Sunday, November 05, 2006


The Growing Social Irrelevance Of "Profit"

That creature known as "profit" is fast becoming a rara avis for most Americans. It used to be that if a company showed a tremendous profit, everyone would see it. Workers would see it in their paychecks, vendors would see it in an avalanche of new orders, the R&D people would see it into their expanded budget. Shareholders would see fat dividends, too. That hasn't changed, but it seems that everything else has. Now, when a corporation posts a profit, its effects are all but invisible. Nobody gets a raise (except for the big boss and his henchmen). There is no sudden growth in innovation or company property. More often than not, in fact, the company actually appears to shrink. The posting of a profit is like the sighting of a black hole that passes close enough to unleash residual effects. You can see it only if you wear those special infrafinancial glasses known as stock ownership. But, considering that nearly 60 percent of all stocks are owned by one percent of the population, no one you know is likely to see the elusive monster humping its money-legged way across the landscape. There might be a handful of folks in your town who own a share or two of company X. They'll get a check for a couple of bucks in the mail, or the notice of a stock split, and they will parade about, thumbing the suspenders of their fiduciary pride, declaiming with wild eyes and clownish certainty as though they had just caught a glimpse of Bigfoot. No one else sees the creature whose presence had been trumpeted so loudly.

That begs the question. If a company posts a profit, and the public never catches sight of it, was there - in the truer sense - any "profit" at all? And, if so, for whom?

It is the trend now among American corporations to skimp on the reinvestment of profit. Some of it goes to the shareholders, much of it goes into the pockets of the corporation's top dogs - but what happens to the rest? Where does it go? If profit continues to have an impact on the lives of fewer and fewer people, how many of us should be expected to care? Why should we even need to hear about it? Shouldn't it stop being news? Or at least perhaps what news there is should be relegated to the back pages of the paper - alongside marriage announcements for debutantes, restaurant reviews of the latest caviar & escargot eateries, or the portion of the Times classified where ads are placed for yachts and multi-million dollar homes.

If "profit" has no effect whatsoever upon the world beyond the enrichment of a few, it will automatically forfeit its social relevance. If the rest of us cannot share it, in time we will simply ignore it. Regardless of how magnificent an accomplishment the creation of that "profit" might be, it will become about as popular as Beethoven on a teenager's iPod. Once we start to care less about "profit", it'll get harder and harder for corporations to convince us to commit our careers to its creation. And the creature will make its appearance no longer.

A note to Big Business. If you want to continue to see "profit" in the future, you have to let us start seeing it, too.

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