If director Oliver Stone and I had a nickel for every time someone uttered the words ‘greed is good,’” screenwriter Stanley Weiser noted near the end of 2008, “we could have bought up the remains of Lehman Brothers.” The two men had collaborated on Wall Street, the film that introduced the world to Gordon Gekko and gave that impish expression—greed is good—the tendentious twinkle of immortality.
The movie celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, and remains a favorite among the heroes of high finance, primarily for the infectious appeal of Gekko and his unapologetic pursuit of greenbacks. Of course, it is the very same behavior that makes the character’s name an enduring libel for outrageous efforts to engorge one’s bank account. S.A.C. Capital scapegrace Steven Cohen was dubbed the “real” Gordon Gekko by the Guardian in 2014, after eight of his former employees pled guilty to charges related to insider trading, while “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli was dubbed a “hipster Gordon Gekko” in the pages of the New York Times when he was indicted for securities fraud a year later.
Such fishtailing between icon and public enemy is a testament not only to Michael Douglas’s Academy Award–winning performance and a collective soft spot for shameless villainy, but to an abiding irony at the heart of capitalism, a moral ambivalence that sees us not knowing whether we should wipe the grin off Gekko’s face or mirror it.
For those who haven’t recently included Wall Street in their Netflix queue, the film is something like the financial sector’s Faust, with Gekko a Mephistopheles in made-to-measure suits. It tells the story of a young stockbroker, Bud Fox (played with a careful mix of innocence and moxie by a 20-something Charlie Sheen), who longs for just a few minutes to pitch “Gekko the Great,” notwithstanding the friendly warning from a colleague that his idol is the type of guy who “had an ethical bypass at birth.” By endless bluster, charm, and finally a birthday bribe (a box of Gekko’s favorite Cuban cigars), Fox gains an audience and soon learns that the only stocks tips Gekko’s interested in are those of an illicit variety. “The public’s out there throwing darts at a board, sport,” he tells Fox. “I don’t throw darts at a board. I bet on sure things.”
Just before he is about to leave Gekko’s office, his hopes dashed, Fox blurts out a bit of inside information he has thanks to his father, a union rep at a small airline. Gekko takes a chance on the tip and turns a quick buck. Pleased by the profitable outcome and seeing something of an apprentice in young Fox, Gekko decides to draw him in, fully appreciating that those susceptible to venal sins are typically corrupted by degrees—by small compromises, shiny baubles, and sweet assurances of much more.
Gekko embodies a moral irony that, motivationally speaking, has been the mainspring of capitalism at least since Adam Smith.
The common good comes about not because of the express intentions of commercial agents, but despite them.
If, by granting a business-friendly publication privileged access to the investment bank, including interviews with a litany of top executives, Goldman hoped it might produce a lengthy and largely favorable profile that would turn public opinion in its favor, the effort was only partially successful. The eventual profile was indeed quite lengthy (nearly 7,000 words), but one did not need to read beyond the title—“I’m doing ‘God’s work’. Meet Mr Goldman Sachs”—to conclude the endeavor was a PR disaster.
The quote came from Blankfein himself, who, with an “impish grin,” the reporter noted, described himself as merely a banker “doing God’s work.” Interpreting that grin is essential. It was not the nervous tic of one telling an abject lie, for clearly Blankfein did not believe that Goldman was a parasite on the body politic, much less a plague. On the contrary, he maintained, “We have social purpose,” namely, to “help companies to grow by helping them to raise capital.”
Fair enough, but why the grin? Because the bankers at Goldman Sachs are not actually moved by a sense of “social purpose”; they are moved by money. Don’t take my word for it. When the reporter asked if it were possible for bankers to make too much money, especially a year after the financial crisis, Blankfein replied, “Is it possible to be too successful?” He continued, “I don’t want to put a cap on their ambition. It’s hard for me to argue for a cap on their compensation.”
The innocent among us might ask why ambition should be limited to money, why Blankfein does not instead appeal to the public spiritedness of Goldmanites, given that he highlighted the “social purpose” of their employer. The answer is that it wouldn’t work—at least he believes it wouldn’t work—and if it did, it would be at odds with the moral mechanism of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, which sees one only intend to serve himself while still promoting “an end which was no part of his intention,” namely, the public good.
And hence the grin when Blankfein, a banker’s banker, says he’s “doing God’s work.”
Gekko also grins. At the very end of his “greed is good” speech, when he returns to his seat amid the enamored applause of shareholders, he flashes Fox a grin as if to say, “Did you hear what I was just slinging?” Does the look mean that Gekko doesn’t believe what he said about greed, or merely that he can’t believe he got away with it? It’s hard to tell, but the grin certainly acknowledges the titillating logic of the invisible hand, which depends on separating the ethical upshot of primary aims from secondary effects. The common good comes about not because of the express intentions of commercial agents, but despite them.
Such a mechanism is morally confusing and may be likened to a rabid dog that takes a chunk out of our thigh, removing a malignant mole in the process. On balance, we might be grateful for the hound’s service, but that wouldn’t keep us from putting him down. The bite still hurts, and we know he had no intention of preventing skin cancer.
This is the challenge of “greed is good” logic, especially in its most extreme incarnations, for it forces us to weigh broader material benefits against the consequences of behavior that is inhospitable, unseemly, and even occasionally dangerous.
It’s a worthy struggle, as Gekko’s grin acknowledges, and it’s a shame that so many young people who love Wall Street seem to miss it. Screenwriter Weiser says he meets them all the time. “‘The movie changed my life,’” he says, describing the response he so often gets when he tells someone his connection to the film. “‘I wanted to be like Gordon Gekko.’” As Weiser wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2008, such exchanges make for strange and morally discomfiting moments: “The flattery is disarming and ego-stoking, but then neurons fire and alarm bells go off. ‘You have succeeded with this movie, but you’ve also failed. You gave these people hope to become greater asses than they may already be.’”
Among the fears that should guide one’s behavior, that of being an ass is a pretty good one, as is the concern that a credo that seems so morally convenient—greed is good—might actually involve serious trade-offs that implicate the integrity of one’s character. Thirty years after the movie was first released, a tribute to the power of Wall Street is that this simple insight is so often overlooked. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” One can embrace the irony of the invisible hand, and Gordon Gekko’s grin, while still abiding a second voice: Yes, greed is good, but can’t we do better?
John Paul Rollert is adjunct assistant professor of behavioral science at Chicago Booth.
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