The Profit Police and How They Kill Everyone

Silhouette of a man holding a hammer -- Photography by Richard X. Thripp

The profit police are as old as eternity, but insidious as the devil. They threaten to steal our happiness, to sour us with envy, hatred, and guilt. Their orthodoxy is codified in institutional policies all over the world. They kill everyone. They are us.

Profit is not just money. Profit is also prestige, notoriety, and mere exposure. The profit police take keeping up with the Joneses to the extreme. They tell us that promoting our names or starting a business is selfish, greedy, and wrong. They are responsible for the professionalization of jobs that have no business being bureaucratized. They create sad terms like vanity press, as though not having a book approved by a committee makes the author an egotistical lunatic. Their influence starts with us, at the micro level.

The Junior Anti-Profit League is alive and well on the forums of the Internet. Well-meaning adults persist with policies of “no advertising, no self-promotion, no links to your website, no ‘commercialism.'” They cry foul at affiliate links, for no reason further than to stifle the success of their users (my photography articles are proudly littered with them). Brilliant computer-programmers publish free software with the clause, “no commercial use,” as if every dollar earned with the help of their applications comes straight from their wallets. As if profit is bad. As if the very act of seeking prosperity—called the American Dream by many—is the bane of humanity. Run the phrase, “free for non-commercial use” through Google, and you get 264,000 web pages, all of people afraid of something.

What are they afraid of? The success of others. Why are they afraid of it? Because they perceive that it diminishes themselves. We all do this. Charles Wheelan, financial blogger, elaborates:

“There’s a very interesting strain of economic research showing that our sense of well-being is determined more by our relative wealth than by our absolute wealth.

In other words, we care less about how much money we have than we do about how much money we have relative to everyone else. In a fascinating survey, Cornell economist Robert Frank found that a majority of Americans would prefer to earn $100,000 while everyone else earns $85,000, rather than earning $110,000 while everyone else earns $200,000.

Think about it: People would prefer to have less stuff, as long as they have more stuff than the neighbors.”

This scales down to the minute level. I am guilty of it myself. When I opened my website, I set my Google AdSense advertising up to filter ads for other photographers. I stopped doing this after a week, realizing how silly it is. But the fact is that fear of the success of others is a subconscious human response. It’s also irrational. Another’s persons success is not my loss, no matter how it may seem.

I’ve had my own encounter with The Profit Police as of yesterday. If you’ve read The Thievery of richardxthripp, you know of my rush to secure my name on the popular blogging, photography, and social networking websites after was claimed by spammers. One of the sites I registered for was 43 Things, a destination for sharing your life’s goals with the world. I’ve admired their community for a while, so I added to the discussion to help others with two things I’ve done, and to drive visitors to my website:

I added to the goal, have a blog:

“I’ve done this now. Set up my blog for my photography: Brilliant Photography by Richard X. Thripp. Started three months ago, but it’s an ongoing project. I’m using WordPress as my blogging software; it’s worth it to have your own domain name so you aren’t tied to any third party.”

And, sharing my knowledge on playing the piano:

“Playing the piano is a great hobby for reflection, mental and finger dexterity, appreciating music, and enjoying with others. I’ve been playing since ten; here’s a performance from January.

What I don’t buy, is that you have to start when you’re young. Plenty of adults learn to type quickly (with our newfound reliance on computers), yet that takes dexterity, skill, and practice, like piano. And also—you can look at your fingers while playing. You may come to memorize a song just from working on it a lot, and then begin watching your fingers so you don’t miss the keys; don’t fight it.”

Don’t bother looking for my entries; they’ve been vaporized now, along with my page. I’m alive in the Google cache for now: have a blog, play the piano (2008-07-31 Update: now removed). Little did I read that they have a policy against my kind of writing:

“43 Things is for personal use only. If you sell or promote products, services or yourself through your 43 Things page, we will suspend your account.”

So promoting yourself is not personal use? Sure, if you own a social network you can enact whatever rules they want, but that doesn’t mean you should. This is the cowardly, suicidal behavior that profit policing drives us to. It is cowardly because it sweeps under the rug the work of others, as if the publisher deserves no credit for his insights. It is suicidal because it destroys discussions and useful information at the fear of others’ gain, reducing morale and alienating users.

I used to release my stock photographs with a license that said “no commercial use.” It took me months to finally give it up. The question: What if someone gets rich from using the resources I provide? They’d be earning money off my hard work! The answer: So what? This is not a Reversi game, where every acquisition by your opponent is an equal blow to you. 200 A’s do not necessitate 200 F’s. Life is not a zero-sum game. It’s time we stopped playing it as one.

Recommended reading:
How Jealousy and Envy Destroy Happiness by Steve Olson
Life ain’t a zero-sum game.
Why Income Inequality Matters by Charles Wheelan

Cannibalism and Slavery

Cannibalism and Slavery: An Analysis of Equiano, Swift, and Rousseau. Question-and-answer format. Essay by Richard X. Thripp.
2008-02-03 (Updated 2008-07-17) —
PDF version (90KB).

Question One: Who is Olaudah Equiano’s narrative, Travels, directed toward, and what point of view does the author use?
Travels is directed not only toward the slave-holders who claim to be Christians, but also the people who rely on goods produced by slaves, such as consumers of sugared tea in eighteenth-century England. It is shown that “some six to seven million slaves were transported to work on sugar plantations in the West Indies” (Fiero 616), so sugar alone was a source of much suffering. When Equiano writes, “O, ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask you, Learned you this from your God who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?” (619), he is calling out the hypocrisy in believing in a merciful, just god who gives countenance to all, except slaves. The account is written from a riveting first-person perspective, with the reflections following Equiano’s thoughts: “I no longer doubted of my fate; and quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted,” he vividly recalls upon seeing the slaves chained together wearing faces of “dejection and sorrow” (618). As “he mastered the English language” (616) and writes that the slave ship’s crew spoke a tongue that “was very different from any I had ever heard” (618), we can deduce that Equiano’s autobiography is not for the people of his original Benin tribe.

Question Two: Which conditions described by Equiano are most contrary to the ideals of the philosophes?
People being stolen away, flogged, and forced to live at the bottom of a filthy ship for the long journey to slavery—this is not at all in accord with the motto of the philosophies: “wipe out all evils” (Fiero 606). Equiano recalls, the ship is “so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself”; the fledgling slaves are “almost suffocated” (618). Even the sheep and cattle of the day were treated better! Yet our noble Thomas Jefferson almost sanctions such depravity, seeing the blacks as being “inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind,” the inferiority being “a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people” (620). It is always necessary to claim slaves to be sub-human—it is merely the device that justifies the crimes being committed. There is no other way to support the ugliness of slavery, while in tandem, holding pretty ideals such as Locke’s statement that humans should “be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection” (602), or Jefferson’s declaration that “all men are created equal” with the “unalienable rights” of life and liberty (604). Because slavery was such a benefit in the absence of mechanical automation, it persisted, despite contradicting enlightened thinking.

Question Three: What is the real thesis of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”?
Anything can sound reasonable, but we cannot look just for our gain; we must also be ethical. Even Sunday-morning Christians consider killing and eating babies to be morally objectionable. What Swift really supports is not cannibalism, but instead reforms to combat poverty in Ireland, such as “taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound,” introducing “prudence and temperance,” and using “what is of our own growth and manufacture,” as exclusively as is reasonable (Fiero 623). “A Modest Proposal” is profoundly satirical writing, so these ideas are presented as what cannot be spoken of, because there is no effort implement them. As Swift sadly concludes, “let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, ‘till he hath at least some glympse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice” [not included in the Fiero excerpt]. The author is ingenious in his use of “shock value,” as the last paragraphs—the thesis for reform—are far more influential than they would be in an ordinary essay.

Question Four: What is the character of the narrator in “A Modest Proposal”?
“A young healthy child” is a “wholesome food” (Fiero 622); the narrator does not see the evil in killing and eating children, unlike the audience and author. Swift satirically derides his own beliefs toward the end: “let no man talk to me of other expedients,” such as “learning to love our Country,” “quitting our animosities and factions” (Catholics versus Protestants), and “being a little cautious not to sell our country and conscience for nothing” (623). The narrator dislikes these noble proposals, instead finding his or her idea of infanticide to be the way: it will “greatly lessen the number of Papists” (Roman Catholics), provide “eight shillings sterling per annum” yearly to “the constant breeders” (622), and be “a great inducement to marriage” (623) while providing a new delicacy for wealthy landlords, improving the quality of life for the poor, and ridding them of their burdensome progeny. The separation between the author and narrator is much more solid than in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” as Swift’s “profoundly moralizing body of literature” (621) is wholly separate from the outlandish ideas that seem to be pushed seriously in “A Modest Proposal.”

Question Five: When does the reader discover Swift’s irony?
While “A Modest Proposal” is in line with works of its day, such as The Satires by Juvenal, modern readers, unfamiliar with the style of writing, are totally shocked upon reading the statement, “a young healthy child is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled” (Fiero 622). While I discovered the irony upon reading that sentence (I perused Fiero’s lead-in first), many may continue to think the piece is serious, perhaps even to the end where Swift makes his real proposal, which is of “parsimony, prudence, and temperance” (623). In fact, it is a safe assumption, that because Swift sustains the deadpan satire for so long, a good portion of his readers, several paragraphs in, will be convinced of his conviction. Hopefully, the statement, “a child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends” (622) is so laughable that the irony becomes obvious.

Question Six: What are the reasons for human corruption, according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among Men? How does he want us to live?
Rousseau believes that property, surplus, and collaboration are all the seeds of corruption. His philosophy: “As long as men . . . applied themselves only to work that one person could accomplish alone and to arts that did not require the collaboration of several hands, they lived as free, healthy, good and happy men” (Fiero 637). This is not at all the case in the twenty-first century United States, as we rely on hundreds of others at our workplaces, and for essentials such as food, water, power, and computer networking. Rousseau laments, “how much misery and horror the human race would have been spared if someone had pulled up the stakes,” disputing “the first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, though of saying ‘This is mine’” (636). As the QUANTA class has been well taught by Dr. Michael Flota, as soon as it was “found to be useful for one man to have provisions enough for two, equality disappeared, property was introduced . . . [and] slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and flourish” (637)—this is the birth of surplus. We are corrupted by mechanization and the privatization of property to compete viciously with our fellow people, but in the primitive days of hunting and gathering, where the Earth had no owner, we had a more perfect society, despite its perceived obsolescence.

Work Cited

Fiero, Gloria K. The Humanistic Tradition Volume II. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006.

Freedom vs. Human Nature

Freedom vs. Human Nature: The Battle of Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, and Smith. Question-and-answer format. Essay by Richard X. Thripp.
2008-02-02 —
PDF version (90KB).

Question One: How do Thomas Hobbes and John Locke differ in their ideas about human nature?
Hobbes believes that people must be united under the ironclad rule of a mortal god, be it a lone monarch or ruling assembly, to which we in unison say, “I authorize and give up my right of governing myself” (Fiero 601), that being the birth of a commonwealth. In his undeniable pessimism, Hobbes announces that our “natural passions” are “partiality, pride, [and] revenge,” so much so that the “laws of nature,” “justice, equity, modesty, [and] mercy” can only be maintained as long as we are constantly in “terror of some power to cause them to be observed” (600), which must be a mortal god, acting in concert with the immortal god, to enforce them at the threat of the sword. In contrast, Locke thinks of humans as blank slates. Hobbes’ “natural passions” only come about through our interactions with the world. Like with Hobbes, we all have the right to be “free, equal, and independent” (602), but we can only be removed from our property and subjugated to another if we consent. To “join and unite into a community” with stricter rules is fine, so long as “the majority have a right to act and conclude the rest” (602), as this does not harm the freedom of those who elect not to join. Contrary to Hobbes, if the rulers make laws for their benefit at the expense of the people, there is tyranny, and the people are entirely right to revolt. Simply, in the land of Hobbes, the people are the slaves of the rulers, but in Locke’s world, the rulers are the slaves of the people, hence the term, “public servant.”

Question Two: What ideas did Thomas Jefferson borrow from John Locke to write The Declaration of Independence?
Jefferson’s idea that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are “unalienable rights” (Fiero 604) is harmonious with Locke’s statement that we are, by default, “all free, equal, and independent,” though we may choose to give up freedoms for “comfortable, safe, and peaceable living” (602), always at our option. In tyranny, we must throw off the shackles of our oppressors, even if it requires a forceful and bloody revolution—this both Locke and Jefferson agree on. In Locke’s powerful words, “tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to,” and the people, “acting without authority,” may oppose such so-called magistrates just as they would a foreign invader (603). Jefferson is similar, stating that when the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are alienated by a government, “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it,” replacing it with a fair system (604).

Question Three: How is this excerpt from The Wealth of Nations [abridged title for An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations] related to the excerpt from the same work in The Humanistic Tradition Volume II (Fiero 605)?

. . . every individual necessarily labors to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.

In An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Smith writes that “we expect our dinner” not from “the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker,” but because of “their regard to their own interest” (Fiero 605). There is no charity in the hearts of our merchants, nor any loyalty in the shrewdness of our customers, yet everything is peachy because the invisible hand takes care of it all—business owners cut costs, raise quality, and lower prices, not to help consumers, but to trump their competitors and make more money for themselves. In Fiero’s excerpts, the “invisible hand” is not named as such, but the whole page is dedicated to it, with Smith stating that when bartering, we must “never talk to [the merchant] of our own necessities, but of their advantages,” and that “the monopolizing spirit of merchants and manufacturers” must not be legitimized by the government, as it is “directly opposed to [the interest] of the great body of the people” (605). The idea of a wall of separation between business and state, where the “invisible hand” thrives in industries free of governmental regulation, is sanctified in Smith’s passage in this question: the laborer “intends only his own gain,” but in doing so is “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention,” and that end is promoting the public interest and society at large, whether the catalyst is merchants lowering prices, employees working harder for promotions, or home-owners operating yard sales to rid themselves of their possessions.

Question Four: How is the “Christian allegory” (Block 15-20) related to the assumptions of Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, and Adam Smith?
Hobbes, Jefferson, Locke, and Smith, despite their unique and differing ideas, all believe that we can better ourselves and build a wondrous society with effort. When looking for the cause of our short-comings, they look for individuals, not systemic blame, nor “original sin,” as in Christianity. Hobbes sees the bad apples who harbor revenge and do not value the liberty of others. Jefferson and Locke know that a government is needed, but that the magistrates are not godly and can be disputed, when they become corrupt or self-serving, defying our rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Fiero 604). Smith sees that the individual employees and business-owners, in their untiring efforts to benefit themselves and live securely, can “be of the greatest value” in contributing to society as a whole. They all were undoubtedly influenced by the Christian allegory: we are lost but can find ourselves through hard work, self-discipline, and god, or by extension, when you become fat, the path to morality is “greater personal discipline,” and when the economy fails, it is because “people fell into temptation and prosperity disappeared” (Block 16). However, the Age of Enlightenment is more refined: we are not hopeless, we can grow and better ourselves to build a heaven-like community on Earth; “the promise of reason [is] the realization of an enlightened social order” (Fiero 599), not an omnipotent God who controls us and everything. Halley’s comet is not God’s wrath, fate does not rule our actions, and the individual can make waves across society. These are the principles of reason’s age and philosophers, who know logic, secular thinking, and are optimistic about humankind.

Works Cited

Block, Fred L. The Vampire State. New York: The New Press, 1996.
Fiero, Gloria K. The Humanistic Tradition Volume II. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006.