Friday, January 6, 2012

The Poisonous Profit Motive

In the late 1970's, a friend of mine got a job as a pattern-maker at the time-honored Portland Stove Foundry here in Maine, a company that had stood at the top of its craft for a hundred years.  They made cast-iron wood stoves for heating and cooking.  A number of his other friends were working there too, in various tasks — hard, hot, heavy, dangerous, but honest work, and producing a high quality product. During his tenure, the company was acquired by, as he told me, a bunch of young bankers, who soon fired the long-time foreman because the man didn't agree with their cut-corner methods.  Then they began to make the low level decisions themselves.  And their decisions, my friend told me, were not sound, in the light of any level of practical expertise.

Ultimately, there came the day when they put a load of scrap iron from the yard into the #1 furnace — covered with snow and ice — and the steam in the melt exploded and ruined the fine old furnace.  Before long they decided to strip out any assets and equipment they could sell, and make a run for it, leaving only a shell and a memory of the grand old company.  As we have seen, this was the beginning of a trend in the USA.

During the W decade 50,000 factories — not jobs, factories — were lost in this country, closed down or moved piece by piece overseas.  If it had been my son whose friend lost his pattern-maker job back then, and I were asked my opinion, what would I answer?  My question back then had been, "what do bankers know about casting iron"?  My reply now would be to ask a different question, "what made those young men want to become bankers?"  And my answer would be, "It seems there is a growing epidemic of avarice in this country, that raises profit to the pinnacle of human ambition, replacing quality, community, permanence, and all the foundations of the society that spawned us."  We now can look back on the "Greed is Good" decade that followed in the 1980's, also known as the Reagan Revolution, and see just how it played out.

It is plain now to me that the profit motive is an improper motive.  It is a motive which is destined inexorably to lead to disease and decline in society, just as addictions do in personal life.  Putting profit first is a definition of addictive behavior.  Eating only dessert is a recipe for illness.