Tag Archives: bottom line

Self-Interest Properly Defined

Here’s a question: if you lie on an employment application in order to get a job, and you do in fact get the job as a result,  was your dishonest behavior in your self-interest?

Most of us would probably say that the lie did advance your short-term interest, although there is a strong likelihood that long-term, simply as a practical matter, your dishonesty would come back to bite you. Thoughtful respondents might go further, pointing out that even when we “get away” with unethical behaviors, such actions tend to make us less aware of the effects of such behaviors on ourselves and others, and ultimately cause us to be worse people than we might otherwise be.

Being a deeply flawed human is arguably not in our self-interest.

Assuming you agree with this analysis of where self-interest properly lies, what can we say about corporations and other financially-interested parties that intentionally and knowingly create public doubt about climate change?

A recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists didn’t ask that question, but it did explore the “organizational and financial roots of polarization.” (That’s academic-ese for the process of intentionally sowing doubt about settled science.)

Ideological polarization around environmental issues—especially climate change—have increased in the last 20 years. This polarization has led to public uncertainty, and in some cases, policy stalemate. Much attention has been given to understanding individual attitudes, but much less to the larger organizational and financial roots of polarization. This gap is due to prior difficulties in gathering and analyzing quantitative data about these complex and furtive processes. This paper uses comprehensive text and network data to show how corporate funding influences the production and actual thematic content of polarization efforts. It highlights the important influence of private funding in public knowledge and politics, and provides researchers a methodological model for future studies that blend large-scale textual discourse with social networks.

The entire article can be accessed at the link. Basically, it confirms that “uncertainty” is the desired outcome of expenditures made on behalf of fossil fuel interests. (I know you are shocked–shocked–to find that gambling is going on here.)

Many people excuse the efforts of gas and oil and coal interests to slow the development of renewable energy and green practices on the grounds that these companies and lobbyists are acting in their “self-interest.” I have heard people say that, although it is unfortunate, it is understandable that these companies  would try to protect their bottom lines.

It may be understandable (it’s also “understandable” that people steal things they want, or shoot people they dislike), but it is profoundly immoral. And as far as “self-interest” is concerned, delaying widespread recognition of an existential threat to the planet cannot possibly be in the “self-interest” of any of the planet’s inhabitants.

Many years ago, De Toqueville admired Americans for displaying “enlightened self-interest,” or “self-interest rightly understood.” As he explained it,

The Americans…are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist each other, and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state.

Just like that lie on the employment application, climate-change denial in service of a short-term bottom line will eventually destroy the reputations of the liars. But in this case, the likely damage to millions of their fellow humans–including their own progeny– makes loss of reputation a pretty inadequate price to pay.

The Bottom Line

“Keep your eye on the bottom line” is good advice. But it is also a good idea to consider the definition of “bottom line.” In business, the term refers to profitability; too much red ink and the enterprise fails. In government, however, the “bottom line” is generally defined as doing the people’s business while at least balancing the books.

Indiana—like other states—is just emerging from a very challenging fiscal period. When resources are scarce, citizens can learn a lot about the priorities of our lawmakers. What will they protect, and what will they consider expendable? Will they play fast and loose—robbing Peter to pay Paul, as my grandmother used to put it? Will they use the crisis as an excuse to starve out political opponents?

What, in other words, is their political bottom line?

In Indianapolis, the Ballard Administration has chosen the Peter/Paul option: they structured the sale of the Water Company, for example, so that they could cash out up front. That allowed them to pay for street and sidewalk repairs without using property tax dollars—an upfront windfall to be paid for (with interest) by future ratepayers. Ballard also traded a significant percentage of parking meter income and control over the next fifty years for some immediate cash.

At least Indianapolis streets are getting paved. The Republicans who now control both houses of the legislature have chosen a different bottom line, elevating ideology over both fiscal and social common sense. This has been a truly shameful session.  (One of my students who is interning with the legislature told me he calls it the “hate-house” rather than the statehouse.)

Are Indiana citizens struggling to find jobs? Add a ban on same-sex marriage to the state’s Constitution. Do we have corporations trying to compete globally? Send a message that we don’t like immigrants, especially those who don’t look like us.

Many Indiana citizens have been hit hard by the recession, and the General Assembly has reacted by kicking them while they’re down.  During what one friend of mine has dubbed “this reverse-Robin Hood session,” our lawmakers have consistently favored the haves over the have-nots. Although people who can afford to make contributions and pay lobbyists have always had an edge, this year the favoritism has been nothing less than brazen.

At the beginning of the session, there was a good deal of talk about “shared sacrifice.” Now we know what that meant: when lawmakers reduced corporate tax rates, they proceeded to make up the difference by requiring “shared sacrifices” from the most vulnerable Hoosiers.

The legislature has eliminated dental coverage for disabled Medicaid recipients. It has cut the number of children who will be eligible for CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (despite the fact that 75% of that money comes from the federal government). It has increased co-pays for infants and toddlers with developmental disabilities. It has deprived poor, largely rural women of desperately-needed healthcare by de-funding Planned Parenthood.

The attack on Planned Parenthood was a particularly egregious bit of theater. The current GOP is virulently anti-choice. Planned Parenthood does offer abortion and does defend reproductive choice. But it does not use a single cent of tax money to do either—such use of public dollars is forbidden by law. The majority was willing to deny poor women pap smears and breast cancer screenings to make an empty statement.

This was going to be a rough budget year, even with a legislature determined to work in the interests of all Hoosiers. Unfortunately, our legislature’s “bottom line” was all about ideology, politics and partisanship. Charlie White, anyone?