You know how those lunch-time conversations go: you start out talking about something simple that you think you know a little bit about and end up talking about religion, politics or advanced economic theory. Sometimes there is a loser—sometimes a winner—and sometimes everybody gets to say a little about a whole lot.
Such was the case at lunch today. We began by talking about corn-based Ethanol and its impact upon the environment and ended up talking about socialism, capitalism and the profit motive. We touched upon a few other subjects and got so heavy into the conversation we were several minutes late getting back to work.
In the process I discovered once again that even something as simple as a “factual” newspaper article can be interpreted many different ways.
It all began for me several days ago when an article about the price of beer caught my eye in the USA Today. Seems like one of the major ingredients in beer, hops, has tripled in price the last several months. This is due in part to a bad crop season in Europe but also in large part to the fact that many farmers in America are now growing corn to be used for ethanol based fuel instead of hops which had become much to plentiful—from overabundance to scarcity in less than two years. The price of craft beer is expected to go up a dollar a six-pack by the end of the year.
Then I turned the page and read an interesting story about some of the effects that growing corn for fuel will have on the environment and the nation’s poor. The story highlighted worries about damage to our land and water table due to the amount of chemical fertilizers it takes to grow corn. In the short term and perhaps longer, because much farmland will be turned into energy crops, food crops will not be as plentiful and prices will go up on some of our nation’s staples such as bread and cereal. I guess you get the drift.
In the process of all this thought floating around, we talked about the market place, innovation and what really fuels research into energy and other related matters. And it seems the conclusion was that profit is the prime motivator in figuring out the nations’ energy crisis and many of the other maladies we face.
In other words—companies are in business to make a profit not to make you or I feel good. I know this comes as no great shock to most of you—but to me it was a little bit of a letdown. I guess when I think about why discoveries in medicine or other areas are made I tend to filter them through an “altruism” lens. That people make great discoveries and companies fund research in order to make our lives better. And I am sure this is the case in some instances. But by and large we live in a capitalistic society that has at its very core an ROI (return on investment) strategy of some sort.
I guess I could have titled today’s adventure “Whatever Happened To Altruism” but was not sure if I could get to this very point or not.
Altruism is defined as: the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others (opposed to egoism).
Capitalism is defined as: An economic system in which the means of production and distribution
are privately or corporately owned and development is proportionate to
the accumulation and reinvestment of profits gained in a free market.
It does seem, definition-wise, they are polar opposites. One concept implies a concern for others and the other is mainly interested in profits.
I am not saying that the two can’t overlap and work together—in some cases they do. Companies that make flu shots should be compensated for their work. And if we thought about it long enough we would probably drive ourselves crazy as to which came first the chicken or the egg or in this case the people or the profit-product.
I have a feeling people would like whiter teeth so I will invent a toothpaste that incorporates a whitening agent and market it as new, improved and so on. What!, you say that has already been done and Procter and Gamble is making millions on the idea. A product perceived as a service—what genius—I wish I would have been on that one—I could retire tomorrow.
And I guess that is the state of things in America—we don’t really do a whole lot without first taking time to consider what is in it for us. I know this a broad sweep and will readily admit that not everyone is motivated by the bottom line. It just seems like for every altruistic stream there is a capitalistic river flowing out of somewhere near where we live.
We do seem to live in an “Ebayed” society where my junk can be turned into someone else’s treasure with a few clicks of the mouse. At the same time I think it is unrealistic to expect that we can all stay home and make $120 grand a year by working the internet to our advantage. Doesn’t somebody have to produce something substantive to have any real economic value. Hey, maybe the lottery that e-mail said I won this morning bears looking into again. I hope I haven’t already deleted it. LOL
Enjoy your ride….it’s not over yet.