Profit!

The title, unfortunately, is not an announcement what I am getting from this blog.

But anyway, I was reminded today of the complaint that corporations make “too much money.” This is a relatively common belief, particularly when dealing with bogeymen like the health insurance or oil industries. Well, what does this mean, exactly?

Thing is, we hear a lot of talk, these days, about how corporations are making billions of dollars in profits. This is true, but should be placed in context–they’re also spending billions of dollars as well, to the point where the average US corporate profit margin, at least in 2013, was about 9.3%, which is considered a historical high–since the 1950s, the average margin has been around 5.9%.

While I’m not going to assume that everyone knows this–I didn’t know the numbers ’til I looked them up while writing this–it seems like it should be part of the national debate on economics that these people are making $1.09 per dollar that they spend. I mean, this is a pretty decent margin, but it’s not like the average US corporation is minting money. Instead, all anyone talks about is huge-sounding absolute numbers.

Furthermore, what does it mean to make “too much money?” While I would be inclined to say that there is a point after which one has too much money (that is, somewhere between “pay living expenses for your descendants to the fourth generation” and “Annual GDP of Chad”), I’m not inclined to base my political decisions on that notion, nor would I be inclined to defend that concept to the metaphorical death, much less the literal one.

However, the vibe I seem to get off of most of the people who talk about this is that they don’t really have a notion of what it means to make “too much money” other than “They’re being exploitative.” This is a fair statement–after all, even a .0000001% profit margin off of slavery is too much money, because you are gaining it by enslaving people–but it doesn’t answer the question of what it means to be exploitative.

There are some things that seem painfully obvious–unsafe conditions that don’t have to be unsafe, not paying people enough to feed themselves, preventing workers from leaving, etc.–but some things aren’t quite so obvious. Take the ruckus over the minimum wage, which is supposed to be raised from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour. With all due respect, what on earth is going on here? I mean, I get wanting to raise the minimum wage to cover inflation–which, as of 2013, would mean upping it to $7.82 an  hour–but upping it to $15 an hour would mean that you could raise a small family by working as a cashier at a fast-food place for forty hours a week. On one income. Well, briefly, until prices went up to match, while more people got replaced in favor of machines wherever possible, and…yeah.

Is having the minimum wage at $7.25 exploitative? I don’t know. What I do know is that the definition of exploitative behavior seems to be “I’m not getting as much money as I think I should, never mind the actual worth of my labor.” Which brings us to Karl Marx.

To put it bluntly, a lot of the hollering about corporate profits is Marxist in nature, in that there is a strain of thought that, deep down, believes that profits themselves are inherently exploitative, not rendered that way by corrupt and sinful business practices. That is to say, it appears that there is a strain of thought that believes that making money over and above operating costs (including taxation) is wrong, or at the very least morally suspect.

My question is–why? And, more importantly, why do so many Christians seem to be okay with this? Every single screed against “the rich” in Scripture is  upset with people who actively do terrible things, not against wealth as wealth (perhaps the rich young ruler is an exception). Why do so many people fail to grasp the concept that making money is not sinful, while so man others fail to grasp that means of doing so can be?

Look, my point is, let’s not assume that profit is bad or good, m’kay? Let’s find out how it’s gotten, first.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

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