The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Marvel, Money, and Power

So Marvel Entertainment has been bought by Disney for four billion dollars. Personally, I lean toward thinking this MIGHT be good. I mean...imagine a Marvel/Pixar mash-up. "The Incredibles" gave us a hint of what this might be like. The hyperkinetic world of Marvel comics and the potential of top-grade CGI. I'm salivating.


An interesting question, germane to the discussion of UHC, is whether power in the political sense is more corruptive than money. Hell, another discussion that can't really be resolved, because there are no units of comparison. I mean...X amount of power equals Y amount of money. How in the hell do you even begin? I can make an argument, but I can't really believe it enough to take a real stand. But here goes:

1) I'm taking the position that, all things being equal, in the majority of cases, money is more corruptive than power. It is more fluid, it passes from generation to generation more easily. People in positions of power seem to "sell out" for money more often than wealthy people seek power. Power involves responsibility, as well. In other words, you can't just retire forever to Tahiti and keep your power. You actually have to participate in some kind of hierarchical structure--even if you are at the top. There is no real retirement from power, unless you have...wait for

2) Of course, if one man has money and the other has a gun, the man with the gun will take the money. Yes, it is true. But it is also pretty irrelevant, because in our world men with guns always work for people with either money or political we're right back where we started.

3) Just as a starting point, shall we say that political power is worth, dollar for every person you represent? So the mayor of Los Angeles has about six million dollars worth of power? The President has about 300 million worth? I know this comparison is sucky...maybe we should say two dollars, or five. I don't know...but this goes back to the difficulty of quantification. Would the average person rather have six million bucks, or be mayor of L.A? You see my point, I think--the more the office is worth, the smaller the percentage of people who probably wouldn't rather have the cash.

4) The reason this applies to the UHC discussion is that the members of a collective are at the mercy of the bureaucrats above them. The only question really is which set of venal motives would you prefer? I mean, it is reasonable to suspect that the POSITIVE motives will be pretty similar: the urge to service, a concern for the welfare of the community. Both people in the private and public sectors can, are, and should be motivated by such things. But what of the venal? An insurance executive who denies claims so as to serve his company can probably expect greater monetary reward down the pike. Figure out how to insure only the healthiest people, and cash in your pocket. Figure out how to maximize your stockholders' profits and you can get a BILLION dollars in compensation a year. That is a gigantic amount of corruptive potential, and there are many folks in the tens-of-millions range.

Great temptation, there, and since the primary obligation of a for-profit enterprise is to make a profit, it is going to reward those who do it.

Governments will reward, with power, those who increase its power. That is the unconscious nature of organizations, and no getting around that. But I submit that the rewards just aren't as high, and therefore corruptive. So you get a promotion to a job that pays 250K a year, and has control over a few million people. What percentage of people will be as swayed by that as they will by, say 25 million a year for the same level of dishonesty or cruelty? Again...we can't really quantify it, but a straw poll might be instructive:

How many people reading this would rather:

1) Earn 250K a year and have control over the health system of a state or

2) Earn 25 million a year and have control over a company?

Whichever we see people saying "I'd want X!" we can probably assume to be more corruptive. It will attract those intoxicated by money and/or power. And while these people are often very, very smart and capable, so are people who are attracted to public service for the sake of contribution. There may not be as many of them, I grant, but they're out there. I fail to see how my health care is made better because someone earns a billion dollars a year that might otherwise be invested in the care itself. And if I assume that the same basic quality of people are attracted to public and private service, then the question would seem to be one of corruption--would people, on average, rather gather power or money? Like I said, no real way to answer it, but it is interesting.

I know of several Right-wingers who basically say they'd like the Government out of almost EVERYTHING. I know of no one on the Left (although I'm sure they exist) who says they'd like the Government to control almost everything. I've never heard that.

So I suspect that we have, on the anti-UHC side, many people with legitimate concerns (will my healthcare be as good as it is now? For my specific ailment? How much will it cost? Will this diminish innovation? Are the WHO statistics corrupted or incomplete? Is this feeding the monster bureaucracy? Is this the beginning of a Communistic nightmare?) are in the same tent with people with breathtakingly selfish concerns (I want to keep my billion-dollar compensation. We have to defeat Obama and get our people back into office next term--regardless of the agenda, I'm against it. I don't want to pay for other people's health care), and all of this is flying against UHC at the same time.

I can't help but filter this through my own values, but it seems to me that the potential corruption from people earning hundreds of millions or billions is much larger than the potential of bureaucrats who might increase their salary by a few thousand dollars, or be able to hire a few more relatives if the agency blooms. Or the even more abstract: "I now will have power over a hundred million lives!" The specter of some sad sick son of a bitch rubbing his hands and twirling his mustache as he deprives granny of Chemo for the sheer evil joy of it, or for the possibility of a minor promotion, is DWARFED by the image of someone creating a sweeping policy of claim denial that allows her to buy her own island in the Bahamas. Just no comparison to me.

But, like I said, it really isn't possible to compare money and power directly...unless someone knows of a study that did just this?


An excellent post on art, skill, talent, soul and commerce. Heartfelt, and sincere.


Travis said...

By the by, regarding the health care debate- I happened to catch a few minutes of a conservative talk radio show the other day and see why some of you folks are coming down so hard on'conservatives'. I couldn't bear to listen to it either, it bore little if any resemblance to the reality of the proposals.

But figure generalizing to all conservatives would be like protesting High School wrestling because of the WWF. Or maybe more like generalize that 'all conservatives lack moral fiber and integrity' just because of Bill and Hillary.

Marty S said...

Steve: Read the first paragraph of your previous post. Now why are you spreading yourself so thin. Is it because all your projects are adding so much pleasure to your life or are at least some of them part of your goal to reach financial success. How many of these projects would you drop if you weren't going to get paid for them. How many would you drop if you could only keep 30% of what you are paid for them. If the answer to any is I would drop one or more projects without the financial motive, then you are an example of just what us conservatives claim. Take away the profit motive and you will get less production, whether it be novels, films, TV shows or new medical treatments. Another question to ask yourself are the projects you are putting the most effort into currently the ones closest to your heart or the ones with the greatest profit potential.

Marty S said...

Steve: The above post was made before reading your comment on the previous post about a healthy cash flow playing a role in your decisions. I still think its relevant though.

Mike R said...

One important factor that must be considered when comparing monetary power with political power is that wealth is not a zero sum game. It's possible to create new wealth, and in fact that is done every day, while the only way to gain political power is to take it from someone else, a classic zero-sum game. By contrast, it really doesn't worry GM if the I-pod grows in popularity, hell it can help them because eventually people will want new cars with built in I-pod players, but the only way the Dems can gain is at Rep expense, and vice versa.

> Just as a starting point, shall we say that political power is worth, dollar for every person you represent?<

Wouldn't a better comparison be how many resources you get to decide are spent on what? IE if you are one of 535 people who have equal say over 3 trillion dollar budget, you can roughly be said to control 5.6 billion dollars. By contrast if you are Bill Gates and own 10% of Microsoft and Microsoft spends/makes around 40 billion a year, you could be said to control 4 billion a year. Now, obviously there are gross errors in that analogy (Congressmen don't all just get to decide 5.6 billion individually, and Bill Gates actually has a bigger say then his 10% stock ownership suggests) but at least it's a system with some basis and reason behind it and not just a number picked out of the air.

Also, what's your personal experience with power? Do you know what it feels like to have it? Have you ever been the boss and ordered people around? I went from a job where I was told what to do to one where I told people what to do and while there was a slight pay raise the experience is quite different. And I don't think teaching counts as being the boss. I've taught professionally and it's a different vibe from being a manager/boss/top guy.

Marty S said...

Mike: I was promoted to manager several times and hated every minute of it. Several times I had to let people go and it was terrible experience. Money may be something everyone wants but some people like myself would rather avoid power.

Steven Barnes said...

Yes, I've been the boss and ordered people around. I'd rather have money.
Money itself is mostly a means to freedom, however. Most of the things I love can't be purchased. Probably true for most of you guys as well...

Nancy Lebovitz said...

I'm not sure that abstract corruption-counting works, partly because I think you're right that most people would rather have money than power, but the people who want power want it a whole lot.

I don't think you've covered the range of bad motivations-- there's imposing group superiority (presumably how Jim Crow happened), and there's revenge/callousness (if you've followed that recent case of a man who was executed even after there was no reason to think he was guilty.

Governments can go very bad, though I grant this isn't common among modern democracies. Still, I'd like to see something better for UHC than "trust us, we're the good guys".

Marty S said...

Steve: I agree the most important things I love can't be purchased. In fact that brings up the question of how does one measure financial success. Is there some absolute line that applies to everyone, or is it different for each individual/couple depending on their wants/needs.

Reluctant Lawyer said...

Steve: Off-topic question on Casanegra. Do you think that your relationship or lack there of with your own father (based on what I've read in your blog) colored Tennyson's distant relationship with his father (even prior to the stroke). My apologies if this is a touchy subject.

Mike R said...

>most people would rather have money than power, but the people who want power want it a whole lot.<

That's a really good point Nancy. If you ask people here, "Which would you rather have, a million dollars but you can never spend buy drugs or a million dollars in drugs but you can never sell them for money?" most people will pick the former, but a minority will be perfectly happy with the later and they'll want it a whole lot.

Marty S said...

Steve: Your "figure out how to insure only the healthiest people" statement makes no sense in a free market economy. Let's say I could figure out how to insure only the healthiest people. I charge them x and make a really big profit. Joe says to himself gee Marty's making a really big profit selling to all those healthy guys at x if charge 10% less than x I can steal all those healthy guys and still make a really big profit. This kind of competition drives the price down until the the price of a policy is the lowest that provides an acceptable profit for that clientele. Meanwhile all the less healthy people now have nowhere to turn. So Steve being bright guy realizes that while all these other companies are charging y for policies only for healthy guys he can corner the market on the less healthy individual and charge 2y making a large profit. Now the competition starts again until it reaches the lowest acceptable price for less healthy people.

Marty S said...

To be fair I should complete the analysis with where and why the free market fails with respect to health insurance and suggest a possible solution that doesn't throw out the current system. A for profit company must make a certain level of profit or it will cease to exist. So they cannot and will not insure people who cannot pay at price point that given their level of healthiness will provide the required level of profit. This excludes the poor from coverage and those whose health situation makes them very high risk. One solution is to do something very like medicare. The government defines a minimum heath care policy which every insurer must offer to any individual who want it. The government sets the criteria as to how much a person with a given income must pay for this policy and what and limits the price to a profit level based upon profit level on other policies the insurance company offers. The government pays the difference between what a qualifying individual can afford and the policy price.

Steven Barnes said...

A free market will work assuming that there is no conscious or unconscious collusion between the providers, something I'm unconvinced of. Large corporations tend to have enough common interests to make me nervous.

Steven Barnes said...

Re: CASANEGRA. I wouldn't be surprised if Tennyson's distance with his own father is reflective of my own issues. Hadn't thought about it, but it makes sense.