to get pregnant!” We pay, day in and day out, for police protection we may never need, schools our children will never attend, roads we won’t drive on, soldiers who may never fight, bridges we may never cross, congresspeople we didn’t vote for. That is how societies works. That is how societies, and the people in them, succeed.

We do these things precisely because they are community needs designed to make everyone’s lives a little better. So why are healthcare, environmental protection, and the care of children in need somehow too burdensome of an imposition against individual rights? As if our communities haven’t provided each of us with anything?

As a successful businessman, let me say right now that I, alongside everyone in this country, benefited immeasurably from public works, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. I attended public schools for my education, and I was able to do that because there were reliable, publicly maintained roads to get there on. My neighborhood was kept safe by police and fire departments who never sent anyone a bill, and my parents were able to make a home for me because we had enough to buy a home and utilize the mortgage-interest deduction (an entitlement program that actually benefits the wealthy and has helped drive our widening inequality). We had clean, accessible water and electricity via infrastructure largely designed, financed, and maintained at government expense. Quality, government-provided public schooling ensured I was prepared for higher education, and when my company grew enough to start hiring, I was able to easily find well-educated employees.

The free market sure as hell didn’t do that. And it never will. It’s simply not designed to.

Everyone benefits from these things, and we pay for them because they are the baseline support for the lives we expect to be able to live. They reflect our values and decency as members of what is supposed to be the greatest country on Earth. They provide a solid floor for how bad things can reasonably get; no matter what, your kids will be educated. These systems aren’t perfect, and are too dependent on local prosperity to cover their costs, but when we leave these things to the private sector entirely, the gaps only widen; no companies are stepping in to fix the roads in impoverished areas out of the kindness of their hearts. The private sector has no interest in the common good in and of itself, only insofar as it maximizes value for shareholders.

This isn’t to say that no company has an interest in contributing to the common good, and any company mindfully executing their responsibility to the same should rightfully be acknowledged for it. This is incredibly encouraging and something to be very optimistic about, but ultimately, it’s not the end-solution; although it brings more good into the world, it’s still just a temporary Band-Aid. The obligation of those of us in positions of power or influence is to use that power in the service of meaningful reform. We must help facilitate real, long-lasting systemic change, which will not only be further reaching, but will also long outlive any single individual, creating a deeply meaningful legacy, which to me, is the only kind worth pursuing.

That includes everything from universal healthcare — a basic social expectation in every single other industrialized country on Earth — to more radical solutions, perhaps like a guaranteed basic income, a form of which already exists in Alaska, ensuring every person in the country the basic resources for their survival purely by virtue of their citizenship.

Solutions to these problems need to be found, whatever they end up being, and we must ask ourselves what sort of country we want to live in: a cutthroat every-man-for-himself all-against-all jungle island, or a place where the fruits of peaceful prosperity ensure nobody dies alone in the street of preventable illnesses?

We have to choose.


Originally Posted on Huffington Post