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 déjà 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."
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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. Profits are excellent news. When corporate earnings reach records, we should celebrate. The only way a firm can make money is to sell people what they want at a price they'll pay. If a firm makes lots of money, lots of people are getting what they want.
To the country, profit is a benefit. Record profit means record taxes paid. But put that aside. When profits are high, firms are able to reinvest, expand and hire. Profits accrue to the benefit of those who own stocks: overwhelmingly, pension funds and mutual funds. In other words, high corporate profits today signal better retirements tomorrow.
Another reason to celebrate profit is the incentive it creates. When profits can be made, entrepreneurs provide needed goods and services. Suppose the state of Quinnipiac suffers a hurricane. Power is out over thousands of square miles. An entrepreneur from another state buys portable generators at $500 each and drives them to Quinnipiac, where he posts them for sale at $2,000 each, a 300 percent markup. Based on recent experience, it is likely the media will respond with fury and the attorney general of Quinnipiac will open an investigation into price-gouging. The result? During the next hurricane, the entrepreneur will stay put, and homeowners who were willing to pay for power will not have it. There will be fewer portable generators in Quinnipiac than there would have been if the seller were left alone.
When political anger over profit reduces the willingness of investors to take risks, the nation suffers. According to news reports, a reason the Obama administration has had trouble finding buyers for the toxic assets it hopes to remove from financial institutions' balance sheets is financiers' concern that should they go along with the plan and make money, they will be hauled before Congress to explain themselves.
Although it is easy to be dismayed by excess, trying to regulate profit makes things worse. Capital flows to places where returns are highest. The more exercised our political leaders become when profits rise, the more investment capital will remain abroad.
The search for profit has dangers. There are few legal ways to enhance profits other than cost-cutting, improving efficiency or innovating. This can lead to wondrous inventions, but it also can create serious dislocations, as when companies close plants and lay off workers. Remedying those human costs is part of what most of us want government to do. What we must avoid, however, is making the remedy so severe that profitability becomes impossible.
Consider the bills in Congress that seek to limit the freedom of federally aided automakers to close dealerships or to build the cars buyers want. Saving jobs and building greener cars are admirable objectives, but a firm that is forced to sacrifice profitability is unlikely to be competitive over the long haul.
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 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 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 private patients subsidize Medicare patients). Moreover, the costs of compliance with Medicare regulations are transferred to the providers, and thus, again, to private patients.
I have no problem with a system in which private patients subsidize public patients. I do not even mind calling it a tax. Those who have good jobs should be helping out, and carping about it is uncharitable, especially now. But an expanded public option will be possible only if the for-profit sector remains vibrant and strong — and profitable. Thus, we should all await, with grateful anticipation, the day when American firms again begin to earn the highest profits in history.
Stephen L. Carter, a Yale law professor, is most recently the author of "Jericho's Fall."
THE WASHINGTON POST