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What ‘The Profit’ Teaches Us About Ethics and Enterprise

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I’ve written before on how television can be a powerful tool for illuminating the deeper significance of daily work and the beauties of basic trade and enterprise. Shows like Dirty Jobs, Shark Tank, Undercover Boss, and Restaurant Impossible have used the medium to this end, and today at The Federalist, I review a new contender in the mix.

CNBC’s The Profit is arguably the best reality show currently on television. Starring Marcus Lemonis, a Lebanese-born American entrepreneur and investor, each episode highlights an ailing businesses in desperate need of cash, care, and wisdom.

By the end, we get a remarkable view into the types of struggle, pain, glory, and redemption that occur across countless businesses every single day.

The show counters a host of false stereotypes about business, three of which I highlight in my piece. But one that is perhaps more popular and pernicious than all is the notion that business and is necessarily driven by greed and selfishness.

On the contrary, I argue, selfishness kills and service prospers:

Each episode reminds us that, contrary to the popular Gordon Gekko caricatures, in business as in the rest of life, greed and selfishness kill and service and sacrifice prosper. The first shall be last, and so on.

Greed and selfishness are not features of economic action; they are features of human nature. Although they may at times be funneled to achieve temporary and personal gain, more often they prove damaging and poisonous to long-term economic success. In most of the failing companies on “The Profit,” it becomes clear quite quickly that greed and selfishness are primary drivers of the failure. Many of these entrepreneurs have gone to great lengths to stroke their own egos and self-affirm their illogical designs, even when all signs tell them to stop. Blind idolatry to human desire is, in fact, the most dangerous poverty trap.

With Swanson’s Fish Market, the deal (and thus, the business) goes rapidly downhill when the owners refuse to give up their prized BMW and boat, even though they’re so financially strained that their own employees aren’t getting paid. With Worldwide Trailers, financial losses mount each year because one owner prefers a particular house in a particular posh city that only makes sense for her and her selfish preferences. With Skullduggery, a toy manufacturer, the owners’ arrogance and incompetence is embarrassingly clear, yet, even when given chance after chance, they drift back to their self-destructive habits and ideas, and in the end, even manage to exploit Lemonis for personal gain.

But although there are plenty of failures to observe, in many cases, we see these attitudes and behaviors transform for the better.

In the episode on Michael Sena’s Pro-Fit (now renamed Tina and Michael Sena’s Pro-Fit for related reasons), the owner is a self-absorbed trainer who can’t see beyond his self-image and the damage it’s doing to his business and marriage. By the end, we see a change of heart, and both are renewed in turn. Indeed, in many ways it was the survival of the business itself that forced the change to happen when things looked bleak.

We will always confront these struggles and temptations, in business as in the rest of life. It’s a battle of which we ought to be aware. But thanks to countless entrepreneurs, owners, and employees across the economic order, service and sacrifice are much more common than we think.

Thanks to Lemonis and CNBC, that’s a tale that’s being told.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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