Saturday, May 01, 2010

Profit & Loss

Ludwig von Mises:
“Profit is the difference between the higher value of the good obtained and the lower value of the good sacrificed for its obtainment. If the action, due to bungling, error, and unanticipated change in conditions, or to other circumstances, results in obtaining something to which the actor attaches a lower value than to the price paid, the action generates a loss. Since action invariably aims to substitute a state of affairs which the actor considers as more satisfactory for a state which he considers less satisfactory, action always aims at profit and never at loss. This is valid not only for the actions of individuals in a market economy but no less for the actions of the economic director of a socialist society.” (Theory and History, p. 210)
Here is President Obama commenting on profits for Wall Street businesses.



It seems to me that the best way to think about "profit" is the way Mises explains, and of course this view of profit does not support the President's view. It is always a time to profit, or to make profit, and never a welcome time when loss is made instead.

The President seems to believe that in a time of recession businesses should not be earning profits. The implication of this is that instead, in a time of recession, businesses should earning losses, because profit and loss are terms that characterize the opposite results of human actions. But this is a perverse view isn't it? After all, businesses can only earn profits if their efforts to produce and sell goods and services sufficiently predict consumer desires in the future.

Mises's view of profit and loss is also informative about the President's actions in encouraging us to believe that now is not the time for Wall Street businesses to earn profits. The President's actions in politics can either serve to gain a state of affairs he regards as more satisfactory (profit) or a state of affairs he regards as less satisfactory (loss). Thus the President is acting as though he believes he will personally profit by castigating the efforts made by others to profit themselves by supplying consumers with goods and services they want. Oh, and incidentally, when consumers are able to buy goods and services they want, the consumers gain profit for themselves as well.

In the freedom of voluntary market exchange, the actions of businesses and consumers to profit themselves is positive sum. It is indeed possible for buyers and sellers to choose well their personal courses of action in face of an uncertain future, and both buyers and sellers can profit from exchange.

The President seems to see the situation as zero sum. He seems to be suggesting that profits for Wall Street businesses necessarily mean losses for consumers. But, while a business or a consumer need not choose well and thus profit from their choices, on the whole the realm of free and voluntary exchange is positive sum. It is in the President's world, the world of politics in which the struggle between competitors is over which will win the opportunity to determine the way that force will be used in the lives of others, that we should be prepared to expect to find a zero sum (even a negative sum) world. So, it seems, the President is apparently thinking that he will personally profit by encouraging his listeners to believe that they will also profit if there is greater reliance of the zero sum realm of politics instead of the positive sum realm of market exchange.

I'm pretty sure the view the President encourages will not profit me, but I also fear that because of the nature of politics it may well profit him.

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