A Paean to Profits!

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almighty dollar

Yale University law professor Stephen Carter has a fantabulous op/ed in praise of profits in today's Washington Post. Here are some really good bits:

A specter is haunting America: the specter of profit. We have become fearful that somewhere, somehow, an evil corporation has found a way to make lots of money.

Flash back three years. In 2006, Exxon Mobil announced the highest profit in the history of American corporate enterprise. Politicians and pundits stumbled over each other to call for an investigation and for some sort of confiscatory tax on the money the company earned. Profit, it seemed, was an evil, but large profit was even worse.

Today, the debate on the overhaul of the health-care system sparks a shiver of deja vu. The leitmotif of the conversation about the coming shape of health insurance is that the villain is the system of private insurance. "For-profit" firms come under constant attack from activists and members of Congress.

Thus, a recent news release from the AFL-CIO began with this evidently alarming fact: "Profits at 10 of the country's largest publicly traded health insurance companies rose 428 percent from 2000 to 2007." Even had the figures been correct -- they weren't -- we are seeing the same circus. Profit is the enemy. America could be made pure, if only profit could be purged.

This attitude was wrong in 2006. It is wrong now. High profits are excellent news. When corporate earnings reach record levels, we should be celebrating. The only way a firm can make money is to sell people what they want at a price they are willing to pay. If a firm makes lots of money, lots of people are getting what they want….

Consider the bills in Congress that seek to limit the freedom of federally aided automakers to close dealerships or to build the cars that buyers want. Preserving local jobs and building greener cars are admirable objectives, but a firm that is forced to sacrifice profitability to attain them is unlikely to be competitive over the long haul. Indeed, one reason the "public option" health insurance program under debate may turn out to be more expensive than advocates suggest is that here, unlike in Europe, we are unlikely to put up with government restrictions on what sorts of care will be available, especially for seniors. A board of experts might decide to limit access to hip replacements, for instance, but there is little chance Congress will let them get away with it.

Private insurers, by contrast, will cut whatever they can. This puts them at constant war with regulators and patients, but beneath this tension is a certain useful discipline. We want health care to be cheaper, and the for-profit health-care industry has every incentive to make it so. Supporters of the public option tout Medicare's cost advantages over private insurance, but those are largely obtained by setting below-market reimbursement rates for medical services (meaning that private patients subsidize Medicare patients). Moreover, the costs of compliance with the hundreds of pages of Medicare regulations are also transferred to the providers, and thus, again, to private patients.

Enjoy reading the whole op/ed here