Is “profit” a dirty word?

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Is Russell Brand really a trivial man?

In a now-famous video, comedian Russel Brand passionately pleads:

[British Prime Minister] David Cameron says profit isn’t a dirty word, well I say profit is a filthy word… I think the very concept of profit should be very much reduced because wherever there is profit there is also deficit.

But is profit really a dirty word?

In our economy today, profit drives everything. It is the “bottom line.” It is the very reason we have business. Businesses exist so that they can provide wealth for the people who made that business possible – usually the founders, upper management, and the investors.

Most of us accept this.

We accept that money and profits drive business. We believe that self-interest is the most reliable motivator. We think “well, everyone needs to fend for themselves.” We think “this is the way it’s always been done; there is no alternative.”

Under the dominant business paradigm of the last several decades, businesses maximize their profits by any means possible, often by externalizing costs. In short, they create profits inside the organization by creating costs outside of the organization:

  • They pollute the environment and draw down finite natural resources with no mind to future needs.
  • They slash employees wages with no thought to the repercussions on families and communities.
  • They offer as low-quality products as possible at as high a price as possible.

We can see this logic – and its ramifications – in the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and Martin Shkreli raising the price of the critical drug Daraprim from $13.50 to over $700 overnight. These are extreme examples, but this same logic permeates our entire economy: Make money for yourself at all costs.

This is what Brand means by a “deficit.”

This has made a few people fantastically wealthy. It has generated a total amount of money the likes of which the world has never seen.

It has also pushed us to unconscionable levels of inequality and to the brink of ecological collapse.

How our economy works now

Here’s how our current economy works now.

We believe that when there is more money, we are all better off. We believe everyone has to fend for themselves. We accept that organizations are only responsible to promote their own self-interest.

Because of this mentality, we have:

  • Drug companies whose core goal is to make money
  • Prisons or “correctional facilities” whose core goal is to make money
  • Food companies whose core goal is to make money
  • Media companies whose core goal is to make money
  • Gun companies whose core goal is to make money

This mindset is rife with perverse incentives. It begs us to do what is right for ourselves, even when at the cost of the people we serve or the planet that we all live on.

In essence, we have an economy where we allow – even expect – business to accomplish the ends of making money, by the means of at least nominally providing some sort of value. But since the goal is to make money, the providing value part is tangential. Companies need only to have the appearance of providing value to make their money.

Can our economy work differently?

Wouldn’t it make infinitely more sense if we expected businesses to accomplish the ends of offering value to society, by the means of generating profits? This doesn’t mean we don’t make difficult “business decisions” or that we trust that families and organizations can get by on sunshine and lollipops. It just means that we expect organizations to actually benefit society. We don’t revere the ones that have the most profits, but the ones that have the most positive impact on society.

Under this economy, we’d have:

  • Drug companies whose core goal is to provide effective medicine to as many people as possible
  • Prisons or “correctional facilities” whose core goal it is to offer the treatment and support necessary for inmates to integrate back into society
  • Food companies whose core goal is to provide nutritious, affordable food to as many people as possible
  • Media companies who core goal is to convey essential information and analysis about what is happening in our society
  • Gun companies whose core goal is to promote responsible and safe hunting and defense

Is this so farfetched? Businesses would still conduct their operations in a sensible way that sustains themselves financially. They would still operate in a way that ensures their employees have a reasonable livelihood.

But instead, the reason they exist – is to serve and provide value to society.

In this vision, companies don’t see themselves as isolated entities competing with others to survive. They don’t see the success as a scarce commodity. They see themselves as part of a bigger system of interdependent parts. They try to make that system work better for more people. Serving the system is their purpose. And when they’re success at providing value, they get rewarded – financially and through accolades and recognition from society.

So let me ask again: Is this so far-fetched?

Is there anything preventing us from creating this new economy, other than our own belief about “the way things are”?

Is there anything keeping us back other than our deeply-held belief that we must all compete with one another and that there isn’t enough well-being to go around?