Bryan Caplan  

Profit, Office Politics, and Creativity

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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?

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COMMENTS (4 to date)
Tom West writes:

For some reason, your description of the show makes me think of the show "House of Cards", a British production about a man becoming Prime Minister.

As a Diplomacy player, I appreciated the strategizing, but it was very sinister.

Hei Lun Chan writes:

I think you have it backwards. Aacademic research is so bland because the cost of being unconventional is extraordinarily low. Academics can do research in almost whatever they want, and most of them tend to focus on what they're interested in. What they usually produce is something that is interesting to the academic and other people in his narrow field, but utterly bland and boring to the other 99.9% of the population. The economics of mental illness might be interesting to you and some people who read your blog, but it probably won't be to a professor of physics or religion, much less people not in academia.

Harold writes:

"Why is most academic research so bland, when the cost of being unconventional is - compared to almost every other industry - extraordinarily low?"

Think about it another way. Maybe the cost of doing unconventional academic research is high, not low as you assume.

It is my impression that much academic research is the product of juniors who are striving to get tenure. Unconventional research may be seen as preventing acceptance by the rest of the department.

Todd Kendall writes:

Professors have invested in a greater quantity of general human capital than, say, television show writers. Thus, because of increasing returns to scale in specialization (Rosen, 1981), it pays professors to specialize more than TV writers. And if you're going to specialize a lot, you certainly want to specialize in a field where there's a lot of interest. Of course, there are exceptions where someone who is enormously talented can write important papers in a variety of fields, but, for most of us, getting to the rseearch frontier in a field takes years and years of study. When I get to the frontier, I certainly want to get to one where I can write more than one paper!

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