Greed is a moral bad but a functional good. Greedy entrepreneurs have benefited the world with more than a few things without which we wouldn’t want to live. It was greed, for example, that led investors in the 1980s to buy so-called junk bonds. Junk bonds combined high yield with high risk. They were roundly condemned at the time by gatekeepers of public morality (at least one national politician, Rudy Giuliani, used this as a springboard, loudly prosecuting Michael Milken, the one-man brain trust of junk bonds). Yet junk bonds allowed FedEx and MCI to get off the ground, two budding ventures scorned by established financial lenders. There’s even an argument that junk bonds, had they not been vilified, could have financed enormous changes in the developing world, providing desperately needed funds that otherwise weren’t available.
Good and bad are entangled in human life; that’s a given. How, then, are we to weigh morals and expediency? For a certain segment of the population, the question is moot. Either they try for maximum return on the dollar without regard to conscience, or at the opposite end, they take Jesus literally when he says that a rich man has no more chance of getting into Heaven than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. But most of us are caught up in confusion; we feel conflicted about what worldly pleasure — and the money that buys gratification of all kinds — might be doing to our souls.
The gospel of greed was launched in the popular imagination by Gordon Gekko, the smug villain in the movie Wall Street, who pronounced one of the mantras of the go-go Eighties: “Greed is good.” Gekko made this declaration during a shareholders meeting, one of those now-familiar contests over “green mail,” by which ruthless takeover artists grabbed control of a corporation. Green mail is a naked appeal to greed, offering shareholders more for their stock than they could get on the open market. What matter if the takeover results in mass layoffs and the eventual collapse of the company? In the amorality of a free market, greed is the same as Adam Smith’s invisible hand, and that hand is attached to God.
“Wall Street” wasn’t deep, but its central war mirrored the melodrama of Satan tempting the innocent, with Gekko as chief tempter. In reality, greed has prospered far beyond the scriptwriter’s imagination. It doesn’t take deep cynicism to explain both Gulf wars in terms of greedy corporations protecting the oil interests of America (and failing both times unless you are fortunate enough to be part of the oil industry or Haliburton). It’s not so much that greed is immoral but something deeper: does morality even have a say? The entanglement of good and bad keeps shifting and changing. Is it immoral for the Saudis to profit from skyrocketing oil prices? Most Americans think so. Is it immoral for America to consume a third of the world’s natural resources and in the bargain demand the lowest price for them? Most of the world thinks so. Yet nothing is cut and dried. As someone recently pointed out, the U.S. is the one country everyone else hates and everyone else wants to move to.
In the end, there’s a disconnect between public and private morality. What corporations and governments do (ruining people’s retirement funds, killing an enemy en masse) is unthinkable for the individual. Few societies have successfully bridged this gap. The only answer I can come up with is that only consciousness can prevail. When you find yourself having to make a difficult moral choice, your choice comes intuitively. One person automatically resorts to violence, another automatically resists violence. In the larger scheme this doesn’t mark the difference between good and bad. It marks the stages of evolution that consciousness has always gone through and will continue to.