Profit, Office Politics, and Creativity
By Bryan Caplan
The 1990’s cult tv classic Profit just came out on DVD, and everyone who likes economics and has a strong stomach ought to see it. The show could hardly be called pro-market, but the main reason is that it focuses on office politics, not production. The anti-hero, Jim Profit, is a sociopathic corporate climber, and he spends all of his effort not on serving consumers (OR “ripping them off” as in a conventional anti-business show), but on stabbing his co-workers in the back – both literally and figuritively.
Like most interesting villains, Profit is a master of backwards induction. He plans his route to success very carefully indeed. In the second episode, for example, he sets a trap for his boss, who is trying to expose Profit for (among other things), murdering his own father. But I don’t want to give away any details! That would be telling.
The striking thing about office politics in Profit is how different it is from regular democratic politics. To manipulate his co-workers, Profit has to carefully tell just the right lie to just the right person. Simple-minded demagoguery (“I’m doing it for the children!”) would fall flat. If Profit ever ran for office, though, I’m confident he would have quickly switched rhetorical fighting styles.
The commentary track adds further economic interest. The creators and star talk about how difficult it was to make this innovative, creative show a reality. A CBS executive threw them out of his office in the middle of their pitch when they told him about Profit’s twisted relationship with his step-mother. It got me thinking: When a professor wants to work on something crazy, like the economics of mental illness, he can get straight to writing, and only needs one editor to like it to get published. To do unconventional tv, however, you need to assemble a whole team of people, get investors to front a lot of money, and win the approval of several layers of gate-keepers. The creators of Profit made me realize that the amazing thing about tv isn’t that most of it is boring, but that any of it is good.
This raises a further question: Why is most academic research so bland, when the cost of being unconventional is – compared to almost every other industry – extraordinarily low? Will the real Vast Wasteland please stand up?