Friday, December 05, 2008

Greed, Gekko, and Us

Gordon Gekko has emerged as a stock figure in the national psyche, or at least he's a recurring figure over at the Slate Culture Gabfest. And apparently, the "Greed is Good" speech is a cultural touchstone in itself. (I must confess to never having seen all of Wall Street, from whence the character and speech come, but I'm pretty sure I've got the gist of it. Apart from Emilio's turn as Otto in the delightful Repo Man, I tend to avoid the Sheen boys.) Apparently Gekko's little oration, in blind disregard of the practically unambiguous evil of the character himself, actually became a rallying cry for the era that followed. "Greed is good!" an unironic cheer of the striving, trading classes.

I think the problem is largely semantic. There used to be a term, although I have not heard it in a while, for an alternative to "greed," namely "enlightened self-interest." Perhaps it was too unwieldy or just didn't fit the times, post Gekko, but it seems worth considering. As someone who will still stick up for the ideals of free markets, even in these dark hours, it is precisely this distinction that matters. "Self-interest" is fine. It is natural, healthy, and IS in fact the driving force of economic growth. (Innovation, among other things, enables growth, but the engine is self-interest.) As long as you play the game by the rules, it is fine to try and make money, even a lot of it, and I believe it should be your right. "Greed" is actually the exact point when things go off the rails--it is the point where you break the rules in order to get ahead. Breaking the rules, in economic terms, basically means theft in one form or another (fraud, for instance, is merely another form of theft).

Even Gekko, when he first introduces the "G" word into his monologue, actually says, "Greed, for lack of a better word..." He is thereby implicitly acknowledging something about the semantics and connotations of the term. Gekko is indeed evil, and indeed greedy (so I am given to understand, since I still haven't seen the film), but the speech he is giving is arguably about self-interest, and defensible on those terms, if you permit the distinction. If you do NOT lie, cheat, and steal, then it is OK to get what you can in the world. Simple enough.

But this has never been entirely accepted, even on the terms I propose. There seems to have always been a conflation between the two forms of self-interest, and it is not merely a left/right distinction. "Populists" of both flavors have always stood ready to impugn the profit motive. Making money is an unseemly pastime for the moral scolds of both stripes. The left maintains, incorrectly, that it must involve exploitation of someone, by failing to distinguish between positive sum and zero sum transactions. The right holds, incorrectly, that it must undermine other values like family, country, and God.

Yes, greed is bad, by definition. But "enlightened self interest," now that makes the world go 'round! Or so I will hold...

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