What is profit?

I’m looking forward to listening to the latest EconTalk podcast, where an organic farmer talks about profit and how she finds her teenage workers not quite ready to earn their keep. Her theory, similar to mine, is that kids have led a life up to the point of getting their first job where things are done for their benefit, rather than them having to make themselves useful to others.

EconTalk host, Russ Roberts, posted her interesting comments about this here. It’s worth repeating:

we hire some high school kids. And they are lovely people. But usually it’s one of their first jobs, like maybe they’ve mowed the lawn for their neighbor or maybe they did some babysitting. But by and large we’re their first job. So, everything else that’s happened in their life has happened for their benefit. They’ve gone to summer camp–that was for their benefit. They’ve gone to school–that was for their benefit. We as parents certainly do everything we can to benefit our children. And then they come to me and–yeah, there are a lot of programs that go on in the summer. And that’s not what this is. This is: You are going to work, and at the end of the week I’m going to give you money; and I expect that because you are here, I will make more money. And that’s a concept that I’ve had to explain to them. And it comes in really hard. And I have to say: Why would I have you here if I wasn’t going to end up with more money? Why on earth would I have you show up every day? And they kind of start to get that this should be a mutually beneficial arrangement, not just that I shouldn’t come out even because I think of–capitalism as me making money for the aggravation of having you here. And then we get the college kids; they’ve kind of gotten that kind of concept a little better. But then I’ll say: What do you want to do when you are done with college? And they’ll say: Oh, I want to work for a non-profit. And that one makes me angry. First, it’s like, well, non-profit, that could be a hospital, that could be a–like you haven’t thought about this any more–that could be a land trust, it could be anything. ‘Non-profit’ is huge. You don’t have any more direction than that you want to work for a non-profit? But also, they are telling me that profit is bad. So, I say: Well, look around at all this stuff you see, the tractors, the greenhouses, the walk-in cooler–like all this stuff. Ralph and I could have taken that money and even if we put it in the bank in a savings account we’d have earned like a percent or something, even now. But we’ve done this, and we’re risking that–it may not work out; we may not make any money from this; we may not get back the money we put in. Don’t we deserve a little more than what we could get in a bank by doing something safe? And they say: Oh, well yeah, of course you do. And I say: Well, that’s profit. And that’s all that profit is. And: Ohhhh. And then the light dawns. But they come with no idea about how capitalism works, even though capitalism is the economic system of our country.

I’d go a step further on profit.

I think it is unfortunate that we tend to only think of profit as a financial term. This causes us to see differently the actions undertaken by profit-seeking companies from the actions we undertake ourselves to conduct our daily lives. Those evil companies seek profit. How noble I am to give my time to charity.

But, a more general definition of profit is to derive benefit. What percent of your actions do you take to derive benefit?

Why did you show up to work? Probably for the same reason companies distribute their products, to earn money.

Why don’t you devote all of your time to charity? Probably because you need to have a shelter, you need food and clothes and you want quite a few other things. Companies, too, do not give all of their output to charity because they would soon have nothing left to give.

Why did you build the patio and fire-place in your backyard, instead of giving that money to charity? You did this for the same reason companies build lounges for workers and sell their products in pleasant surroundings.

Why did you replace your aging vehicle, instead of giving that money to charity? For the same reason companies replace their aging equipment.

How are the actions you take to derive benefit different from the actions companies take to derive benefit?

There are only two key differences that I see. First, companies more carefully record the money unit benefits of their actions because they have folks who hold them accountable, the owners. Second, they are trying to accrue those benefits for someone else, the owners instead of themselves, unless they happen work for an employee-owned company.

Profit is nothing more than a derived benefit. We profit a great deal from others, that’s why we are willing to pay them. Without that profit, we’d be living the short and lean lifestyle of a hunter-gatherer.