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March 8, 2010, at 4:16 pm — Blogs | debate | Writers' Debate / /

AVJ WRITERS’ DEBATE: Profiting off the sick and poor.

Welcome to the first AVJ Writers’ Debate! We’ll post an assertion to be argued for or against, and ask all of our writers to come to the table for a good honest debate. Comments are now open to all readers.

The government should help to ensure that no business profits excessively off the sick, disabled, or poor.


12 comments to AVJ WRITERS’ DEBATE: Profiting off the sick and poor.

  • Jeremy Olsen

    I believe that at a certain level—particularly with products and services vital for survival—the government is justified in protecting the disadvantaged from prices and practices that work against them.

    I think some of the main arguments agains programs like food stamps and unemployment insurance are summed up here. My problem with these traditional conservative arguments against entitlement is that we live in a nation that cherishes socioeconomic mobility and espouses the right to “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.” I think it can be argued that leaving the tens of millions of food stamp recipients without this kind of help would yield a worse overall result for them and for our country than helping them. I think the same goes for unemployment insurance, a program workers and employers pay into to protect people when they lose their jobs. I’ll bet the effect of more people spiraling into hardship and poverty without unemmployment insurance would be significantly worse than the costs of an unempmloyment program.

    By running these programs, the government is doing something to protect the poor from malnutrition and starvation. It is creating a greater opportunity for the “pursuit of happiness,” and in a few cases, maybe even helping to protect “life.”

    I feel that to argue against this (at least in the case of base-level programs like these) is to assert that either (1) private charity will address people’s needs better than the government program, or that (2) people should be allowed to experience the malnutrition and starvation that might come—it’s not our business to save them from such things.

  • Tharuna Devchand

    I think that it is easy to pass a law based on what may benefit the people… however, it is not always easy to implement these laws.

    In South Africa, we have an extensive and entrenched bill of rights in our constitution. However, we don’t have the ability (be it resources, man power or such) to carry out many of the specified rights. The gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ is huge, and while our government tries, it is almost impossible to secure socio-economic rights and freedoms to everyone.

    Another problem is that many businesses are private owned and are less attached to government regulations. While all laws and regulations are mandatory, private companies need be less transparent when compared to public companies (to public detriment). This poses a problem in having government regulate the source of the business’ profit. It would also be difficult for government to monitor how and from who profit is attained.

    Another problem is the defining line: who is defined as being sick? who are the people poor enough to constitute the protected poor? Doctors still have to charge patients, no matter how sick they are. The impoverished still have to pay for their own resources. Where would government protection begin and self-survival end?

    Treating the poor, sick or disabled differently from the general public may lead to further inequalities. At the moment, government subsidies are being provided for these groups in whatever way they can be provided. Employment and bursaries/scholarships in South Africa also give the indigent and disabled primary opportunities. However, deferentiating between different groups of people is never a good foundation for a law/regulation no matter how good the intentions are – it often leads to bitterness and prejudice. Many people do not fully understand the reason behind legal implementations, whether educated or not. It is not within their general areas of knowledge.

    Another thing about South Africa is that there is a large population of uneducated people, many of whom do not speak English. They often live in rural areas and know almost nothing about the law. Such people are often the most affected by people excessively profiting off them and exploitation…

  • We are a hybrid nation. We are both a nation of profit and a nation of service. The very foundation of our country is one of helping each other move up and succeed. This has come in the form of social justice battles extending from slavery to the woman’s right to vote. When the country was formed medicine was still practically in the dark ages and life spans did not last much past one’s 30’s. The concept of life and death was very different. The stakes were very different. The solutions needed then were very different. Only white men who owned land could vote and take part in the republic – which gave them a substantial advantage over those who were not able to own land, to read and write, to look another in the eye and know that they would be treated equally.

    The average American was simply trying to survive and often relying on their neighbors for help. The concept of corporations and large companies was not a reality yet.

    Profit is meant to act as not only an incentive to create goods and services but also as a means to reinvest in the future. It is not always used in this manner.

    As a “child of the Amazon” I can say not every human looks at profit the same way. Some choose to focus on profit of the soul. The good will that is created when you help someone in need. This is a different and longer lasting form of profit. In tribal culture there is not necessarily a focus on monetary gain – money often not even being present. In tribal culture you may trade your abilities for support or goods but a tribe does not limit itself to personal gain. A tribe works together to survive.

    The United States of America is a very very large tribe with a complex interdependent system of economics – far too complex I would argue. Profit can overcome value and reason. It can become the most important thing to an individual or company. But eventually even the most prolific company hits a profit ceiling and plateaus.

    We are not taking care of our tribe.

    Take the Health Care debate or the Debt Crisis in this country – both are profit-centric. Is it ethical to profit off of the sick? The elderly? At what point does someone’s disease cease being an illness and instead becomes a product to sell accessories for?

    I understand the argument that only through profit do new discoveries get made. This is a bit of a fallacy. Most achievements in the history of invention had to do with furthering the human experience. Louis Pasteur did not want to just become a millionaire – he was simply trying to solve a problem. Albert Einstein found it impossible not to make discoveries and he too did it in the name of science and innovation. (although with regret about nuclear technology) Imagine if Dr. Heimlich decided to patten his “maneuver” – it would have cost my friend and I recently when he saved my life when I chocked on a piece of chili.

    Although I am not a practicing christian – I was was raised in the church. Many of it’s beliefs I still hold on to even though my faith has taken me in a different direction. I am fond of the teachings of Jesus who did not hesitiate to heal the sick and feeed the hungry. He did not ask them to work it off. He did not ask them to pay him a pennance. He did not even ask them to worship him. He did it because it was the right thing to do.

    In the early days of this country doctors worked in trade. They helped the sick in their town or village to the best of their abilities and would often take only a warm meal in return. It was the pinnacle of neighbors helping neighbors. This is not to mean that they do not deserve here in the modern age a wage – they do. But there must be a limit on how we allow ourselves to profit off of the sick and the poor.

    What poor person can pay down their debt if that debt doubles? Triples? When would it be possible? The hole gets deeper – and before anyone jumps in and says “Hey – they chose to be in debt” – I would remind them that although that may or may not be true life sometimes takes you down a different road. A loved one becomes ill. A factory closes and a town dies. An industry becomes obsolete. Suddenly that mortgage or college tuition bill can not get paid as quickly as it expands with fees and interest.

    This was not their fault. They thought that like their parents they would be able to work for a company for most of their life time. Here in the modern age, in the 21st Century, there are no longer any guarantees. Even the supermarket now has self-check out – service jobs will be replaced by technology eventually but when is not all that predictable.

    If we are to survive as a nation we must begin working together. Making money off of those who are sick or dying or are destitute is immoral and unethical and not helpful to the larger tribe. This country is only as strong as it’s people – and if the people can not pay their bills and die off – then there is no country.

  • Jeremy Olsen


    You make it sound as if, when someone poor walks into a 7-11 for a cheap hot dog and a coffee, the clerk should just give it to them. Every time. No matter what. There are no absolutes in any debate. Making money off the sick or destitute is not wrong. I think it matters immensely how sick, how poor, and what goods or services we’re talking about. Sometimes it’s wrong. Sometimes it’s not.

  • Ah – how things can sometimes sound. When I talk of the poor or sick I am not speaking about the common cold or someone with money enough to pay for that hot dog and coffee. Like you said there are no absolutes and I would agree with that. I agree – degrees matter. I should have been more specific I suppose and I apologize for that.

    How about this: if someone said they could cure cancer with a single shot but wanted to charge 1 million dollars per shot it would be wrong wouldn’t it? And if this cure was easily duplicated and doesn’t require overly rare materials to make and the actual cost of manufacturing was say tens of dollars – shouldn’t the price reflect that? And is there ever a moment when such things should be free?

    I get paying for cold medicine – I rarely use it when I get sick myself so it’s not a necessity to live. I get paying for pain medication and even some psychiatric medications but the cost should not be excessive, for the well being of any one of us effects the sum total of us. And if cost was the only thing keeping someone from death – don’t we have an obligation to provide the help even if it’s not profitable? Isn’t that the moral, even American thing to do?

    If there was a shot developed that cured a whole litany of horrible diseases and it would save the country’s population billions of dollars -shouldn’t it be supplied at cost? Wouldn’t that be fair? Must there always be a profit?

    We’re all willing to use Facebook for free or even this site. But there are somethings, for whatever reason, we justify must be paid for and not only paid for but feed on top of. In the financial end of things – someone’s debt can be bought and sold, new terms set, all without talking directly to the debtor. There were two parties in that original agreement but we as a society act as if one of those party’s, the debtor, is less than the creditor. So we’re okay that they are charged extra. Even if we don’t realize that they lost their job, had someone in their family die and were trying to raise their children and the extra charges on their bills mean their kids don’t get what they need and they can’t pay their mortgage. We forget the personal human behind the number, the credit score, the balance. And shouldn’t there be a limit to some of that?

    I list extremes as examples but the reality is, as you state clearly, there are no absolutes. A modest profit might need to be worked in if the extra money went in to more research or better materials but does it mean someone deserves a ten million a year bonus? In society there are a number of ways to profit free and clear of moral ambiguity – it needn’t come just from the core product.

    At what point do we allow all to benefit from something? At what point do we simply collectively agree – we will take care of this for each other?

    It may be idealist but let’s not forget – man made money to make life easier – there are always things that we do for each other that we do not attempt to profit from. Finding examples in the modern world gets harder but historically if someone found a watering hole they did not charge their fellow tribesman a fee to drink from it.

    Now someone might sell you something to keep the water in.

  • Jeremy Olsen

    Ha! I like the last few sentences.

    You seem to be arguing that it’s unethical to overcharge an unemployed, mourning parent for their loan debt. But the question is really whether or not the government can or should step in and stop this from happening. Regulation is too costly, regulators are too few, and business transactions are too many for government to effectively do this proactively. And the challenge with doing it as a response to complaints (like consumer protection agencies, for example) is to get enough information to the consumer for them to know when they are being badly wronged.

    Here’s where I think the government could play a more effective and efficient role—in disseminating information and education about fair business practices, safe use of products, and such. I think information is power in these cases. And it might be the most efficient way to try to prevent lots of types of abuses.

    Question for you: what are the primary goods or services you feel the disadvantaged are being screwed on to the point that the government should step in? Food? Utilities? Health insurance?…

  • Sarah Jawaid

    This is an extremely nuanced topic and requires careful teasing. To respond off of Jeremy’s last post, regulation may be too costly but I think necessary. Information is powerful but information to a dis-empowered individual is useless. If consumers do not feel like they are in the position to take on the system, what use is that information? If we gave Jane Doe information on how 20% of the water supply in the US does not meet the Safe Drinking Water act standards set forth by the EPA, what is Jane to do? ( In this case, mere information does not protect the consumer. Water management is a complicated issue because it is/should be controlled/managed locally but when it comes to safety, the government is the only one with the authority and clout to regulate the safety of our water supply so that Jane’s water supply is protected. Although it would be great if we all had a little bit of Eric Brockovich in us, this is hardly the reality.

  • Jeremy Olsen

    The problem is that legislation seeks to address ever more complex and specific problems with a complex set of specific rules and definitions. Yet as the population grows, time lapses, technology advances, and profit tempts, people will continue to find new ways around regulations while the regulation itself (and the enforcement of it) lag behind–sometimes decades behind, as with the NHTSA, which (according to recent revelations) may not employ any software or electrical engineers despite the fact that most modern cars are practically computers on wheels.

    I think some of the power has to be put more efficiently into the hands of the people. The water supply is probably a good example of not doing that, you’re right. But aside from an occasional inspection, what can the FDA do, for example, about food-bourne illness besides set rules? Isn’t the fear of expensive lawsuits and recalls far more worrisome to a farmer than the threat of a visit from an inspector? In some of these cases, I think perhaps a government agency can set rules or guidelines and then spend their money educating the populace rather than performing inspections.

    To bring it back to the debate topic, maybe in some cases the poor and the sick can be given more education and resources. Maybe in others it really is necessary to force an industry (especially one purveying goods or services necessary for subsistence-level living) to give the disadvantaged a break.

  • whyohwhy

    Well the topic seems to be: “The government should help to ensure that no business profits excessively off the sick, disabled, or poor.”

    Working on capitol hill I see these types of efforts all the time. There is a principle there which is valid “excessive profiteering off of the distressed is bad”. That being said – how do we operatationalize that with a piece of legislation which will address that big problem.

    The issue is that there is a process that all legislative efforts go through which makes these bill impossible in the modern era. Here’s kinda of a distilled, insider’s look at how legislation happens.

    A bright, eyed legislator from a left leaning state/district decides to write “The Anti-Profiteering and corporate corruption Act). Aptly it’s given an acronym that everyone can pronounce (ACCA). It hits the floor (probably in the house side due to the topic). Gets to committee (likley OGR – Oversight, Governance, and Reform) for study.

    This is the point where the “process” really steps in. During this time hearings are held and stakeholders are given time to review. Backbench meetings are held continuously with everyone with a stake (corporations, non profits, unions, whoever) get’s to have a say in the bill in private. There is where most bills (say 99%) die as everyone changes the bill with the biggest influencers (with big PAC dollars, get their say and pronounce their support/opposition – opposition likely means reduced PAC $ going to those who vote for it, or worse yet or donating to the opposing candidate’s efforts during a campaign).

    Mainly due to the fact the legislators need support of these bills from the people it matters the most. Bill intended to reduce limit “corporate excesses” will never pass or even be introduced. the running gun battles will happen over definitions “what’s excess?” “what’s profiteering?” “what about overseas companies that this bill does not apply to?” “we’ll just move our HQ’s overseas like Haliburton and lay off everyone in your district and run some ads with this ad! how about that!!”

    That is why most bills never leave committee and die there. Just bottom line unless there is some criminal act that individuals are performing (e.g falsifying 8K filing to inflate profits – that’s how Sarbanes Oxley 2002 got passed ) it’s just too impractical to pass a “the company’s are making too much money off the poor” type bill.

    I hate to say this but the best way to get things done is to pass a small, narrow scope amendment and attach it to something completely unrelated that is unopposable – like Defense, Homeland Security, or Intelligence authorization or appropriations bills.

  • whyohwhy

    We live in a globalized economy. Companies can be just as successful being HQ’d overseas than it is in the US – just ask Sony, Samsung, BMW etc. over regulation of private industry will just mean they’ll leave the US where there are less taxes, regulation, and better/cheaper resources.

    Just ask Halliburton. They’re quite happy in their palacial HQ’s in the United Arab Emirates in Dubai paying 20% corporate taxes than they were while they were in Houston.

    Legislation leaves unintended legacy for decades and not something to be taken lightly especially on mattesr as nebulous as “social justice”.

    FYI: David, the US was NOT founded upon ” one of helping each other move up and succeed.” It was founded upon over-regulation/repression (e.g. garrisoning of red coats in Boston via the intolerable acts), and over taxation(stamp act) by King George over wealthy merchants in NE. If the Crown taxed the colonies less and let colonials serve in the british army equally, I believe we’d still be drinking tea at 4PM.

  • Dan Rickabus

    “the running gun battles will happen over definitions “what’s excess?” “what’s profiteering?” …Definitions are indeed unstable and can cause a seemingly solid angle to break at its foundations and crumble. Words like “excess” are relative and subject to interpretation, leaving this slippery concept unable to be solidified into something like a bill. Maybe then, some kind of implication with power behind it can be made to corporations about this being an ethical issue? Then again how often to corporations really consider ethics? Basically, I agree with whyohwhy that a bill could never be passed for this, and the question I want to pose is: Without the strength of a law, is there/could there be a way to ensure that no business profits excessively off the sick, disabled, or poor?

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